If President-elect Joe Biden wants to ensure his foreign policy is successful, he would do well to seek some inspiration from an unlikely source: President Donald Trump.
Overall, Trump’s foreign policy has been chaotic at best and a disaster at worst, and he didn’t accomplish a lot of what he set out to do. But occasionally his instincts pointed him in the right direction, and Biden would be wise to chart a similar path.
Trump’s Washington-outsider status and lack of knowledge about American foreign policymaking led him to frequently question long-held beliefs and break taboos that another, more experienced president probably wouldn’t have.
Though in some cases this caused problems, it also opened up new avenues for diplomacy and possible new solutions to seemingly intractable conflicts. From meeting face-to-face with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to pursuing normalization deals between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Trump’s natural willingness to reject Washington foreign policy orthodoxy enabled him to forge new ground.
His “America First” approach led him to push hard to end the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq; refrain from starting new conflicts abroad; and deal with major challenges like China. And his obsession with securing the release of American hostages abroad brought many of them home while elevating that mission’s importance.
Each of those helped US foreign policy during the last four years. If Biden refused to follow Trump’s example, out of partisan passions or a straight rejection of anything Trump touched, many experts on the left and right believe the incoming commander in chief would be making a huge mistake.
“The question is will he recognize the successes of Trump’s efforts at all and build on them rather than apologize for them,” said Rebeccah Heinrichs, a US foreign policy expert at the Hudson Institute in Washington.
Below are three important foreign policy lessons Biden should learn from Trump’s time in office.
Lesson 1: Don’t be afraid to question foreign policy shibboleths
Trump’s lack of knowledge and his unqualified belief in himself as a master statesman led him to eschew many tenets of the decades-long bipartisan foreign policy consensus in Washington.
For instance, experts long warned that the US president shouldn’t meet face-to-face with the leader of North Korea unless and until he made significant concessions on curbing his nuclear and missile programs. The argument was that such a meeting would give Kim Jong Un a huge foreign policy win — showing his people and the world that he’s an important world leader who has the personal attention of the American president — without getting anything in return.
But Trump rejected that notion and went ahead and met with Kim Jong Un — not once, but three times. They even sent so-called “love letters” to one another as a way to keep the historic diplomatic opening alive. Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs have only grown stronger over the last four years, but some experts say Trump may have cracked the code on how to actually negotiate with North Korea.
For decades, the US has worked with allies at the working level to reach some sort of nuclear agreement. But the Trump administration recognized that Kim is the ultimate decision-maker in North Korea. Any deal, then, would need his buy-in and stamp of approval. Trump and Kim’s engagement led the latter to sign a declaration of principles in 2018 as a starting point for future diplomatic talks.
Trump didn’t succeed in ridding North Korea of its arsenal, of course, but a future president — Biden, perhaps — might be able to do so following the path Trump blazed.
Trump’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is another example. The Trump administration helped Israel broker three normalization-of-relations deals with Arab nations all before striking an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. That went against the conventional wisdom of top foreign policy minds in the US.
In 2016, for instance, then-Secretary of State John Kerry said “there will be no advanced and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that.”
Trump and his team clearly decided — and proved — that view was wrong. Israel now has improved relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan because of the administration’s efforts. Biden could rack up more deals during his time in office by hewing closer to Trump’s theory of the case than Kerry’s.
Doing so would require Biden to be open to some new ways of thinking, even if those ways are Trump’s.
“It would be nice to see Biden adopt a little of Trump’s flexibility in foreign affairs,” Emma Ashford, a US foreign policy expert at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, DC, told me. “Most of Trump’s strange policy choices came from the fact that he didn’t know or care much about foreign affairs. But it was also sometimes a benefit in that he was unconstrained by this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it thinking.”
Lesson 2: Consider how foreign policy decisions will impact Americans at home
Trump blazed into the Oval Office partly on the back of his “America First” pitch. That slogan, in sum, meant Trump wanted any decision the US took around the world to primarily benefit the country he led.
Despite the problems with such a view — including the US giving off the impression that it was out for itself instead of a dependable ally — there were some positive aspects Biden shouldn’t dismiss.
The main one was Trump’s focus on ending America’s “forever wars,” namely the 19-year war in Afghanistan and the 16-year fight in Iraq. By withdrawing US troops from those conflicts and spending less money on them, those resources could be allocated elsewhere.
The US is still in Afghanistan, but Trump defied his advisers who urged him to send tens of thousands more troops to the country, only escalating the total by about 3,000 in 2017.
He also took the risky step of engaging his administration in direct diplomacy with the Taliban to finalize the war’s end. And he’s made dramatic changes to the Pentagon leadership recently in a suspected effort to accelerate the troop drawdown by Christmas. According to CNN, it looks like the Pentagon is planning for around 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and 2,500 in Iraq by January.
The war continues, then, but it’s closer to ending than ever before — and that’s because Trump rejected the keep-fighting views of many in the nation’s capital.
Meanwhile, the US still has about 3,000 troops in Iraq to fend off terrorist threats like ISIS, protect American facilities including its embassy, and more. Former President Barack Obama also moved to end US involvement there in 2011, but challenges like the rise of ISIS and continued anti-US activities by Iranian-backed militias in the country kept the US militarily engaged. But Trump clearly wants to reduce the US presence in Iraq, and there are signs he’s pushing for further troop withdrawals.
“Trump hasn’t yet ended any wars, but he does seem to have moved on from the endless-wars mindset,” said Justin Logan, a US foreign policy expert at Catholic University in Washington, DC.
Biden seems to have come closer to Trump’s view on this. “It’s past time to end the forever wars, which have cost us untold blood and treasure,” he said in July 2019. “Staying entrenched in unwinnable conflicts drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention, and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power.”
Beyond ending wars the US is already in, Trump showed restraint when it came to starting new ones — though not always in his rhetoric.
After Iran downed an unmanned US surveillance drone in June 2019, for instance, senior aides including then-National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the president to strike the country. Responding to an attack with escalatory force, after all, was a typical US play.
But Trump rejected the advice. “‘Too many body bags,’ said Trump,” Bolton recalled in his book, “which he was not willing to risk for an unmanned drone — ‘Not proportionate,’ he said again.” Bolton, a creature of the DC foreign policy establishment, was furious. “In my government experience, this was the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any President do,” he wrote. “Trump had behaved bizarrely.”
That Trump went against the grain and made the choice to not kill as many as 150 people with such an attack underscored the value of his not being tethered to traditional US foreign policy views. That’s a virtue the incoming president should internalize.
The New York Times reported on Monday that Trump asked for options to strike Iran last week due to its buildup of uranium to build a nuclear weapon. It’s unclear how seriously Trump wanted to bomb the Islamic Republic or if he just wanted to know the slew of options at his disposal. Either way, the president has threatened war before in places like Venezuela and been talked out of it by advisers. That seems to have happened this time, too.
Finally, Trump’s America First agenda led him to tackle the nation’s largest foreign policy challenge — China — because of its impact on America’s security and economy.
Experts say Trump pushed back on China in three major ways, each receiving a decent amount of bipartisan support: He bolstered ties with regional allies like Japan and Taiwan, sending billions in weapons to the latter; he shamed Beijing for trying to interfere in the 2020 election; and he imposed billions in tariffs on Chinese goods to improve economic conditions at home and lower the bilateral trade deficit.
It’s the trade war that garnered the most attention because of the size of its ambition, and also its failure. Both countries signed a “Phase One” agreement, the centerpiece of which included China purchasing $200 billion in US-made soybeans in 2020 and 2021. That hasn’t happened, all while the two-way trade deficit has gone up in America.
“China is nowhere close to doing what it agreed to do,” said Chad Bown, an international trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC. “If we evaluate the agreement on the Trump administration’s terms, it doesn’t live up to their promise.”
Still, Trump’s military, political, and economic pushback on China is something many in the nation and in the capital would want Biden to continue. “Do not take the foot off the gas,” said Hudson’s Heinrichs. “I am very skeptical Biden will do what is necessary on China since his entire career has been one of accommodation. But Trump has shifted things in such a major way, Biden won’t be able to turn back the clock.”
Biden seems to recognize this reality. “We do need to get tough with China,” he said in his July 2019 speech. “If China has its way, it will keep robbing the US of our technology and intellectual property, or forcing American companies to give it away in order to do business in China.”
Going full “America First” may not be on Biden’s agenda, but it wouldn’t hurt for him to continue the Trump-era approach in at least some key areas, and more generally to be more mindful of the importance of protecting the interests not just of America but of Americans when making major foreign policy moves.
Lesson 3: Prioritize bringing American hostages home
One of the most successful elements of Trump’s foreign policy has been his administration’s intense focus on bringing US hostages held abroad back home.
The administration worked with Egypt to release Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian American aid worker, from captivity in April 2017. That October, Trump announced the release of Caitlan Coleman, her husband, and the three children she bore during their five years held by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The president also secured the return of three hostages from North Korea and Pastor Andrew Brunson from Turkey in 2018. And just last month, a US military rescue secured the freedom of Philip Nathan Walton, who was held by kidnappers in Nigeria. “We got our young man back,” Trump told reporters afterward.
His success stems from changing how the US dealt with hostage takers. Past presidents refused any engagement with the captors, usually with a refrain along the lines of “we don’t negotiate with terrorists.” But as Joel Simon wrote for the New Yorker in February, Trump made a slight but significant alteration:
He has kept in place the expanded effort created by Obama to support families but repeatedly pushed the boundaries of the no-concessions policy upheld by Republican and Democratic Presidents since Nixon. Trump’s style of resolving cases is more personal and more flexible. ...
If an American President showed a personal interest in bringing a hostage home, the theory went, it would raise the value of American hostages and increase the number of kidnappings. Trump, by contrast, has gone out of his way to highlight his personal engagement in hostage-recovery efforts, welcoming hostages home on national television or inviting them to Oval Office photo opportunities.
Part of the reason for the big to-do is because Trump likes boasting about any success. But the other is that the president made bringing hostages home a “top priority,” Pompeo said in March.
None of that is to say Trump has been perfect on this issue. Critics say his administration inflates the number of returned hostages, and many still remain around the world in places like Syria and Afghanistan. But Trump’s more flexible approach seemed to work fairly well, and being open to that might work for Biden over the next four years — in hostage negotiations and other aspects of his foreign policy.
What’s more, the main concern critics had about Trump’s approach — that it would just encourage more kidnapping of Americans — hasn’t proven true so far. Those holding US hostages may want either a policy change or inflated ransoms. Even so, Trump clearly concluded those prices, whatever they were, were worth paying for American lives.
Put together, Trump came into the office with very unorthodox ideas. In most cases, that didn’t pan out for him. But Biden should take notice of the occasions when it clearly did.
“That openness to new ideas — and willingness to question long-running orthodoxy — is a quality that I think any presidential administration could benefit from, particularly if they approach it in a more competent way,” said the Atlantic Council’s Ashford.