Should Biden Ditch All of Trump’s Policies?
From Afghanistan to China, the new administration seems likely to hold on to some ideas from the previous one.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! One question on everyone’s mind this week is: Will President Joe Biden keep major elements of Donald Trump’s foreign policy or throw them out? Some progressives worry that the administration’s policies are too similar on China and too different in places like Afghanistan. What is your take?
Emma Ashford: I know one place where Biden should definitely keep Trump’s policies, and that’s in Afghanistan. Most progressives I know are quite keen on that, actually. It’s the Washington establishment that wants Biden to throw out Trump’s Afghanistan policy, as a slew of recent op-eds—and perhaps more importantly, the findings of the congressionally mandated study group on Afghanistan—all suggest.
MK: I’m with the establishment on this one. Trump’s peace deal with the Taliban was conditions-based, and the Taliban are not meeting their promised condition to reduce violence—instead they are ramping it up.
Trump’s deal promised to withdraw all U.S. forces by May 1, but if the Taliban are not holding up their end of the bargain, then neither can Washington. Biden is reviewing Afghan policy, and I suspect he will conclude rightly that U.S. forces should remain past May 1 to support the Afghan government and stabilize the country.
EA: Let’s be honest, though. That’s just a pretext. Most of the people arguing for the United States to stay in Afghanistan would have argued for it regardless of what the Taliban did. Just take a look at the congressional study group’s report. The group actually ignored the recommendations of its own advisors, which advocated two options: withdraw by the May deadline, or negotiate a single, one-time extension to push for political settlement.
Instead, the study group, which included high-profile luminaries like former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, advocated for an open-ended contribution of U.S. troops until there is an “independent, democratic, and sovereign Afghan state.” That’s so unrealistic as to be laughable.
MK: I agree that Afghanistan will not be Switzerland anytime soon, and that should not be the goal. But it’s also a bad idea to abandon the Afghan government completely, which could lead it to fall to the Taliban altogether, which is not in the U.S. national interest. So, if Washington thought that violence was waning and the Taliban and the Afghan government were making progress toward a peaceful power-sharing arrangement (the conditions imagined in Trump’s deal), then the United States could afford to withdraw. But that is just not where we are.
EA: Well, let me ask you a question: What do you think the United States is trying to achieve in Afghanistan? Or rather, what should it be trying to achieve? The study group clearly takes a massively expansive view of U.S. goals: democracy, sovereignty, defeat of the Taliban. Do you share them?
MK: My goals are somewhat more modest than those of the study group. Washington should make sure that the internationally recognized Afghan government survives and can defend itself from the security threats currently posed by the Taliban. It would be best if the Taliban abided by their commitments to a peaceful political settlement, but if they want to keep fighting, Biden can keep forces there to help the government control Kabul and much of the country. And remember this is not just the United States; NATO, international aid organizations, and many others have a stake in avoiding failure in Afghanistan.
What is your goal? Cut and run, regardless of the consequences?
EA: Ouch. I wouldn’t put it that way. But I think there’s some value to thinking through what the consequences of a withdrawal might be—in terms of U.S. security interests. Say that withdrawal precipitates the absolute worst-case scenario: that the government in Kabul collapses, Afghanistan descends into chaos, or the Taliban retake the country. It’s horrible, but it’s still not a disaster for U.S. security. After all, even if a resurgent Taliban were stupid enough to invite terrorist groups back into the country—which seems unlikely after what happened the last time they did that—the United States could still send troops back into Afghanistan to deal with the problem.
Instead, too much of the commentary I see on Afghanistan effectively echoes the sunk-cost fallacy. One op-ed from former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini argued just this week: “There is still time to change course and make good on almost two decades of shared investment and sacrifice in Afghanistan.” But I’d argue that is entirely the wrong way to frame this. Officials should be thinking about the future, not the past.
MK: I agree that sunk costs are not a good argument for doing anything and certainly not for fighting a war that no longer makes sense. But staying in Afghanistan continues to make sense. You say the costs of leaving are acceptable. But so are the costs of staying. The U.S. government spends only 2 percent of the defense budget on operations in Afghanistan, and 10 times more Americans perish in car accidents every day than died in Afghanistan all of last year. Washington can help stabilize the country at an affordable cost.
EA: I understand the rationale here. It’s the notion that there can be a “sustainable” presence in Afghanistan that isn’t too costly. But I really question that assumption. It might not be too costly in monetary terms, though it was still around $20 billion the last couple of years. But 10 U.S. service members died in Afghanistan in 2020, and 22 died there in 2019. I don’t believe that is a sustainable price to pay for keeping a presence in a country that remains at best tangential to U.S. interests. And it’s worth noting that surveys show a huge majority of veterans of these wars agree: In one poll from April 2020, nearly three-quarters of those surveyed supported a full withdrawal from Afghanistan.
MK: One shouldn’t make national security policy according to opinion polls. It is the duty of leaders to make the case for their policies and persuade the public why they are beneficial. Politicians have done a poor job of explaining U.S. global engagement in Afghanistan and elsewhere in recent years.
EA: You might be right. But in this case, I think the facts and the polling align. Ultimately, I find the most persuasive argument on Afghanistan withdrawal to be the fact that U.S. troops have been there 20 years and almost nothing has changed in the last 18 or so of those years. Washington has spent $2 trillion in Afghanistan just to stay exactly where it was almost two decades ago. And if Biden doesn’t withdraw now, we’ll all still be having this argument in five or 10 years, with no substantive improvement to the situation.
Ultimately, I think the risks of withdrawal for U.S. security are small, and the downsides of staying are big. I really hope that the Biden team is thinking along similar lines.
MK: Afghanistan is certainly less consequential than China. This week, people complained that Biden’s China policy was too similar to Trump’s. Fareed Zakaria said Biden must be trying to impress Republicans in Congress. I think the simpler explanation is that Trump’s China policy was pretty good and the Biden team is tougher-minded than previous Democratic administrations.
EA: Unfortunately, Afghanistan is one of the few places where I would defend Trump’s foreign-policy legacy. I found Zakaria’s arguments about Biden’s strange hawkishness to be quite compelling, partly because I’ve made similar ones in this column before. Biden’s delay in reentering the Iran nuclear deal, and the fact that his administration is now staffing up with China hawks, suggests to me that he will be continuing some of Trump’s disastrous legacies in these areas.
A more confrontational approach to China yielded nothing but worse relations during the Trump era. Why double down on it now?
MK: Trump’s confrontational approach led to worse relations? I would say that the deteriorating relationship was caused by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) setting up concentration camps, taking territory from its neighbors by military force, stealing intellectual property from the West, and exporting authoritarianism. The two could perhaps have friendlier relations if Washington were willing to pay tribute to Beijing, but the United States needs to defend its interests.
My hope is that Biden will keep Trump’s competitive approach but improve on it—by having a coordinated strategy with U.S. allies, more policy consistency, and recognizing the limited but still valuable role for some engagement with Beijing.
EA: Seizing territory? You mean last year’s spat with India in the Himalayas?
MK: Yes. And in the South China Sea. And it doesn’t look likely to stop as the CCP makes expansive territorial claims and ramps up military pressure against disputed territory with Japan and Taiwan.
EA: Well, you might be interested to know that, just this week, both China and India withdrew most of their troops from the disputed border region in question, following talks. And while China talks a big game on Taiwan and the South China Sea, I don’t think it’s as aggressive as you suggest here.
I actually put out a paper on this a few weeks back, looking at the common Washington assumption that China is a “revisionist state,” bent on seizing territory or changing international norms. And I found that while it might be true further down the road, thus far the evidence for that claim is actually really questionable. A strategy focused on hedging against China and on building measures of mutual reassurance—rather than labeling it as an evil, irredentist country—would probably be a better focus for the Biden team than its current confrontational one.
MK: Washington tried hedging for several decades, and Beijing took the opportunity to eat America’s lunch. As I’ve argued at length elsewhere, the best hope Americans have for a more cooperative relationship in the long term is to take a more confrontational approach now—to show Beijing that challenging the United States and its allies is too difficult and costly. This means maintaining a favorable military balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, imposing costs for China’s egregious human rights violations, and pushing back on its unfair economic practices, including through a selective decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies.
EA: Sounds as if you’d fit in just fine in the Biden administration! And in the Trump administration, which is the problem. Seriously, though, I hope the Biden team will consider rebalancing its approach to China to be less mindlessly reactionary—which a government-sponsored decoupling of the two economies would be—and more focused on defusing tensions.
On decoupling, though, there was an interesting article here in Foreign Policy from Elisabeth Braw, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, arguing that U.S. businesses should be thinking about decoupling because of the reputational risk. I actually thought that was a more reasonable response to, say, China’s human rights abuses. After all, boycotts of apartheid South Africa ultimately helped change that government’s policies. What do you think?
MK: I liked the argument. Braw also points to the dangers that companies involved in China face with the constant threat of coercion from the CCP. Companies that got rich doing business with Nazi Germany still incur occasional backlashes to this day. I don’t know why any firm would want to contribute—even if indirectly—to China’s repression and genocide, regardless of the payday.
I do think there is a role for limited government-enforced decoupling in areas where there are sensitive national security concerns, like advanced technology.
EA: Let’s shelve that debate for another time. But I do think there’s reason to be concerned that the Biden team is failing to take the opportunity to transform a number of Trump-era foreign policies into something better. On China, Russia, or even just the broad question of whether the United States should be the world’s leader, I worry that there’s a strong tendency to just maintain the status quo in U.S. foreign policy rather than taking the difficult steps to put it on a more sustainable and realistic footing. I hope I’m wrong! But it’s a real concern.
MK: I take heart in the continuity in foreign policy across administrations. People complain about the polarization and dysfunction in U.S. politics, but foreign policy is one place where there remains a reasonably strong bipartisan consensus—especially on issues like China.
EA: Yes, who wouldn’t want to celebrate the bipartisan consensus that brought us successes like the war on terrorism, a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile, a decade-long Libyan civil war, and a global anti-democratic populist wave?
MK: I’d consider no major foreign terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11 a success. I also like the past 75 years of peace, prosperity, and freedom brought about by U.S. leadership.
At least consensus is never a problem with this column! We always find plenty to argue about.
Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford