Analysis

When the White House Changed Hands, It Changed Tone but Not Policies

Whether snubbing allies, abusing tariffs, or expelling refugees, the Biden administration at eight months looks little changed from Trump’s.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service.
Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden
Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks in North Charleston, South Carolina, on Feb. 26, 2020. LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday seemed a throwback to happier times in which the United States and its allies were in lockstep. His renewed commitment to international cooperation against the world’s ills such as COVID-19, climate change, and creeping authoritarianism was a sharp break from former President Donald Trump’s naked isolationism—rhetorically, at least. In Biden’s telling, the United States is “back at the table,” and the country “will not go it alone.”

But eight months into his presidency, Biden has yet to turn that rhetoric into policy. He might have scorned Trump’s “America first” approach to the world, but he’s doing his best to carry on Trump’s legacy on everything from foreign policy to trade and immigration.

Biden’s promise not to “go it alone” must have sounded a little rich to the French, who are still seething over being blindsided by Washington’s deal with the United Kingdom to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. That secret deal nixed a French contract to build new submarines for Australia signed five years ago. After making efforts to woo European allies who’d been bruised by four years of the Trump administration, Biden’s handling of the matter was at best clumsy and at worst worthy of his predecessor.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday seemed a throwback to happier times in which the United States and its allies were in lockstep. His renewed commitment to international cooperation against the world’s ills such as COVID-19, climate change, and creeping authoritarianism was a sharp break from former President Donald Trump’s naked isolationism—rhetorically, at least. In Biden’s telling, the United States is “back at the table,” and the country “will not go it alone.”

But eight months into his presidency, Biden has yet to turn that rhetoric into policy. He might have scorned Trump’s “America first” approach to the world, but he’s doing his best to carry on Trump’s legacy on everything from foreign policy to trade and immigration.

Biden’s promise not to “go it alone” must have sounded a little rich to the French, who are still seething over being blindsided by Washington’s deal with the United Kingdom to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. That secret deal nixed a French contract to build new submarines for Australia signed five years ago. After making efforts to woo European allies who’d been bruised by four years of the Trump administration, Biden’s handling of the matter was at best clumsy and at worst worthy of his predecessor.

The deal irked France so much for several reasons. The contract was worth about $66 billion, and French President Emmanuel Macron hoped it would give him a boost in his upcoming campaign for reelection. But it’s more than just lost business: The new arrangement also completely upends France’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific, right when the United States says it is trying to get allies to help counter the rise of China across the entire region. France is one of the few European countries with any real presence in the Pacific (though Britain is sending ships there), and now it will redouble its desire to secure greater strategic autonomy.

“The view in Paris is the US shaped an alliance in secret with two partners, undercutting France’s entire Indo-Pacific strategy in the last decade,” wrote Benjamin Haddad of the Atlantic Council.

“The Biden method is like Trump’s,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said. “Without the tweets.”

In a joint statement, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly lamented that the major strategic shift on the part of Washington “shows a lack of coherence.” In a radio interview, Le Drian also called the move a “stab in the back” that could have been expected from the Trump administration.

“The Biden method is like Trump’s,” Le Drian said in another broadcast interview. “Without the tweets.”

It’s a refrain made by diplomats in Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America, who call Biden’s policies “America first” dressed in a warmer tone and loftier rhetoric. Time and again, the Biden administration has, in Trumpian fashion, failed to consider the impact of its decisions on its larger foreign-policy goals, on American allies, or on America’s credibility on the global stage.

Ukraine, which famously got shaken down by the Trump administration, hoped that Biden would restore its place in Washington. Instead, Biden decided to allow the Russians to finish building a natural gas pipeline to Germany that bypasses Ukraine, will cost it billions of dollars in lost revenue, and leaves it vulnerable to Russian energy blackmail. Letting Nord Stream 2 go on also managed to anger Poland, a NATO ally.

But Poland wasn’t the only ally upset lately. Biden’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan has prompted deeper questions about America’s future reliability as a security partner. NATO allies felt sidelined by Biden’s abrupt announcement that all U.S forces would leave Afghanistan by Aug. 31, and they were left in the lurch during the chaotic end to the 20-year mission, ahead of a Taliban takeover. Several NATO nations said they were unable to evacuate all of their personnel before the deadline.

And the withdrawal is bad news for the Afghan people, too, especially women and girls. A new report from Amnesty International notes that “The Taliban are steadily dismantling the human rights gains of the last twenty years.” Now, fears are growing that the country will again be a haven for terrorist groups, and it’s already driving a new exodus of asylum-seekers flooding into the Middle East and Europe.

On trade, Biden’s “Buy America” agenda has proved him as protectionist as Trump, if not more so. While in office, Trump called himself “tariff man,” while Biden’s campaign correctly noted that Americans “paid a heavy price” for Trump’s tariffs on everything from steel and aluminum to European drinks and Chinese electronics. Yet Biden has kept most of the Trump-era tariffs and even expanded some. Though he has made competition with China America’s new raison d’être, he has yet to consider trying to rejoin the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the evolution of a pact created under former President Barack Obama that Trump scuttled on day one, even though America’s Asian allies have begged the world’s largest economy to come back to the bloc. (And China is now asking to join.) And while Trump took a wrecking ball to the international trade order—abusing national security excuses to levy tariffs and smashing the workings of the World Trade Organization—Biden has done little to repair that damage.

Or take the Iran nuclear deal, another Obama-era agreement Trump withdrew from. On the campaign trail, Biden promised to return to the agreement if Iran came back into compliance. But he has for months dragged his feet on such negotiations and now talks about “lengthening and strengthening” its provisions and has tightened sanctions against Iran even further.

Not that the hard line on Iran was meant to assuage Saudi Arabia: The Biden administration announced this month it would withdraw Patriot missile defense batteries from Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries, even as the Saudis face drone and missile attacks from Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen and from Iran itself. The move prompted Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, the former Saudi intelligence chief who also served as an ambassador to the United States, to say recently, “I think we need to be reassured about American commitment.”

If Latin America was hoping for some good-neighbor policies after the Trump years, it’s been disappointed. Biden has upheld Trump’s imposition of tougher sanctions on Cuba and the end of Obama’s historic opening to the island, right when Cuban people are suffering from a coronavirus-induced economic crisis. Haiti is still reeling from the assassination of its president in July, is rocked by continued violence, and is on the verge of economic collapse. Yet Biden, who pledged a more humanitarian approach to immigration than his predecessor, is moving swiftly to deport some 14,000 Haitian migrants under a Trump-era pandemic immigration order, despite pleas from the Haitian government not to send them back because it cannot handle the influx.

It’s not just Haitians: Biden is expelling people at a faster clip even than the Trump administration, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures. And Biden didn’t initially lift Trump’s record-low cap on refugees after taking office either, despite campaigning on the promise to do so, and he hasn’t yet met his own increased target, either. And it’s not just immigrants and refugees. The Biden administration angered all of Europe by refusing to reciprocate and allow European travelers into the United States this summer, only relaxing the policy for fully vaccinated travelers on the eve of the U.N. assembly.

Biden’s vaccine diplomacy hasn’t won too many friends, either. The World Health Organization has criticized him for pushing Americans to get a third booster shot when billions of people around the world have yet to get their first shot; three-quarters of the more than 5.7 billion doses administered so far have gone to just 10 countries, including the United States. (On Wednesday, partly to parry those complaints, the United States announced it would donate another 500 million does to low- and middle-income countries.)

The best thing Biden could do to repair the damage Trump did to America’s global standing is to stop espousing his policies. 

In the early days of his presidency, I argued that Biden was putting a “kinder, gentler” spin on Trump’s “America first” policies by portraying himself as a bridge to a new era of U.S. leadership, and from an establishment Democratic foreign policy to one that is increasingly progressive. Biden recast Trump’s nationalist vision, making the welfare of America’s working families the central tenet of his policies, but within a more traditional U.S. foreign policy. While Trump felt allies were free riders taking advantage of the United States, Biden touted them as pennies-on-the-dollar investments in helping fight global threats and counter China. At the time, Biden’s approach drew cautious optimism, if not plaudits, from U.S. allies. Now they argue Biden’s “America first” is not kinder or gentler, just more cynical and tone-deaf.

None of these issues on its own portends a further demise of U.S. global leadership from the Trump years. But Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class,” meant to throttle back nebulous overseas commitments, and a strategic preoccupation with China suggest two worrisome trends.

One is further retrenchment in such areas as the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America—none of which is particularly stable, but which all face democratic, security, and economic headwinds that could explode at any time into a full-blown crisis. The other is continued geopolitical oscillation by the United States in which Washington is only as reliable as its short-term interests dictate. That’s the kind of transactional behavior that lost America credibility and goodwill during the Trump years.

All the U.S. actions under Trump that impelled Macron toward strategic autonomy—including greater defense capabilities and an end to U.S. financial and economic hegemony—have continued or even intensified under Biden. And it’s not just France: Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, called the U.S.-Australian submarine deal a snub to all of Europe that made the continent question America’s loyalty and commitment to what are meant to be its allies.

A less reliable United States leaves more room for powers such as China and Russia to maneuver. The European Union recently released its strategy to boost its presence and counter China in the Indo-Pacific, which calls for deepening ties with India, Japan, Australia, and Taiwan. But Europeans have no appetite for a cold war with Beijing and are more likely to cooperate with China on issues such as climate, trade, investment, and technology. Similarly, several countries with strong economic ties with Russia, particularly Germany, will feel more empowered to pursue their own interests with Moscow.

In the early months of his administration, Biden cleared the very low bar of not being Trump. But as time goes on—and actions speak louder than reassuring words—allies are worried the real policy differences are negligible. Biden’s version of “America first” may be warmer, folksier, and generally more coherent, but the best thing the president could do to repair the damage Trump did to America’s global standing is to stop espousing his policies.

Elise Labott is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott

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