Election 2020

These Foreign-Policy Moments Defined 2020

U.S. foreign policy has been thrown for a loop over the course of the 2020 presidential campaign. Our reporters recount some of the highlights—or lowlights.

By Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
People watch a broadcast of the final debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden
People watch a broadcast of the final debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at The Abbey in West Hollywood, California, on Oct. 22. Mario Tama/Getty Images

When U.S. President Donald Trump kicked off his 2020 campaign in January, he was riding an economic tailwind and planning a series of massive swing state rallies to counter a looming impeachment trial in the House of Representatives. It’s not a stretch to say that 10 months later, the U.S. role in the world has been redefined by the coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests that surged through American streets, and simmering tensions between the United States and China.

But the campaign has also been defined by foreign-policy victories and misfires—and to help you understand how we got here, we’ve compiled some of the key foreign-policy moments from the 2020 campaign, from Joe Biden’s cease-fire with progressives to Trump’s decision to deploy top cabinet officials as campaign surrogates.

Pompeo’s Jerusalem speech at the Republican National Convention. Trump’s presidency has seen top officials repeatedly investigated for alleged Hatch Act violations and misuse of U.S. government resources. But the reelection campaign took an unexpected turn when, during an official trip to Jerusalem, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared in a prerecorded speech at the Republican National Convention on Aug. 25. The incident triggered two investigations of Pompeo, one by Congress and one by the Office of Special Counsel, and Democrats have pledged to continue the probe even if Trump is defeated. It also opened the floodgates for Trump cabinet members to show up in swing states on purported official business. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien has raised concerns with taxpayer-funded trips to Minnesota and Wisconsin, while Pompeo also made a stop in Wisconsin. Leaders of the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also made last-minute visits to swing states.

Sanders endorses Biden for president. The endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders, Biden’s biggest challenge from the left, in April proved not only a boon for the Democratic front-runner among younger voters; it also allowed him an informal cease-fire with insurgent progressives who have challenged the party’s establishment on a host of foreign-policy issues, from China to U.S.-Israel ties to growing defense budgets. While Biden has tilted toward the left on the use of military force throughout much of his career—with a major exception being his 2002 Senate vote to authorize the Iraq War—Foreign Policy recently reported that as president he would face a lengthy wish list from progressives, including a demand for some high-level cabinet appointments.

Bolsonaro backs Trump. The 2020 campaign wasn’t just noteworthy for cabinet officials stumping for Trump; even like-minded foreign leaders decided to endorse the U.S. president’s reelection bid, another break with past precedent. At the signing of a mini-trade deal with O’Brien, the U.S. national security advisor, in Brazil’s capital last month, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro pledged not to “interfere” in the 2020 campaign but said his endorsement was “from the heart.” And he’s not the only autocrat to get behind Trump. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban also backed Trump’s reelection bid. Fearing even the perception of impropriety, Biden, on the other hand, went in the opposite direction, shunning foreign meetings until after Election Day.

Israel normalizes relations with the United Arab Emirates. Trailing in the polls late in the race, Trump aimed to line up a series of foreign-policy victories to vault over Biden. The most notable was the Abraham Accords, the U.S.-brokered normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in September, after Israel agreed to temporarily halt annexation of parts of the West Bank. The pact kicked off a series of moves to normalize relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors that now has extended to Bahrain, as well as Sudan, which the Trump administration took off the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list, a designation it had held since harboring Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. But the UAE got perhaps an even bigger prize: the State Department’s blessing to purchase a fleet of 50 F-35 fighter jets. Democrats in Congress have already promised to push back on the sale. If Biden is elected, that could be a point of contention between Biden and progressive Democrats, who plan to end an election-year cease-fire on Middle East policy.

Purported Hunter Biden texts fail to make waves. The Trump campaign used two consistent lines of attack against Biden in 2020. First, it called into question the former vice president’s mental fitness to be president and then raised unfounded concerns that Biden profited from his son Hunter, who sat on the board of the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma while the Obama administration pressed Kyiv to crack down on rampant corruption in 2014. The trouble for Trump was—aside from the fact that Republicans, at the time, were also pushing to crack down on Ukrainian corruption—reputable media outlets couldn’t verify anything substantive. After the New York Post published in October purported emails showing that Biden knew about and engaged in his son’s business dealings in China and Ukraine, further questions were raised about the findings after it was revealed that they came from Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

True to form, the former New York City mayor spent the eve of the election rehashing those theories on RT—a Kremlin-sponsored television network that is registered as a foreign agent in the United States.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch