The Nationalist and Populist Challenge to Foreign Policy

Calls to accelerate new foreign policy initiatives are premature.  The global dynamics of the Trump legacy remain a serious constraint for President Biden’s agenda.

P. Michael McKinley
March 30, 2021

Two months into his administration, President Biden is being challenged to be bolder on foreign policy.  On March 3, however, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made clear that an “in-depth review of national security strategy” could take months and that “we’re not simply picking up where we left off, as if the past four years didn’t happen.”  

The caution is warranted.  The domestic and international enabling environment that allowed former President Trump to challenge long-standing U.S. policies on trade, national security, and multilateralism is still very much with us and is a serious complicating factor for his successor.   

This wider, international context is obscured by the tendency to personalize the policies of the Trump administration.  His presidency can more accurately be viewed as the American manifestation of the wave of populism and nationalism that continues to dominate a large part of political opinion in our country, authoritarian Russia and China, democratic Brazil, India, and the United Kingdom, and the world.  

This broader landscape, which now includes a United States coming to terms with the threat to its democracy represented by the insurrection on January 6, will influence how quickly the Biden administration can change course on foreign policy.  

The Context of Trump’s Policies

On the economic front, the Trump administration rode the wave of a weakening domestic and international commitment to free trade to pursue protectionist economic objectives. Trump renegotiated agreements with South Korea (KORUS) and Mexico and Canada (USMCA) that were presented domestically as leveling access to foreign markets for goods produced by U.S. firms and workers. He forged a sanctions-based approach to China with domestic support that reflected a growing concern about China as a security, economic, and political challenge.

Trump used the same nationalist prism to make burden-sharing the central tenet of our security relationship with NATO, South Korea, and elsewhere. His administration’s actions reflected a widely shared view in Congress and his cabinet that the United States was overextended and that our allies did not do enough for themselves. He also played to a broader national consensus that it was time to reduce U.S. military involvement in the forever conflicts overseas, which continued to drain resources and cost American lives. Burden sharing did improve, and our involvement in Syria, Somalia, and Iraq was reduced. The agreement between the United States and the Taliban appeared to allow for a defined exit strategy from Afghanistan. The diplomatic breakthroughs between Israel and Arab states lowered tensions in the broader Middle East.

The Trump administration’s abdication of multilateralism also had domestic and international support. The withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran was warmly welcomed domestically by those who had originally opposed the accord. The muted international response to the abrogation of the security and nuclear treaties with Russia reflected U.S. and NATO opinions that Russia had violated its own commitments. Republican Congressional leaders and opinion-makers critical to the UN and multilateral agreements, like the Paris Climate Accord,  supported the withdrawals from international institutions and accords. Trump’s fixation on the border with Mexico mirrored widespread concern inside the United States  and Europe on controlling migration. 

It is easier to see the scale of the Biden administration’s challenges if Trump’s foreign policy is seen in this broader light. He had a domestic constituency that backed his agenda and international leaders happy to play along if it helped them. It is in this world the Biden administration must now navigate as it seeks to reset foreign policy. It is a world that strongly conditions policy options on economic engagement, national security, multilateralism, and China. 

The Lasting Legacy

Economically, the negative legacy is glaring. The decision to drop the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a strategic counterweight to China’s expansion, shook our East Asian allies’ confidence and has led to alternative regional groupings that exclude the United States. Such regional groupings include a successor to the TPP, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and the recently concluded Regional and Comprehensive Economic Partnership with China. The EU has also concluded a bilateral trade agreement with China. The Trump administration not only failed to prevent China from expanding its economic ties, it fundamentally misplayed international support. European and Asian leaders now look warily at the growing rhetorical, economic, diplomatic, and security confrontation between China and the United States. 

On the security front, Trump’s confrontational approach to burden-sharing with NATO, Japan, and South Korea has damaged our reputation as a reliable defense partner at a moment when China’s emergence as a strategic competitor requires a coordinated response from allies. Our friends and partners from Europe to East Asia and the Middle East have already factored in weaker security ties to the United States, which will hurt the chances of achieving coordination.  

The efforts to withdraw from the forever conflicts also had mixed results. The pressure to isolate Iran and diminish its influence in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen have not succeeded. The withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement has left us with less influence among our closest allies, who still support it. The U.S. presence in a still volatile Iraq is diminishing. The plight of Palestinians still requires a solution. The accelerated departure schedule from Afghanistan has raised serious questions about whether the door has been opened for the return of the Taliban. Our growing tensions with China have lessened Beijing’s inclination to cooperate on the North Korean nuclear threat and increased concerns among our allies about broader implications for stability in Asia.  

Meanwhile, the range of withdrawals from multilateral institutions has diminished influence on important matters such as climate change, human rights, nuclear proliferation, global trade rules, and response to COVID-19. 

Moving Forward

The incoming Biden administration has thought through a broad range of initiatives to rebuild alliances, reengage multilaterally, and meet transnational challenges. In its first days, the new administration rejoined the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization, toughened our policy towards Russia, and ended our support to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen. President Biden is reaffirming American leadership and values and adapting engagement to the landscape impacted by his predecessor. Sometimes the limits are painfully clear, as in the decision not to sanction Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed Bin Salman for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the ongoing debate over whether to pull troops from Afghanistan on May 1, and the migration crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The challenge is now almost existential and is not simply about reversing individual policy decisions taken by Trump. The large part of the world governed by authoritarian or populist leaders is unlikely to change policies, especially after four years of a United States that seemed to share their views. European allies are also adopting a wait-and-see mode on whether Biden can make lasting changes given an almost evenly divided U.S. Congress.

The shambles of the January 6 insurrection and the spectacle of the majority of the Republican congressional caucus voting against certifying the presidential election results have highlighted our own democratic vulnerabilities. The opposition to multilateralism inside the Republican party remains strong. The specter of Trump’s foreign policy legacy is not going to simply disappear. February’s Conservative Political Action Conference made that clear.   

Critically, the United States is also less influential and more isolated than four years ago. There are challenges to our leadership and competing visions in a rapidly transforming world and not in our favor.

In this context, President Biden’s measured approach in his first few weeks seems just right. His unequivocal “America is back” speech, combined with steps to rejoin international institutions and agreements. The reaffirmations of our critical security alliances are strong foundations for the administration’s strategic review of the broader challenges the United States faces. The pushback on the negative legacy and continuing sway of populist and nationalist actors, domestically and internationally, requires nothing less.

P. Michael McKinley is a former career diplomat and U.S. Ambassador to Peru, Colombia, Brazil, and Afghanistan. He also served as senior adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State.