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Trump v. Biden: The foreign policy face off

Trump v. Biden: The foreign policy face off

The right answers to the most anticipated debate questions Thursday night


Analysis | Washington Politics

Tomorrow night, we settle in for a much anticipated show-down between President Joe Biden and former President Trump.

Foreign policy rarely plays a huge role in presidential debates, but with two live conflicts (Ukraine and Middle East) and escalating tensions with China, the Quincy Institute has anticipated questions that could be asked on the key issues of the day and offered these suggestions on how the candidates should respond tonight.

How long should the U.S. continue to send aid to Ukraine?

Battlefield conditions have turned against Ukraine recently, as Russia has made its first territorial gains since early in the war. Despite its advantages in manpower and military, Russia has shown little capacity for conquering, let alone governing, the vast majority of Ukrainian territory.

The Biden administration has pushed for sending aid to Ukraine, and continues to say that it will do “‘nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.” At the same time, Biden has maintained that the U.S. will not get directly involved in a war with Russia.

However, as conditions have gotten increasingly more dire on the Ukrainian frontlines, leadership in Kyiv has urged Washington and its other Western allies to grow their involvement in the conflict. If Ukraine’s partners go down that path, it could invite a more aggressive response from Russia and perhaps nuclear escalation.

To avoid such an outcome, Washington should push Kyiv to pursue a negotiated settlement. Continuing U.S. aid is critical to provide Ukraine with leverage at the negotiating table.

"U.S. aid to Ukraine should continue as part of a broader diplomatic strategy to orchestrate a negotiated settlement of the war,” says George Beebe, director of Grand Strategy at the Quincy Institute. “Absent a negotiating strategy, continued aid will only prolong Ukraine's suffering, deepen its destruction, and increase the chances the United States and Russia stumble into a direct military confrontation."

Already the war has had a destructive impact on Ukraine. Its economy has cratered, and Ukraine is now thoroughly dependent on Western assistance to sustain it. The country has suffered a massive population decline. And the longer the war continues, the more strained Ukrainian democracy and civil rights will likely become.

The Middle East: Is a defense pact with Saudi Arabia in the U.S. interest? 

In the midst of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has now killed more than 37,000 Palestinians, including at least 15,000 children, the Biden administration has gone full steam ahead in its pursuit of a defense pact with Saudi Arabia that it views as the pathway to peace between Israel and Palestine and the broader Middle East. The looming agreement would offer Riyadh a security guarantee in exchange for the normalization of relations with Israel.

Such an agreement could exacerbate regional tensions and introduce more arms, potentially including nuclear weapons, into the Middle East. Washington would be further implicated in a Saudi Arabian foreign policy that has proven reckless without gaining much in return.

“It is not in U.S. interests to extend a security guarantee to Saudi Arabia, which could potentially require the US to send American troops to fight and die to defend the House of Saud,” Annelle Sheline, Middle East research fellow at the Quincy Institute, told RS. “The U.S. is no longer dependent on Saudi oil and therefore should reduce its military commitments to the Kingdom, not super-size them."

In addition to risking American lives, a defense commitment for Riyadh would further tie Washington to a regime that has a concerning human rights record, carried out a war on Yemen that killed nearly 400,000 Yemenis, and who recent court documents show were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

Biden ran pledging to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah,” but quickly reversed course and has made the potential defense pact a top foreign policy priority. Trump, for his part, also cultivated close ties with Riyadh, launching the first normalization agreements under the Abraham Accords, between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain during his presidency.

How do we compete with China and​ avoid conflict?

Both the Biden and Trump administrations pinpointed China as their primary national security threat and foreign policy priority. Though tensions have not yet bubbled over into outright conflict, the Biden administration has largely followed his predecessor’s lead with aggressive rhetoric and economic policies.

“U.S.–China relations have been quiet recently, but dangerous pressures are building under the surface. If we stay the present course, we're likely to see major conflict in the next presidential term, no matter who wins in November,” Jake Werner, acting director of the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute, told RS. “To change U.S.–China competition from toxic to healthy, we need fewer provocations on both sides, particularly on the most sensitive issue, Taiwan. Even as we implement prudent safeguards, America should stop trying to exclude China from important markets, technologies, and the life of our country.”

An escalation of conflict with China could have devastating consequences for the United States. Estimates suggest that a war over Taiwan cost the worldeconomy $10 trillion — around 10% of global GDP, and the U.S. and its regional allies would likely lose thousands of service members, dozens of ships, and hundreds of aircraft. One war game concluded that in the first three weeks of war, the United States would suffer roughly half as many casualties as it did in 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We need to recognize that the US and China share interests on the most important issues to regular Americans, including climate change, public health, peaceful world politics, and expanding opportunity in the global economy,” says Werner. “If each side stops regarding the other as an inevitable enemy, we could begin serious talks on the reforms that would make space for both countries to thrive.”

Are we spending enough on our military?

The U.S. Congress is currently debating a military budget of nearly $900 billion, and some experts say that the real number has already surpassed $1 trillion.

Some prominent Senators want the budget to grow even more, citing the threats posed by China and Russia as the reason. But Washington spends more than the next ten countries combined. And that total is far higher than is required to keep Americans safe.

“We can mount a robust defense of America and its allies for far less than we are spending now if we adopt a less interventionist posture and take a more realistic view of the challenge posed by China,” Bill Hartung, senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute, tells RS.

Neither Trump nor Biden has shown much appetite for cutting the Pentagon budget, but pursuing a strategy could allow the next president to put diplomatic, economic, and cultural engagement, as opposed to militarism, at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy.

Pursuing such a strategy might push allies to stop free-riding on U.S. military largesse and begin to invest in their own defense and would free up funds that could be invested back into the urgent challenges facing Americans at home.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden in first presidential debate and present their platforms. September 29, 2020, Cleveland, USA, screenshot CNN. (Photo: David Himbert / Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect)

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