Unwinding the Trump legacy in foreign policy: what to jettison, what to preserve?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Finally it is full steam ahead in Washington. After weeks of stalling, the Trump administration has allowed the Biden transition team access to intelligence briefings and government departments. The new Biden administration is taking shape with a flurry of cabinet nominations, especially in the areas of economics and national security. New policy accents are already emerging: more focus on greening the US economy and combating global climate change, as well as a greater commitment to alliances and multilateralism and to promoting democracy and human rights in international diplomacy.

Biden has picked as his Secretary of State, National Security Adviser, Climate Envoy, National Intelligence Director and UN Ambassador seasoned officials who are well known to their European counterparts and whose multilateralist credentials are unimpeachable. The media may have regarded them as the ‘usual suspects’ and somewhat uninspiring picks, but after four turbulent years of the Trump administration, boring and predictable is just what the Europeans are looking for.

The two big players on the Brussels scene, the EU and NATO, are busy finetuning their future vision papers to convince President-elect Biden that they are ready to get the transatlantic relationship back on track, stepping up their own contributions so that the US is not left to shoulder the burdens alone. The EU Commission and Council have each produced a policy think piece. They propose an EU-US Council on trade, technology and investments, an EU-US structured dialogue on security and defence and a forum to debate common initiatives on arms control and non-proliferation. In the meantime there is hope that Brussels and Washington could declare a suspension of tariffs, a regulatory ceasefire and an agreement on the taxation of tech companies as an olive branch.

Meanwhile at NATO, foreign ministers met last week to consider drafting a report to look into the future of the organisation and in particular at how to improve its political role and consultations. The NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, was asked by allies to set up this group after President Macron of France criticised NATO as “brain dead” in an interview with The Economist last year. The group of experts have come up with 138 recommendations, many of them calculated to appeal to the incoming US administration.

For instance, a NATO role in thinking more about China and the challenges that its power, particularly in the tech area, will pose for allied security in the years ahead; with the corollary of revitalising NATO’s partnerships with the Asia-Pacific democracies. These have somewhat lapsed since the alliance began its drawdown in Afghanistan, but now NATO sees a common interest in exchanging notes and experiences on how to handle Beijing.  The experts have also recommended that NATO devote more attention to resilience issues, coping with the impact of disruptive technologies and using the alliance to set and harmonise technology safety standards among its members.

So there will be no shortage of weighty subjects to discuss when President Biden comes to Brussels for a NATO summit (and presumably a back-to-back EU-US summit) soon after his inauguration in January. This will be an early test of the willingness of the new administration to reboot the transatlantic relationship in trade, technology and defence, indicating if it is ready to take up all these interesting ideas or prefers to study them further as it defines its new foreign policy strategy. A decision at the NATO meeting to launch a new alliance Strategic Concept (the present one dates from 2010 and is clearly out of date) would give an early indication in this regard.

Biden has never been a big supporter of the US troop presence in Afghanistan

Yet as exciting as these prospects may look, we are not there yet. Trump is still President for two more months. He still has enormous executive powers and is commander-in-chief. Previous US presidents might have been expected to treat their final post-election weeks in office as a caretaker period and leave the big decisions to their successors. Yet that is not Trump’s style, as we have seen from a flurry of presidential decisions. These have been focused on domestic affairs, such as contesting the result of the elections, pardoning former aides or nominating a new judge to the Supreme Court. Yet many of them have also concerned foreign policy. Taken together they may not amount to a scorched earth strategy – at least not yet – but they are calculated to tie Biden’s hands and make it as difficult as possible for him to set his own course.

Let’s begin with Afghanistan. Just a few weeks ago Trump announced an immediate pull-out of 2,500 US troops, leaving just 2,500 still in place. He did so with no prior warning or consultations with the other NATO troop contributors. It could have been worse. It was not the complete pull-out that Trump had foreshadowed in his oft-proclaimed wish to bring all US forces home from “endless wars” before the end of his term.

Yet to pull out 50% of the US presence now, when the talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have just got underway in Doha and the Taliban have increased their attacks against Afghan security forces and the civilian population, has destabilised the situation. The troop pull-out can only encourage the Taliban to believe they can put extra military pressure on the Afghan government by seizing towns and provinces and making minimal concessions in the Doha talks.

Moreover, other international troop contributors such as Germany and the UK wonder if they should pull back as well or if the US will leave vital enablers in place, such as air support and reconnaissance, on which their own national contingents depend. At which point does the NATO Resolute Support training mission become unsustainable?

Biden has never been a big supporter of the US troop presence in Afghanistan and opposed the Obama troop surge in 2009 when he was vice-president. He favoured a smaller US contingent of special forces to do counter-terrorism rather than nation-building. Yet he has also endorsed the current NATO strategy to link the troop builddown firmly to the Taliban negotiating seriously and reducing violence on the ground. He also supports the NATO mantra of “in together, out together” and to allow NATO to determine collectively the scale and speed of withdrawals in order not to jeopardise the safety of any national contingents and keep meaningful training activities for the Afghans going as long as possible. The alliance has committed to support the Afghan security forces until 2024 and it needs to consider how it can do this cost-effectively once it no longer has a nationwide troop presence on the ground. NATO is due to discuss the course forward when its defence ministers meet in February.

Trump has given Biden few options to persuade Israel to re-engage with Palestinian leader Abbas

The next issue concerns the fight against ISIS. Trump clearly believes that with the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, ISIS has been defeated. He has logged this as another accomplishment for his legacy. The funds for the anti-ISIS coalition activities and for ISIS interdiction have been taken out of the Pentagon budget and the Pentagon official leading the ISIS Task Force has just been terminated.

But manifestly ISIS is far from defeated, as its attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and the Philippines show. ISIS is spreading throughout the Sahel and south to Nigeria and even Mozambique. It is changing its business model and modus operandi to conduct more decentralised operations. The number of lone-wolf attacks also underscores that ISIS propaganda and recruitment online have lost none of their potency. So this is definitely not the time for the US to lose focus and momentum. Having at last gotten ahead of the game by rolling up the ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria, it risks once more falling behind and missing vital intelligence and warning indicators and weakening counter-terrorism partnerships.

Third is Iran. The recent assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the father of the Iranian nuclear programme, will also complicate life for Joe Biden. It will strengthen the position of the hardliners in Tehran who will oppose Iran returning to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal with the US and other powers. Already the Iranian Parliament has called for expelling the UN arms inspectors and taking its nuclear enrichment levels to 20%, compared to just over 4% currently.

As Iran advances with its nuclear programme it will need to make more major concessions to come back into compliance with the 2015 baseline. In the US, Israel and the Arab Gulf states there will be voices demanding that Iran make additional commitments going beyond the original 2015 deal, for instance halting its ballistic missile development and testing, or reining in its proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Biden has said that he wants the US to return to the nuclear deal if Iran will come back into compliance. That prospect, never easy, now looks increasingly remote.

Fourth, the Middle East peace process. As one of his last acts as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo visited Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the first US Secretary of State to do so. Trump has indeed given Israel the right to annex much of this territory occupied by its forces since the 1967 Six Day War. He has cut US funding to the Palestinians, closed their office in Washington DC and moved the US embassy to Jerusalem before the status of the city is decided in a final peace settlement.

Moreover the rapprochement between Israel and the Arab Gulf states that the US has brokered makes it harder for them to put pressure on Israel to re-energise the peace process for the constitution of a Palestinian state. They are currently much more focused on a common fear of Iran.

Biden is a supporter of the two-state solution and one of his first calls as President-elect was to King Abdullah of Jordan, who has the most to lose by accepting the bulk of the Palestinians on his territory. But again, Trump has given Biden few options to persuade Israel to re-engage with Palestinian leader Abbas, as Israel has already been given most of the benefits that a two-state solution was meant to provide.

Biden will have only 20 days once he comes into office next January to rescue the START 2 treaty

In fifth place comes the US military presence in Europe. Last spring Trump suddenly announced that he was withdrawing 12,000 troops from Germany. The Pentagon assured its anxious NATO allies that there was a well-thought-through strategic rationale behind this decision; but it never provided one, leaving most observers to conclude that it was caused by a fit of Trumpian pique over the trade imbalance between Germany and the US and Berlin’s failure to meet the NATO defence spending target of 2% of GDP.

Germany will be looking to Biden to immediately cancel the decision on US troop withdrawals.  But if he does so he may disappoint the Poles, Balts and Romanians who were hoping the US forces would be relocated east to their territories. Yet in leaving the troops in place he may not be sending his desired message on the need for more European burden-sharing.  Biden probably would have liked more time to reflect on the future of the US military contribution to Europe at a time when the Pentagon is pivoting to the Asia-Pacific.

Next is arms control and Russia. Trump has withdrawn the US from a number of arms control treaties (such as the INF treaty on intermediate-range missiles and the Open Skies inspection regime). He has also been dragging his feet on extending the START 2 treaty on long-range nuclear weapons for a further five years as the treaty allows him to do – and as Russia has requested. Trump has been negotiating for only a one-year extension and a new mandate to include new weapons technologies, more verification measures and the inclusion of China. Yet this shorter extension and one-year mandate have not yet been agreed.

This means that Biden will have only 20 days once he comes into office next January to rescue the START 2 treaty in one form or another before it expires altogether. Does he use the Trump approach to pressure Russia on the new mandate, but thereby run the risk of losing the treaty if Moscow refuses, or does he extend for another five years but leave dangerous new weapons unconstrained?

Finally, China. Trump has piled on the pressure against China right up to the end of his presidency. Closing down consulates, restricting or expelling Chinese students, banning the supply of tech components to Chinese companies, and just recently, putting 30 major Chinese companies on a blacklist for US private investment. Even Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, cannot have a bank account because of US sanctions that would exclude Chinese banks from the US financial market. There is no indication that Biden – or US Democrats for that matter – take the growing geopolitical rivalry and economic competition with China any less seriously than their Republican counterparts.

Biden might find these additional sanctions useful in order to convey the message to Beijing that he will also be a tough negotiator when it comes to Phase 2 of a trade deal and pressure China to open its markets and give greater protection to  US investments and intellectual property. But whipping up more tensions before sitting down to talk is unlikely to bring the resolution of these complex trade issues closer. Maritime exercises by the Quad (US, India, Australia and Japan) or US arms sales to Taiwan probably send a stronger message of the US concern to maintain the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific than Pompeo’s recent provocations about Taiwan.

For better or worse the Trump legacy will cast a long shadow

While fully conscious of the many challenges that China poses to the US global role and influence, Biden knows just how important cooperation with China is on issues such as climate change, health and medicine, humanitarian assistance to the 56 countries on the UN danger list, and economic recovery. Biden will need to build a new US relationship to China based on competition but also engagement. Actions that only decouple the two economies and impose additional sanctions do not give many assurances of this.

In conclusion, Europeans will not be looking only for the new US administration to make the right moves about multilateralism and the values inherent in the transatlantic relationship. The Trump years happened and cannot be undone; the world has changed since the last time Biden was in the White House. Abandoned arms control treaties or trade liberalisation agreements cannot be easily resuscitated.

For better or worse the Trump legacy will cast a long shadow, and all the more so as we all know now that Trump’s election four years ago was not an aberration. Over 70 million Americans, having directly experienced Trump’s brand of populist nationalism, still wanted to continue the experiment for another four years. So as the global community welcomes the changeover in Washington and works out how it can work with the Biden administration to restore effective multilateralism, it also has to build in resilience and reassurance against a return to ‘America First’ isolationism in four years’ time

Trump has already announced his intention to contest the 2024 election and no doubt his campaign will begin on January 21. In the meantime, the urgent task of the Biden administration will be to work out the significance of the Trump foreign policy legacy. What to junk and what to keep, because it cannot be reversed. And perhaps what to adapt and adjust in persuading others to do more of the heavy lifting. Biden has just four years to turn things around and persuade the world and his own voters at home that a forward-leaning open US delivers the goods of prosperity and security better than the populist alternative. We need to wish him well in this endeavour.

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