The Realist Case for the Non-Realist Biden

Trump's foreign-policy instincts might be more sound—but he has forfeited the chance to lead.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
oe Biden walks to a meeting of bipartisan members of Congress to begin work on a legislative framework for comprehensive deficit reduction at Blair House, across the street from the White House in Washington on May 5, 2011.
oe Biden walks to a meeting of bipartisan members of Congress to begin work on a legislative framework for comprehensive deficit reduction at Blair House, across the street from the White House in Washington on May 5, 2011. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, I got an email from a colleague who teaches at another university. He said he was surprised to see that I had signed a recent open letter that declared U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy a failure and concluded that “we need new leadership.” He wanted to know how I could possibly support Trump’s opponent Joe Biden in next month’s election, given that a future Biden administration was likely to be staffed by many of the same people whose handling of foreign policy during previous administrations I had criticized roundly in my last book. He reminded me that some of Biden’s closest advisors had been critical of that work, and not always in the fairest way. How, he wondered, could I possibly welcome the return to those familiar nostrums about the “indispensable” nation and the need for U.S. “leadership” in every region and on every issue, even if expressed in more measured terms?

The writer of that email is an accomplished scholar whose work I respect, and I took his inquiry seriously. Of course, if you’ve been reading this space for the past three-plus years, my opposition to Trump has been clear from day one, and I’ve explained why on several occasions. But my opposition might still seem surprising when you consider the following:

1. Trump openly opposed the forever wars, tried to curtail or end them, and hasn’t started any new ones. I’m all for that.

2. Trump took the challenge of a rising China seriously and did more to confront Beijing than any of his predecessors. I agree with that broad objective, too.

3. He thinks—correctly—that America’s NATO allies are not doing enough to provide for their own defense, and he’s not convinced remaining in NATO is really necessary at this point. I seem to recall saying something similar myself.

4. I’m sure Trump is unaware of my colleague Dani Rodrik’s compelling critique of “hyperglobalization,” but he has pulled the United States back from the headlong pursuit of ever-more-integrated global markets and ever-lower barriers to migration. Those goals are OK by me as well.

5. Russia has done a lot of things I oppose, but the all-out demonization of Russian foreign policy (and President Vladimir Putin personally) isn’t very helpful. I’m in favor of exploring ways to wean Russia away from its partial alignment with China, so Trump’s refusal to condemn Moscow daily doesn’t bother me as much as it does some other people.

6. Lastly, in light of my own criticisms of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, one might think I’d be sympathetic to Trump’s complaints about the “deep state” and his various battles with the Blob.

Given all that, my colleague’s email raised a legitimate question: Why do I seem to be eager to let the same passionate proselytizers for America’s “special responsibilities” get another chance to screw things up? Why did I sign that letter, and why am I crossing all my fingers and toes in hopes of a Biden victory?

The first big reason is Trump’s serial incompetence. Even when he had sensible foreign-policy instincts, he pursued them ineptly and failed to achieve his own stated objectives. It made good sense to get tough with China on trade policy, for example, but it would have been much more effective to do it in partnership with other U.S. trading partners, instead of launching or threatening trade wars with them, too. In this regard, leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership on his third day in office was a particularly egregious error.

Similarly, the trade deals he did manage to negotiate were at best minor improvements over existing arrangements, and it is worth noting that the trade deficit that he vowed to close has gotten bigger on his watch. (His obsession with trade balances and fondness for tariffs also reveals his ignorance of basic economics, but never mind.) Nor has his administration made any serious effort to reform the World Trade Organization or create new global arrangements to manage global digital infrastructure, despite the obvious need for one.

It gets worse. Trump may have promised to get the United States “out of the nation-building business,” but he has had three-plus years to accomplish the job and hasn’t ended a single one of the wars he inherited from his predecessors. And that’s just the big conflicts: Almost two decades after 9/11, U.S. military forces are still conducting counterterrorism operations in 40 percent (!) of the world’s nations. His on-again, off-again approach in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere has confused local partners, squandered whatever leverage the United States might have had over ongoing peace talks, and left U.S. forces in increasingly precarious positions.

What about Europe? For all of Trump’s bluster, America’s wealthy NATO allies remain incapable of defending themselves without U.S. help. Trump likes to take credit for their pledges to increase defense spending, but most of these initiatives began under former President Barack Obama, and there are good reasons to doubt whether much will come of them. Trump’s decision to withdraw a few thousand troops from Germany was more an act of pique than a serious strategic realignment, and his bull-in-a-china-shop treatment has driven public trust in the United States to record lows.

Trump’s handling of North Korea displayed a similar inability to develop and implement a realistic strategy. After his initial war of words with leader Kim Jong Un (whom he dubbed “Little Rocket Man”) raised legitimate fears of a military clash, Trump wisely turned to diplomacy. But his reality-show summits with Kim were poorly planned and doomed to fail, because the North Korean leader was never going to give up the nuclear deterrent on which the survival of his regime depends. Trump claimed his personal charm and supposed deal-making acumen would win Kim over; instead, Kim pocketed the prestige he gained from being recognized and feted by a U.S. president and gave up nothing in return. Since then, of course, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have continued to grow.

Finally, Trump may have had legitimate complaints about a foreign-policy establishment that has opposed him from the start despite its own less-than-stellar record. But he hasn’t built a “better Blob”; he’s just demoralized, discredited, demeaned, or disregarded the one he inherited. His own foreign-policy team has been in turmoil since his inauguration, belying his claim that he would pick “only the best people.” His first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, lasted less than a month in the job, and since then Trump has gone through three more. He’s churned through two secretaries of state, two secretaries of defense, two U.N. ambassadors, and four White House chiefs of staff, while leaving key posts vacant, filling others with acting officials and visibly unqualified hacks, and presiding over a precipitous decline in morale and a steady exodus of experienced public servants in the Department of State. As the shabby treatment of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman (and his brother), Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, and other dedicated civil servants revealed all too clearly, competence isn’t what Trump prizes. What he wants is unshakable personal loyalty, someone to blame when things go wrong, or both.

Moreover, for all his complaints about the supposed “deep state,” Trump didn’t really reach outside the establishment for new thinking on foreign policy. With only a few exceptions (such as former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson), Trump’s main appointees were all familiar members of the existing Washington elite. They were former generals such as James Mattis, John Kelly, and H.R. McMaster, hardy Washington perennials such as John Bolton and Elliott Abrams, defense industry executives such as Mark Esper, or elected officials such as Dan Coats and Mike Pompeo. He didn’t drain the swamp; he just scoured it for alligators who would do his bidding.

Trump failed to deliver when his initial instincts were sound, but he’s personally responsible for several big foreign-policy blunders. Leaving the Iran nuclear deal may have pleased President Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, and Trump biggest donor, Sheldon Adelson, but his alternative—the policy of “maximum pressure”—has been a near-total bust. Iran is inching back toward the nuclear weapons threshold, the other signatories to the nuclear deal have rejected America’s bizarre efforts to get them to enforce the same agreement Washington had previously abandoned, and the State Department’s most recent report on Iran loudly warns that its various regional activities have continued. In terms of its own stated objectives, in short, the administration’s Iran policy is a failure.

Even worse, Trump’s position on what is probably the single most important global issue of our time—climate change—has been a disaster. The evidence that human activities are altering our planet in dangerous and possibly irreversible ways is now overwhelming, and yet Trump has done everything he could to make the problem worse. Instead of moving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Trump left the Paris climate accord and has encouraged the United States to produce and burn more oil, gas, and coal. As temperatures rise, forests burn, and storms become more frequent and severe, this is head-in-the-sand stupidity of the highest order.

Trump’s immigration policy has been equally shortsighted. All nations should have the capacity to decide who can enter their territory, work there, and perhaps become citizens one day, but Trump’s broad-brush approach to this heated issue has been counterproductive. In particular, restrictions on H-1B and J-1 visas discourage skilled workers in high-technology fields from coming to the United States (which is why tech companies oppose these restrictions), and make it harder for top foreign students to attend U.S. universities. Both mechanisms have been an important advantage for the United States for decades: To put it bluntly, the United States has attracted some of the best minds from around the world and used them to build cutting-edge industries and aid scientific advances. That magnetic attraction had already declined before Trump took office (leading to fears of a reverse brain drain) as Asia developed, but Trump’s policies are likely to make it worse. Unless the policies are undone, more bright young students and skilled workers will go to Canada, Europe, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, or elsewhere in Asia, aiding their long-term growth and reducing America’s.

Last but by no means least, there’s Trump’s unconscionable mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. To be clear: The pandemic would have been a serious challenge for any administration, but Trump’s fingerprints are all over the catastrophic responses that have made the United States an outlier—and not in a good way—among the major industrial powers. He’s denied the danger was serious, promised the virus would “disappear” like magic, denigrated minimal precautions like masks, and pressured advisors, politicians, and government agencies to spread false information or adopt dangerous policies in order to bolster his image. Instead of calling for the nation to unite in the face of a common danger, he saw the pandemic as merely another opportunity to sow divisions. And if that weren’t enough, he managed to preside over his own superspreader event and come down with COVID-19 himself. More than 200,000 Americans have died—a tragedy in itself—and the damage done to the country’s reputation for competence may haunt it for a long time to come.

There’s one final reason why, as the open letter put it, “we need new leadership.” A country does not live by foreign policy alone; indeed, for major powers, what they do at home is often more important than what they do on the world stage. Even if one believed Trump’s foreign policy was one triumph after another—and it is a far cry from that—the danger he poses to America’s constitutional order simply cannot be ignored. He’s too lazy to be a Stalin and not sufficiently demoniacal to be a Hitler, but his relentless narcissism, nonstop assault on core republican institutions, lawlessness and corruption, overt racism and misogyny, barely disguised encouragement of extremist violence, etc. all threaten to further corrode the system of government that has defined the United States since its founding. American democracy has never been perfect, but no president has been more willing to damage it in order to keep himself in power. The fear of creeping autocracy might be overblown, but can Americans really afford to take that chance?

Needless to say, Joe Biden doesn’t worry me in the same way. Yes, he is likely to be advised by a foreign-policy team that 1) hasn’t covered itself with glory in the past, 2) remains unrepentant about its past failures, and 3) hasn’t abandoned its reflexive impulse to tell the rest of the world how to live and what to do.

But my concerns are tempered by the constraints that Biden is going face if he wins. The combination of COVID-19, yawning deficits, and a sluggish recovery will put limits on defense spending and force Biden & Co. to focus on problems at home. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party will not support a return to liberal hegemony and is likely to give the administration considerable heat over some elements of its foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. Republican obstructionists will be a further obstacle to big foreign-policy initiatives, including, unfortunately, ones the United States badly needs.

My hunch, therefore, is that Biden will try to keep foreign policy on the back burner until the pandemic is over and the economy is recovering. He won’t pick pointless fights with foreign leaders to no good purpose, won’t object to useful forms of multilateral cooperation, and won’t pretend that climate change is a hoax. Even if he’s accompanied by a familiar coterie of once-and-future liberal interventionists, he won’t try to turn the clock back to the unipolar era, or even to that weird moment where an American president could win a Nobel Peace Prize simply because he simply wasn’t George W. Bush. With a pandemic to defeat and a lot of repair work to do inside the government itself, the mantra of Biden’s foreign policy is likely to be “First, Do No Harm.” If you’re looking for a catchphrase, you might even call it a foreign policy of “restraint.”

And that, everyone, is why Donald Trump didn’t get my vote and Joe Biden did.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.