Presidential Preview: Foreign policy

In advance of the 2024 presidential election, The Chronicle is breaking down each candidate’s stance on priority issues, examining their platform and political history to keep voters in the Duke and Durham community informed. This week, we take a look at foreign policy:

Editor’s note: Since the Israel-Hamas war has dominated recent news cycles, The Chronicle is dedicating a separate Presidential Preview to examining the major candidates’ plans on the issue.

As Election Day approaches, foreign policy is expected to play an important role in the presidential race, as the current frontrunners for both major parties — Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joseph Biden — have espoused vastly different viewpoints on key issues such as the future of international alliances, competition with China and the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas wars.

This year’s election is unique in that both major candidates have already served a term as president, giving them experience in shaping the country’s foreign policy. In his 2017-2021 term, Trump pursued an “America First” policy that sparked a trade war with China and ongoing conflict in the Middle East. More recently, Biden has led the American response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war while also contending with increased Chinese aggression on multiple fronts and the rise of authoritarianism worldwide.

The challenges currently facing the Biden administration are likely to continue into the next presidential term, but the two frontrunners’ current plans for confronting these ongoing challenges have vastly different implications for the next four years.

Here’s what you need to know about foreign policy for the upcoming election.

Challenges on the horizon

In addition to the conflict in Gaza, the Russia-Ukraine war and continued Chinese aggression are likely to take center stage on the foreign policy agenda during the next presidential term.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 created significant economic and political repercussions for the United States and its allies, notably intensifying the 2021 global “energy crisis.” Although Ukrainian forces have been able to force a relative stalemate in the war and retain most of their territory, Western support for Ukraine — including in the U.S. — remains on shaky ground, with a recent poll showing that Americans are evenly divided on whether the U.S. is doing too much or not enough to support Ukraine.

Prominent national security experts have warned that a Russian victory would significantly increase Russian President Vladimir Putin’s power and would be a significant defeat for the U.S. and its allies.

China’s aggression remains a multifaceted threat as its recent behavior, such as a history of intellectual property theft and unfair trade practices, has led to greater economic competition with the U.S. Both Biden and Trump have pledged to increase tariffs and continue the ongoing trade war with China. Chinese President Xi Jinping continued the Belt and Road Initiative — China’s global infrastructure development project — and made diplomatic maneuvers to gain a foothold in Africa and the Middle East, which poses a threat to national security issues such as maintaining supply chains and U.S. influence abroad.

China has largely minimized or outright refused cooperation with the U.S. on global issues such as combating climate change, a key priority for the Biden administration, while trade tensions persist. A November 2023 summit between Xi and Biden yielded no major breakthroughs, but was nevertheless seen as a success due to low expectations. Another likely trend that will complicate matters further is the deepening alliance between Moscow and Beijing.

North Carolinian views on foreign policy, national security

According to a High Point University poll conducted in April, 73% of voters registered in North Carolina listed national security as “very important” for Washington, D.C., policymakers to deal with, second only to inflation at 76%. An additional 19% called national security “somewhat important” — only 9% of N.C. voters viewed national security as “not very important,” “not at all important” or were “unsure” of their stance. 

Voters gave Republicans an edge on national security, with 42% responding that Republicans would be better at handling the issue compared to 30% for Democrats.

Only 33% said the Russia-Ukraine war was very important, making it the second-lowest priority issue. Democrats and Republicans were ranked similarly in terms of handling the war: receiving 31% and 34%, respectively, and an additional 15% saying either party would handle the issue equally well.

Nationwide, voters ranked preventing terrorist attacks, reducing the flow of illegal drugs and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction as top priorities for the long term, according to an April poll. Compared to 2018, voters have increasingly favored countering Chinese and Russian influence and deprioritized human rights and refugee assistance.

Joe Biden

Biden has presided over several consequential geopolitical events during his time in office, such as the decision to pull out from Afghanistan, the Russia-Ukraine war, China’s historically aggressive foreign policy and the Israel-Hamas war. 

If elected to a second term, Biden has pledged to continue combating Chinese influence, supporting Ukraine and deterring Russia, in addition to strengthening U.S. alliances and focusing on global issues without surrendering American power.

During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden leaned on his extensive experience with foreign affairs, having served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the early 2000s and later as the nation’s vice president from 2009 to 2017.

Biden was heavily involved in foreign affairs issues during his time in the Senate, focusing mainly on arms control during the 1970s. He voted against the Gulf War in 1991, supported American military involvement in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and initially supported the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. As a staunch supporter of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Biden was a fierce advocate for its expansion and supported Kosovo’s independence.

During his two terms, former President Barack Obama gave then-Vice President Biden a significant say on key issues, such as how to deal with an increasingly confrontational Russia and determining the role of the U.S. in the Middle East. Biden strongly advocated for military aid to Ukraine following Russia’s 2014 invasion of the Crimean Peninsula.

On his first day in office, Biden restored the U.S. to the Paris Climate Accords and the World Health Organization, both which Trump had previously withdrawn the country from. The moves were meant to demonstrate American re-engagement with the rest of the world and assert the Biden administration’s prioritization of climate change.

Biden has increasingly focused on the Indo-Pacific and Africa in countering China’s expansion. His policy of strengthening the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the U.S., Japan, Australia and India is designed to strengthen cooperation between democratic states that share a mutual interest in deterrence.

In late 2022, the Biden administration enacted several executive orders and pushed legislation to prevent China from making technological advances that would threaten national security, including export controls and the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act. Biden has largely maintained tariffs enacted by the Trump administration, which Biden has vowed to expand if he is reelected.

The Biden administration also crafted the landmark 2021 AUKUS agreement between Australia, the U.S. and the United Kingdom — a naval submarine construction and technology sharing deal designed to build on longstanding naval ties and counter China’s growing military power. 

Biden hosted Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at Camp David in 2023 and held separate state visits for both in an attempt to decrease tensions between the two countries and focus attention on North Korea and China

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the incumbent worked to rally American allies who had felt ignored by his predecessor, leading to a multilateral sanctions regime on Russia, an expansion of NATO through the ascension of historically neutral Sweden and Finland as well as over $175 billion in aid to Ukraine to help repel Russian forces.

The Middle East has remained a challenge for American policymakers as the Israel-Hamas war continues. Earlier this year, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia made significant progress towards a civil nuclear deal and a security guarantee that would pave the way for Saudi Arabia’s recognition of Israel, building on the Biden administration’s goal of expanding the Abraham Accords, which were inked during his predecessor’s term. 

In moves reminiscent of his former running mate Obama, Biden hosted summits with foreign leaders that Trump shied away from, including a Leaders’ Summit on Climate and a U.S.-Africa Summit in 2022 to demonstrate American commitments to cooperate on climate change and strengthen ties with Africa. More recently, Biden hosted Kenyan President William Ruto for a state visit, as Kenya is a country the U.S. and China are both currently vying for influence in.

As immigration remains a significant concern for voters, Biden has taken steps — to varying degrees of success — in engaging Latin America with his economic, anti-drug and pro-democracy agenda. In 2022, some left-wing heads of government refused to attend the Summit of the Americans after Biden declined to invite Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela due to their authoritarian governments. More recently, the administration increased aid to Ecuador amid growing violence from gangs and drug cartels.

Although relationships with allies improved over the course of Biden’s term, many remain wary of the possibility of Trump’s return to office and are bracing for a radically different foreign policy that, compared to Biden, would likely lead to less international cooperation across the board.

Donald Trump

Former President Donald Trump’s positions on foreign policy widely differ from Biden’s. Trump has been branded a climate denier and is skeptical of multilateral alliances, which he believes do not favor U.S. interests.

His 2016 campaign broke with Republican orthodoxy on foreign policy, displaying blatant opposition to free trade, affinity for isolationism and anti-immigration views that dominated much of that election’s news cycle.

During his first term, Trump pledged to follow through on his “America First” foreign policy doctrine, which focused on transactional bilateral relationships over international alliances, opposed free trade and prioritized combating Iran and China. Like Biden, Trump has pledged to enforce higher tariffs on China should he win reelection.

A firm proponent of putting national interests first, the former president pulled the country out of the Paris Climate Accords, the Iranian nuclear deal, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the World Health Organization and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. He oversaw the beginning of the trade war with China and a deterioration in relations with European countries and traditional U.S. allies. 

Trump was also the first incumbent president to meet with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, convening three times in an attempt to get North Korea to denuclearize, to no avail.

With the presidential race remaining close, many international allies are worried about what a second Trump term could mean for them, leading some to send high-ranking government officials to hold meetings with the former president. Trump has previously stated that Russia “can do whatever the hell they want” to NATO countries that do not meet military spending requirements.

Trump’s Middle East policy included the ongoing fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which lost its de facto capital of Raqqa to U.S.-backed rebels in 2017, as well as continued ties with Saudi Arabia amid the government’s decision to assassinate dissident journalist Jammal Kashoogi in 2018.

His administration also moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, causing outrage in Arab countries, in addition to recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory and building close ties with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2020, Trump brokered the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, in which the latter two countries agreed to recognize Israel. The agreement was later expanded to include Morocco and Sudan.

In February 2020, the Trump administration finalized a deal with the Taliban to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for the Taliban refraining from attacking American forces. The deal was made without consulting the Afghan government. 

Biden later blamed the deal for the Taliban’s victory during the U.S. withdrawal.

Concerns about Russia continued throughout Trump’s term, with a 2018 summit in Helsinki yielding no progress and a statement from Trump disagreeing with the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Trump frequently criticized NATO during his time in office, repeatedly making false claims that several member states failed to pay their “bills,” “dues” or “NATO fees.”

At one point, the then-president also withheld military aid to Ukraine to pressure them into investigating Biden on unsubstantiated bribery allegations.

Trump pushed a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement into the United States-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement in 2020, fulfilling a key campaign promise. The USMCA included stronger intellectual property protections, tighter labor standards and new auto industry requirements designed to benefit American automakers.

Other candidates

Minor candidates have outlined where they stand on some high-profile foreign policy issues, albeit less clearly and to a lesser extent than Trump and Biden.

Independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has criticized American involvement in the Russia-Ukraine war, stating that the war should be resolved through “negotiation.” Though, he has stopped short of saying he would end U.S. aid to the country if elected. He has also pledged to reduce military involvement abroad and defended Israel’s response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

Libertarian Party candidate Chase Oliver’s platform aims to “focus our foreign policy on peace.” He has expressed his intention to close all overseas bases, return all active-duty personnel to domestic bases, end all aid directed to nation-states at war — including Israel and Ukraine — and utilize trade as a bargaining chip for diplomatic relations.

Jill Stein, who is seeking the Green Party’s presidential nomination after previously being its nominee in the 2012 and 2016 elections, has largely refrained from outlining a specific policy but has said that she will refocus U.S. policy on human rights promotion and has criticized defense spending levels.

Independent candidate Cornel West has pledged to end NATO, cut defense spending and end further military aid to Ukraine, favoring peace negotiations instead. He has also voiced opposition to intervention in Haiti and armed support for Israel. 


Samanyu Gangappa | Local/National News Editor

Samanyu Gangappa is a Trinity sophomore and local/national news editor for the news department.       

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