Voters might prefer to focus on domestic issues, but this election, they should know that very different approaches to U.S. global leadership are on the ballot. Most voters maintain that American leaders should prioritize democracy at home over promoting democracy around the world and oppose launching new U.S. military interventions.
These results confirm a 2019 report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that concludes while most favor a restrained foreign policy, they prefer active American global leadership.
Foreign policy has received some attention from the candidates and voters should take note. During the vice presidential debate, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisSenate Democrats rebuke GOP colleagues who say they’ll oppose Electoral College results Sunday shows preview: Senate candidates brace for Georgia runoffs; government continues coronavirus vaccine roll out Are we allowed to whisper about the transition to President Harris? MORE (D-Calif.) emphasized that the U.S. should stand with its allies and described foreign policy in terms of diplomatic “relationships,” Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceAppeals court dismisses Gohmert’s election suit against Pence Pence ‘welcomes’ efforts of lawmakers to ‘raise objections’ to Electoral College results Five GOP contenders — other than Trump — for 2024 MORE stressed that the Trump administration has been “demanding” with America’s allies and is expanding the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific.
The two campaigns diverge from one another on specific issues. On China, Trump embraced tariffs and stepped up military aid to Taiwan while Biden highlights China’s human rights abuses and calls for a multilateral approach. On climate change, Trump rejects science and is pushing for expanded domestic energy extraction and environmental deregulation while Biden proposes drastic reductions to global carbon emissions and new investments in green infrastructure and technologies.
On the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the World Health Organization, blamed China, and barred U.S. participation in collaborative funding and research efforts while Biden proposes federal mandates for testing, treatment, and contact tracing and supports America’s reentry into the World Health Organization. On immigration, Trump has enacted a travel ban on people traveling to the U.S. from Muslim-majority nations, cracked down at the border with Mexico, and assumed unilateral action on asylum, deportation, and visas compared to Biden who supports comprehensive immigration reform and more openness to asylum seekers and immigrants.
Another four years of a Trump presidency would mean the U.S. remaining on the sidelines of global problems and further isolating the U.S. from its allies. Since 2017, Trump’s deep cuts to the U.S. diplomatic corps and foreign assistance resulted in a foreign policy driven by a military-first logic and reduced the ability of the U.S. to influence the world with mediation, cooperation, and soft power. The U.S. image around the world is plunging, confidence in U.S. presidential leadership is at a historic low, and the U.S. is perceived as a greater threat than Russia or China.
A second term for Trump might be even more peculiar than the first. Trump could recognize Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea and further cozy up to foreign dictators. He might even press for a U.S. exit from NATO, ceding more of the international stage to both China and Russia.
If Biden is elected, U.S. participation in agreements from the climate accords to the Iran nuclear deal would be revived. Biden would enjoy broad American support for reentering the U.S. into multilateral agreements. In addition to wide support from Democrats, 29 percent of Trump voters do support the U.S. in the Paris Climate Accords, 28 percent support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and 31 percent support the WHO. A potential Biden administration would embrace a conventional and predictable foreign policy that engages the world with liberal internationalism. He would appeal to the same U.S. allies in Europe and Asia that Trump despises.
However, progressives will be disappointed in Biden because he will have to maintain or increase military spending to contain China. To deter both China and Russia, Biden will have to line up America’s NATO allies and the E.U., something that could take his attention from domestic challenges. Also, while Biden would reenter the Paris Climate Accords, natural gas will remain a key feature in U.S. energy policy.
2020 is a good election to feature foreign policy because the voters are choosing between two different value systems. Biden believes the U.S. has made the world a better place, something that benefits Americans. Trump thinks the world has ripped off the U.S. and that America’s allies deserve his contempt. Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that “shortcomings here at home directly threaten America’s ability to project power and exert influence overseas.” Voters must know that American democracy itself is on the ballot.
Chris Dolan is a professor of politics & global studies at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. He is the author of “Obama and the Emergence of a Multipolar World Order: Redefining U.S. Foreign Policy.”