Donald Trump was supposed to be an aberration—a U.S. president whose foreign policy marked a sharp but temporary break from an internationalism that had defined seven decades of U.S. interactions with the world. He saw little value in alliances and spurned multilateral institutions. He eagerly withdrew from existing international agreements, such as the Paris climate accord and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and backed away from new ones, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He coddled autocrats and trained his ire on the United States’ democratic partners.
At first glance, the foreign policy of U.S. President Joe Biden could hardly be more different. He professes to value the United States’ traditional allies in Europe and Asia, celebrates multilateralism, and hails his administration’s commitment to a “rules-based international order.” He treats climate change as a serious threat and arms control as an essential tool. He sees the fight of our time as one between democracy and autocracy, pledging to convene what he is calling the Summit for Democracy to reestablish U.S. leadership in the democratic cause. “America is back,” he proclaimed shortly after taking office.
But the differences, meaningful as they are, obscure a deeper truth: there is far more continuity between the foreign policy of the current president and that of the former president than is typically recognized. Critical elements of this continuity arose even before Trump’s presidency, during the administration of Barack Obama, suggesting a longer-term development—a paradigm shift in the United States’ approach to the world. Beneath the apparent volatility, the outlines of a post–post–Cold War U.S. foreign policy are emerging.
The old foreign policy paradigm grew out of World War II and the Cold War, founded on the recognition that U.S. national security depended on more than just looking out for the country’s own narrowly defined concerns. Protecting and advancing U.S. interests, both domestic and international, required helping shepherd into existence and then sustaining an international system that, however imperfect, would buttress U.S. security and prosperity over the long term. Despite missteps (above all, the misguided attempt to reunify the Korean Peninsula by force and the war in Vietnam), the results largely validated these assumptions. The United States avoided a great-power war with the Soviet Union but still ended the Cold War on immensely favorable terms; U.S. GDP has increased eightfold in real terms and more than 90-fold in nominal terms since the end of World War II.
The new paradigm dismisses the core tenet of that approach: that the United States has a vital stake in a broader global system, one that at times demands undertaking difficult military interventions or putting aside immediate national preferences in favor of principles and arrangements that bring long-term benefits. The new consensus reflects not an across-the-board isolationism—after all, a hawkish approach to China is hardly isolationist—but rather the rejection of that internationalism. Today, notwithstanding Biden’s pledge “to help lead the world toward a more peaceful, prosperous future for all people,” the reality is that Americans want the benefits of international order without doing the hard work of building and maintaining it.
The hold of this emerging nationalist approach to the world is clear, accounting for the continuity across administrations as different as those of Obama, Trump, and Biden. Whether it can produce a foreign policy that advances American security, prosperity, and values is another matter entirely.
As with any paradigm shift, the one taking place now is possible only because of the failures—both real and perceived—of much of what came in the years before. The Cold War ended 30 years ago, and the United States emerged from that four-decade struggle with a degree of primacy that had few, if any, historical precedents. U.S. power was immense in both absolute and relative terms. It may have been an exaggeration to hail a “unipolar moment,” but not by much.
Historians who look back on these three decades will be rightly critical of a lot that the United States did, and did not do, with its position. There were some important accomplishments: the reunification of Germany within NATO, the disciplined handling of the 1990–91 Gulf War, the U.S.-led military and diplomatic effort to help end the war and slaughter in the former Yugoslavia, the fashioning of new trade agreements, the millions of lives saved thanks to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR.
But these achievements must be weighed against American failures, both of commission and omission. Washington managed little in the way of relationship and institution building, lacking the creativity and ambition that characterized U.S. foreign policy in the wake of World War II. It wasn’t considered much of a stretch when Dean Acheson, who was secretary of state during the Truman administration, titled his memoir Present at the Creation; no recent secretary of state could credibly include the word “creation” in his or her memoir. Despite its unmatched power, the United States did little to address the widening gap between global challenges and the institutions meant to contend with them.
The list of missteps is long. Washington largely failed to adapt to China’s rise. Its decision to enlarge NATO, in violation of Churchill’s dictum “In victory, magnanimity,” fanned Russian hostility without sufficiently modernizing or strengthening the alliance. Africa and Latin America received only intermittent, and even then limited, attention. Above all, the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were failures of both design and execution, resulting in costly overreach, part of a broader U.S. focus on the greater Middle East that defied strategic logic. The George W. Bush and Obama administrations dedicated a high percentage of their foreign policy focus to a region home to only about five percent of the world’s population, no great powers, and economies dependent on the wasting asset of fossil fuels.
The word that comes to mind in assessing U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War is “squander.” The United States missed its best chance to update the system that had successfully waged the Cold War for a new era defined by new challenges and new rivalries. Meanwhile, thanks to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American public largely soured on what was widely seen as a costly, failed foreign policy. Americans came to blame trade for the disappearance of millions of manufacturing jobs (despite new technologies being the main culprit), and growing inequality, exacerbated by both the 2008 financial crisis and the pandemic, fueled populist suspicion of elites. In the face of looming domestic problems, including decaying infrastructure and faltering public education, foreign involvement came to be viewed as a costly distraction. The stage for a new foreign policy paradigm was set.
The first and most prominent element of continuity between Trump and Biden is the centrality of great-power rivalry—above all, with China. Indeed, U.S. policy toward China has hardly changed since Biden became president: as Matthew Pottinger, a senior official on the National Security Council during the Trump administration who was the lead architect of that administration’s approach to China, rightly noted in these pages, “The Biden administration has largely maintained its predecessor’s policy.” Biden himself has spoken of “extreme competition” with China, and his coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs has proclaimed that “the period that was broadly described as engagement has come to an end.” This new posture reflects the pervasive disillusionment in the American foreign policy establishment with the results of efforts to integrate China into the world economy and the broader international system, along with heightened concern about how Beijing is using its growing strength abroad and engaging in repression at home.
The continuity between the two administrations can be seen in their approaches to Taiwan, the most likely flash point between the United States and China. Far from rescinding a policy introduced in the final weeks of the Trump administration that removed restrictions on official U.S. interactions with Taiwanese officials, the Biden administration has actively implemented it, publicizing high-level meetings between U.S. officials and their Taiwanese counterparts. Just as the Trump administration worked to improve U.S.-Taiwanese ties, the Biden administration has repeatedly stressed its “rock solid” support for Taiwan and has inserted language emphasizing the importance of cross-strait stability into joint statements not just with Asian allies, such as Australia, Japan, and South Korea, but also with global bodies, such as the G-7.
The continuity goes beyond Taiwan. The Biden administration has kept in place Trump-era tariffs and export controls and is reportedly looking into launching an investigation into China’s large-scale industrial subsidies. It has doubled down on criticism of China’s refusal to allow an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and given credence to the possibility that the new coronavirus leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Like its predecessor, it has called Beijing’s repression of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang a “genocide” and denounced its violation of the “one country, two systems” principle in Hong Kong. It has strengthened efforts to upgrade the Quad, a dialogue meant to enhance cooperation among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, and launched a complementary strategic initiative with Australia and the United Kingdom. It has also continued to use the term “Indo-Pacific,” first brought into common official usage by the Trump administration.
To be sure, there are differences in the Biden administration’s approach in some important areas, including a focus on finding ways to cooperate on climate change, the decision to refrain from echoing the call by Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo for regime change in Beijing, and an effort to build a common stance with allies. Yet the view that China is the United States’ chief competitor and even adversary has become widespread and ingrained, and the similarities in the two administrations’ approaches far outweigh any differences.
Much the same can be said of the administrations’ policies toward the United States’ other great-power competitor. Since Biden took over, U.S. policy toward Russia has changed little in substance. Gone is Trump’s inexplicable admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. But whatever Trump’s personal regard for Putin, the Trump administration’s posture toward Russia was in fact fairly tough. It introduced new sanctions, closed Russian consulates in the United States, and enhanced and expanded U.S. military support to Ukraine—all of which has continued under Biden. The common view between the two administrations seems to be that U.S. policy toward Russia should mostly consist of damage limitation—preventing tensions, whether in Europe or in cyberspace, from deteriorating into a crisis. Even Biden’s willingness to extend U.S.-Russian arms control pacts and start “strategic stability” talks is mostly about preventing additional erosion, not making further progress. The days of seeking a “reset” with Moscow are long gone.
Accompanying this focus on great powers is a shared embrace of American nationalism. The Trump administration eagerly adopted the slogan and idea of “America first,” despite the label’s origins in a strand of isolationism tinged with sympathy for Nazi Germany. The Biden administration is less overt in its nationalism, but its mantra of “a foreign policy for the middle class” reflects some similar inclinations.
“America first” tendencies also characterized the Biden administration’s initial response to COVID-19. U.S. exports of vaccines were limited and delayed even as domestic supply far exceeded demand, and there has been only a modest effort to expand manufacturing capacity to allow for greater exports. This domestic focus was shortsighted, as highly contagious variants were able to emerge in other parts of the world before coming to do immense damage in the United States. It also forfeited an opportunity to cultivate goodwill internationally by demonstrating the superiority of American technology and generosity in the face of Chinese and Russian vaccine diplomacy.