With sights set on retaking the White House in November, Democrats are fleshing out foreign policy priorities that would largely reverse and scrub the plate clean of President Donald Trump’s "America First" agenda.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's initial changes would include restoring funding for the World Health Organization; reversing some immigration policies; dismantling Trump's travel ban; pursuing an extension of the New START arms accord with Russia; undoing the exit from the Paris climate agreement; and ending a policy that bans aid from going to foreign organizations that support or offer abortions.
Biden would use his first day in office to call up key foreign allies to let them know, “We’re back,” said Carlyn Reichel, foreign policy director for the Biden campaign, speaking Tuesday at a panel discussion with foreign policy groups.
With the coronavirus pandemic continuing to spread, the former vice president and longtime Delaware senator would focus heavily on working with foreign nations and multilateral bodies like WHO to cooperatively develop and distribute a vaccine.
The Democratic Party’s platform, adopted at the party’s national convention this week, pledges to ensure that the United States remains WHO’s “leading funder and technical partner,” reversing a yearlong process Trump initiated this spring to pull support from the organization.
“To walk away from that institution in the middle of a pandemic is like fighting a fire without water,” Loyce Pace, executive director of the Global Health Council, which advocates for access to health care worldwide, said during the panel discussion.
The party is also committed to an initiative to encourage an equitable and rapid global distribution of an eventual coronavirus vaccine, pushing back against a rising trend of "vaccine nationalism" in countries racing each other to be the first to develop a vaccine to which they could then control access.
“We’re going to have to figure out, working together in a cooperative way, how the world can distribute and deliver that vaccine globally,” former secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said at an Atlantic Council event Monday.
‘Overwhelming’ amount of work to do
Beyond actions Biden could take with a flick of his pen to sign executive orders reversing Trump policies, making headway on rebuilding global trust would take time, Democrats say.
“The work is rather overwhelming that needs to be done,” Clinton said.
An amount of humble pie consumption and return to the diplomatic spadework the U.S. had been known for in previous administrations will be needed to mollify and reassure European and Asia-Pacific allies, who feel scalded by Trump’s years of antagonistic rhetoric and bullying tactics on matters like trade and defense pacts.
Democrats, particularly the party’s left flank, also want to push for the reallocation of national security spending, including a $1 trillion initiative to modernize the nuclear arsenal. The goal is to focus more taxpayer money on diplomacy, foreign aid and domestic investments in areas such as renewable energy technologies, public health and education to ensure America retains its leading global economic position.
“It is absolutely essential for all of us in this foreign policy ecosystem to have a very honest conversation about the allocation of our national security budget,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., who is on the Foreign Relations Committee and the Appropriations subcommittee that handles foreign aid, said during the foreign policy discussion Tuesday.
“This pathogen has made it very clear to the American people how misresourced our spending is today. We are spending somewhere between 50 to 100 times the amount of money on traditional defense as we are on international public health,” added Murphy, who is widely seen among Democratic circles as a potential pick to lead the State Department under Biden.
Continuity and reversal
Democrats, including Murphy, believe there is space to continue — with modifications — the Trump administration’s policies in Afghanistan.
Trump’s instincts have “not been wrong on Afghanistan,” Murphy said of the push to withdraw U.S. forces from the country after nearly two decades of military presence. Reichel said a Biden administration’s focus in Afghanistan would be on drawing down the U.S. troop presence “while also maintaining a counterterrorism presence.”
Biden would also look to address bounties offered to the Taliban by Russia to encourage the killing of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a move many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been calling for after the U.S. intelligence community uncovered the plot, Reichel said. Biden wouldn't hesitate to take a stern tact with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the issue, a move Trump has thus far refused, she added.
The Trump administration has, however, confronted and challenged a rising China on multiple fronts including trade, developing technologies, human rights violations and in the South China Sea. It's one of the few other foreign policy areas where Democrats have been supportive in principle if not in actual implementation of the president's actions.
Dan Baer, who during the Obama administration served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and as a senior human rights official in the State Department, said Trump’s China policy is hardly “perfectly executed right now, but at least [the need to confront Beijing] is part of the conversation” in a way it wasn’t during previous U.S. administrations.
Baer, currently a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he would like to see a Biden administration compete with China on multiple fronts but more multilaterally as opposed to the unilateral actions mostly taken by Trump. Biden should reach out to European partners “to develop a conversation about how we handle the opportunities and challenges of a rising China,” he said.
In another area of contrast with the current administration, Democrats are eager to correct what they view as disastrous policies toward Iran.
“The fact that the United States was on the verge of a war with Iran while COVID-19 was beginning to spread from China to the rest of the world demonstrates the fallacy of Washington’s perpetual obsession with the Islamic Republic,” Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security advisor to President Barack Obama, wrote in an August essay in Foreign Affairs.
Rhodes wrote it would be a “huge accomplishment” if the United States was able to somehow restore the multinational nuclear agreement with Iran that Obama negotiated and Trump unilaterally abandoned in 2018.
Since the U.S. withdrawal from the deal and Trump’s imposition of increasingly tighter sanctions on the bulk of Iran’s economy, Tehran has retaliated with gradual steps to restart and expand its nuclear program.
It is not clear Iran would be willing to reverse those steps and return to the baseline limitations on its nuclear work it agreed to in 2015 in return for sanctions relief, particularly given the Trump administration's reversal of that deal.
“If Iran is in strict compliance, then we want to reenter the deal, but we all know that is going to be difficult,” Murphy said. “European allies will be gun-shy, not knowing if the deal can last through multiple administrations.”