Biden echoes Trump foreign policy
Experts point out how US continuity is often the norm
WASHINGTON — A fist bump and meeting with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Tariffs and export controls on China. Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.
More than a year and a half into the tenure of President Joe Biden, his administration’s approach to strategic priorities is surprisingly consistent with the policies of the Trump administration, former officials and analysts say.
Biden vowed on the campaign trail to break from the paths taken by the previous administration, and in some ways on foreign policy he has done that. He has repaired alliances, particularly in Western Europe, that Donald Trump weakened with his “America First” proclamations and criticisms of other nations. In recent months, Biden’s efforts positioned Washington to lead a coalition imposing sanctions against Russia during the war in Ukraine. And Biden has denounced autocracies, promoted the importance of democracy and called for global cooperation on issues that include climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.
But in critical areas, the Biden administration has not made substantial breaks, showing how difficult it is in Washington to chart new courses on foreign policy.
That was underscored
this month when Biden traveled to Israel and Saudi Arabia, a trip partly aimed at strengthening the closer ties among those states Trump officials had promoted under the so-called Abraham Accords.
In Saudi Arabia, Biden met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite his earlier vow to make the nation a “pariah” for human rights violations, notably the murder of a Washington Post writer in 2018. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the prince ordered the killing.
Behind the scenes, the U.S. still provides support for the Saudi military in the Yemen war despite Biden’s earlier pledge to end that aid because of Saudi airstrikes that killed civilians.
“The policies are converging,” said Stephen Biegun, deputy secretary of state in the Trump administration and a National Security Council official under former President George W. Bush. “Continuity is the norm, even between presidents as different as Trump and Biden.”
Some former officials
and analysts praised the consistency, arguing that the Trump administration, despite the deep flaws of the commander in chief, properly diagnosed important challenges to U.S. interests and sought to deal with them.
Others are less sanguine. They say Biden’s choices have compounded problems with U.S. foreign policy and sometimes deviated from the president’s stated principles.
“As time has gone on, Biden has not lived up to a lot of his campaign promises,
and he has stuck with the status quo on the Middle East and on Asia,” said Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Both administrations have had to grapple with the question of how to maintain U.S. global dominance at a time when it appears in decline. China has ascended as a counterweight, and Russia has become bolder.
The Trump administration’s national security strategy reoriented foreign policy toward “great power competition” with China and Russia and away from prioritizing terrorist groups and other nonstate actors. The Biden administration has continued that drive, in part because of events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Biden White House has delayed the release of its own national security strategy, which had been expected early this year. Officials are rewriting it because of the war in Ukraine.
Biden has said that China is the greatest competitor of the United States — an assertion that Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated in a recent speech — while Russia is the biggest threat to U.S. security and alliances.
Some scholars say the tradition of continuity between administrations is a product of the conventional ideas and groupthink arising from the bipartisan foreign policy establishment in Washington, which Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to former President Barack Obama, derisively called “the Blob.”
But others argue that outside circumstances — including the behavior of foreign governments, the sentiments of U.S. voters and the influence of corporations — leave U.S. leaders with a narrow band of choices.
“There’s a lot of gravitational pull that brings the polices to the same place,” Biegun said. “It’s still the same issues. It’s still the same world. We still have largely the same tools with which to influence others to get to the same outcomes, and it’s still the same America.”