How Trump’s China legacy helps Biden’s foreign policy aims

Biden’s effort to sell his return to multilateralism benefits from a clearly-defined national security threat; luckily for Biden, Trump already found one.

By Patrick Gates

During his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, then-US President Barack Obama described how the US had “helped underwrite global security for more than six decades… out of enlightened self-interest—because we seek a better future for our grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.” In the intervening years it has becoming increasingly clear that many Americans do not share this view of US global leadership, and likely never did.

In a resounding rejection of Wilsonian internationalism, Senator Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump rose to the top of their respective 2016 primaries on foreign policy platforms that rejected American hegemony on global security. Once Trump was in office, the “America First” tenets of his foreign policy were some of his most popular positions. National polling reveals almost half of Americans think the US does too much to solve global problems. If Americans ever believed in the need to promote freedom and prosperity abroad, a significant portion of the population has since abandoned the principle. Confronted with a deeply polarized electorate, President Biden faces renewed challenges to building support for an internationalist economic and foreign policy agenda.

America has always been a nation of reluctant internationalists

There is strong evidence to suggest that the American public never possessed the “enlightened self-interest” Obama described, and that the “American Century” was an aspiration held by a few at the top trying to secure the buy-in of a reluctant nation.

Former US President Woodrow Wilson famously conceptualized the League of Nations in the wake of World War I as part of his Fourteen Points plan for peace in Europe, but failed to secure senate approval and the US never became a member. Two decades later, when fascism threatened European democracy, groups of senators from both major parties found the idea of US intervention risible. Safe from invasion, they did not see the value of involving the US in the jockeying of European empires and had no desire to supplant their dominance. This isolationist sentiment was codified by various Neutrality Acts passed by the Democratic Congress of the 1930s.

To break with isolationism, the American public needs a clearly defined national security threat

The exceptions to the pattern of American isolationism provide a sense of what is required to coax the national psyche beyond US shores. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor cleaved the roots of the debate over whether to enter the war from the promotion of American ideals abroad and transplanted it in the practical discourse of self-defense. The attack united the country in the face of a national security threat and within hours, the Senate—which had previously heard impassioned calls for isolationism—voted unanimously for war with Japan.

Similarly, it was President Harry Truman’s domino theory, which articulated the need to contain communism as a requisite for US national security, that framed America’s engagement with the post-war world. When the US provided financial aid to Greece and Turkey, it did so ostensibly to protect them from communist threats. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), designed to prevent the resurgence of militant nationalism in Europe and foster European integration, was sold to the public as a response to the Soviet threat to the United States. The same domino theory provided the intellectual foundation for military intervention in Vietnam.

More recently, Washington has used the 9/11 terrorist attacks and suspicions of weapons of mass destruction as justification for America’s “forever wars” in the Middle East. In each instance, US leadership established a sole, articulable threat to blunt realist criticisms of internationalism and American intervention to promote stability and order outside the North American continent.

Domestic debate around which countries join NATO provides one of the clearest examples of American reluctance to engage in internationalism without a national security threat. In 1982, in the midst of the Cold War, the US Senate considered Spain’s accession to NATO. No senator spoke in opposition to the motion and it passed quickly and without fanfare. In 1998, the Senate considered the ascension of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. The Soviet Union had collapsed and, three years prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center, the US lacked a national security threat to concentrate messaging. Debate lasted eight days and supporters only managed to secure a majority after appealing to the need to meet new security threats on the horizon.  

US President Joe Biden. Photo: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Biden has an internationalist foreign policy agenda

In his first foreign policy address of the presidency, President Biden told staff at the State Department and the world that “America is back.” Biden campaigned on a platform of renewed American engagement with the world, including strengthening frayed relationships with allies and restoring working relationships with international institutions. In a break with his predecessor, Biden has vowed to keep US troops garrisoned in Germany, confront Russian aggression, reengage with NATO, defend against rising authoritarianism, increase refugee admissions and end support for the Saudi-led coalition in its war in Yemen.

To achieve these objectives and show that internationalism trumps nationalism, Biden will need to convince the American people of its domestic benefits. Messaging from the White House has gone to great lengths to erase the distinction between foreign and domestic policy, tethering foreign policy goals to economic goals at home and the advancement of the middle class. The president hopes that framing foreign policy through the lens of domestic economic benefits, he can counter criticism that his internationalist agenda is concessionary to foreign governments.

There is another critical component to Biden’s messaging. Without a national security threat, building domestic consensus around internationalism would be insurmountable. Fortunately for Biden, Trump already created a national security threat in the American psyche.

China is critical for selling Biden’s internationalism

Early indicators suggest Biden’s break with Trump’s foreign policy won’t extend to US-China relations. In his State Department speech, Biden said China was America’s “most serious competitor” and vowed to counter its economic abuses and regional aggression. While he has indicated he would work with China on issues like climate change, he previously criticized the Trump administration for too readily accepting Chinese assurances about the pandemic. More recently, his commerce chief suggested that some of the Trump administration’s tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum products had been “effective”.

The Chinese boogeyman, like the Soviet, German and Taliban boogeymen that came before, is a ready substitute for “enlightened self-interest”. Framing China as a tangible national security threat provides the American public with ample justification for reengagement with the international community. Foreign policy consensus may remain out of reach in the polarized US political landscape but pushing the public to view renewed internationalism against the backdrop of a powerful and conniving national security threat will soften calls for isolationism.

President Donald J. Trump joins Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, at the start of their bilateral meeting Saturday, June 29, 2019, at the G20 Japan Summit in Osaka, Japan.
Photo: The White House

What do sustained US-China tensions mean for Southeast Asia?

As China is the region’s biggest single trading partner and donor, the need for a tough stance towards Beijing will drive Biden’s engagement with Southeast Asia. Relationships with allies and security ties in the region will be priorities.

To counter Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, the Biden administration will likely increase US military assistance to Vietnam and shore up the US-Philippines alliance. In his first talks with his Philippine and Thai counterparts, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reiterated Washington’s rejection of China’s maritime claims beyond what is permitted under international law and pledged to stand with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of Chinese pressure. In a follow-up call with Delifin Lorenzana, the Philippines’ defense secretary, Blinken also reportedly discussed expanding their military capabilities and reiterated that the Mutual Defense Treaty would apply to Filipino aircraft and vessels in the South China Sea.

Tackling corruption in the region may also represent a convergence of objectives. Biden’s State Department can push private investors to extend financing to projects in the region that demonstrate high levels of transparency, offering an alternative to Chinese investment while incentivizing accountability and delivering a public relations victory to Washington.

Obama closed his Nobel acceptance speech in 2009 by imploring us to “reach for the world that ought to be”. There is no doubt Biden is doing just that. The world is more stable when the United States engages with international institutions and promotes freedom, democracy and prosperity abroad. But in addition to reaching for a world that ought to be, Biden must remember the America he leads—with a domestic public that only wants to engage beyond its borders to protect against existential threats.

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