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Trump’s team is pushing for a debate on foreign policy. That could backfire.

Trump’s foreign policy record may be his strongest. But will anyone care?

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden squared off at the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 29, 2020.
Jim Watson, Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Ahead of Thursday’s final presidential debate, President Donald Trump is pushing for foreign policy to dominate his conversation with Democratic candidate Joe Biden. The reason — beyond not having to answer for his disastrous handling of the coronavirus, the economy, race relations, and climate change — is that it’s arguably the one area where Trump can make the strongest case for his four years in office.

Among the successes Trump can point to are that he oversaw the military defeat of ISIS; ordered the assassinations of top Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; and brokered historic normalization of relations deals between Israel and two Arab nations just two years after moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

He improved the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico and signed a “phase one” trade deal with China. The US and the Taliban signed a peace accord, paving the way for nearly all US troops to come home from Afghanistan. The White House helped facilitate diplomatic negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo. And Trump, through summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, got Pyongyang to stop, at least for the time being, testing nuclear bombs and the missiles that could carry them to America.

And he hasn’t started any new wars, either.

Add to all this the fact that Biden has a decades-long foreign policy record to defend, which offers Trump multiple areas to attack him. A debate on global affairs would allow the president to lambaste Biden over issues like his support for the Iraq War, his opposition to the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, and his failure during his time in the Obama administration to curb China’s aggressiveness against the US and its neighbors.

It’s no surprise, then, that Trump would feel on firmer ground talking about his foreign policy than almost any other aspect of his presidency.

“Foreign policy is a massive advantage for Trump in the race,” Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the president’s 2020 campaign, told me. “Joe Biden’s experience in foreign policy has been a complete disaster,” he said, adding that “he’s a weak leader and not respected on the global stage.”

It’s why Trump campaign chair Bill Stepien on Monday sent a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates asking for “an emphasis on foreign policy” in Thursday’s debate. “We were told explicitly that the final debate would be the foreign policy debate,” Miller told me.

Biden’s campaign disputes that characterization. “The campaigns and the Commission agreed months ago that the debate moderator would choose the topics,” national press secretary TJ Ducklo told Vox. “The Trump campaign is lying about that now because Donald Trump is afraid to face more questions about his disastrous Covid response.”

Either way, the case Trump wants to make is he is the better commander in chief. But if you scratch at the surface of Trump’s foreign policy record, the initial shine wears off — underscoring the risk of the president’s play.

Why pushing for a foreign policy debate probably won’t work for Trump

The foreign policy picture Trump aims to paint isn’t as pretty as he’ll make it seem.

America’s global image has tanked on the president’s watch. The total trade deficit in the US, which Trump sought to slash in part by altering trade relations with China, is nearing an all-time high. He’s cozied up to autocrats and failed to stop their most egregious human rights abuses, especially Beijing’s internment of around 2 million Uighur Muslims. Iran has moved closer to being able to develop a nuclear weapon if it chooses to pursue one, despite the sanctions Trump has placed on the country.

He also has major problems in the areas where he aims to tout his success.

North Korea is a stronger nuclear power now than it was four years ago when Trump took office. Neither the United Arab Emirates nor Bahrain — the two countries that signed normalization deals with Israel — were actually at war with that country and both were already deeply engaged with Jerusalem when the so-called Abraham Accords were announced. And the Taliban is still killing in Afghanistan even after its agreement with Washington and has yet to come anywhere close to signing any kind of power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government.

But experts say despite those failings, there’s a logic to the president wanting to highlight his global efforts. “Relatively speaking, he is better off talking about foreign policy than talking about the state of the country,” said Daniel Drezner, a US foreign policy expert at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. “There’s actually a list” Trump can point to, Drezner said.

But would pointing to that list in a debate be a good idea? Maybe not.

Trump’s push for a foreign policy debate has two additional glaring weaknesses

Experts noted two main reasons why Trump’s push to have a foreign policy debate might backfire on him.

The first is that Biden is actually quite strong when talking about foreign policy. He’s dealt with it for decades, chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and served for eight years as vice president. That’s a wealth of experience and knowledge that’s hard to combat, even if Trump thinks Biden’s worldview is misguided.

Take Biden’s response to a foreign policy question during last week’s ABC News town hall in Pennsylvania. Mark Hoffman, a conservative who voted for Trump four years ago, asked Biden: “Does President Trump’s foreign policy deserve some credit?”

“A little, but not a whole lot,” Biden said. “We find ourselves in a position where we’re more isolated in the world than we’ve ever been.”

Then he listed off Trump’s foreign policy sins:

You have Iran closer to having enough nuclear material to build a bomb. North Korea has more bombs and missiles available to it. We find ourselves where our NATO allies are publicly saying they can’t count on us. We’re in a situation, as well, where in the Far East, we find ourselves in the — in the Western Pacific, where we’re isolated, as well.

You have Japan and South Korea at odds with one another, China is making moves. So, I — you know, I would say we find ourselves less secure than we’ve been.

I do compliment the president on the deal with Israel recently, but, you know, if you take a look, we’re not very well trusted around the world. When 17 major nations of the world were asked who they trust more, who is a better leader, and the president came in behind both — a national survey, international survey — both behind Putin as well as Xi.

Biden said a lot more, but you get the idea. Such a retort might make Trump think twice about really challenging Biden on foreign policy.

And then there’s the domestic side of things: Few American voters care deeply about foreign policy or vote for a presidential candidate based solely or even mostly on their handling of it. “Foreign policy is viewed as an elite sport. It’s the political equivalent of polo,” said Justin Logan, a US foreign policy expert at Catholic University.

Even if Trump were to win a foreign policy debate against the former vice president, that victory likely wouldn’t propel him to overtake Biden’s lead in the polls, Logan added. “He’d be waltzing before a blind audience. It’s just not a salient issue.”

A foreign policy debate “probably won’t make things worse” for Trump — especially since discussing domestic issues might be more harmful for the president — “but it certainly can’t save the candidate,” Logan concluded.

All that said, it is quite stunning that foreign policy has barely featured at all in the 2020 election. The year, of course, has been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and domestic political turmoil, namely the fight over the Supreme Court and issues of racial justice.

But foreign policy is where a president has the most latitude to act, and many experts feel the nation deserves to hear more about their plans. “The lack of focus on foreign policy in debates has been a disservice to voters,” said Kate Kizer, the policy director for the progressive advocacy group Win Without War.

Trump, whether for political gain or out of genuine belief, appears to agree.

Emily Stewart contributed reporting.

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