AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
On Tuesday, Voice of America reporter Patsy Widakuswara asked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki a seemingly simple enough question: “What does the administration consider to be your biggest achievement in foreign policy this year?” It was the usual type of softball question often asked by the left-leaning White House press corps, but after stuttering for a moment, Psaki deflected, saying, “I want to talk to the president about it.”
It was a telling episode for an administration that has, to put it mildly, struggled on the foreign policy front in its first year. In particular, Biden’s failures are stark when compared to the historic successes seen under the Trump administration.
Instead, with the memory of COVID dominating the last year of his presidency and a hostile media and foreign policy establishment, it is often overlooked exactly how much Donald Trump accomplished during his term of office. Few four-year periods are so momentous, and it is only after seeing what has happened in the 11 months since that the scale of many of the accomplishments of those years become clear–not to mention how the charges against Trump of pettiness and prioritizing domestic political vendettas look absurd when compared to a Biden Administration that has applied exactly that model to international affairs.
Let’s take a brief look, shall we? In Trump’s four years on the international stage, he achieved:
- A Renegotiated trade deal with Canada and Mexico (USMCA)
- Four years of peace and quiet between Ukraine and Russia
- Normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo
- The Abraham Accords between Israel, Sudan, UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco
- A Victorious trade war with China that did NOT lead to any sort of threats to invade Taiwan
- Otherwise mobilizing the U.S. government and American partners to respond to China
- The Destruction of ISIS and eradication of numerous high-ranking terrorist leaders
- Elimination of the Iran Deal
- Development of COVID vaccines and therapeutics that have saved millions of lives around the world
It is quite a list, and it appears all the more impressive considering Joe Biden’s first year in office. Joe Biden’s major foreign policy move has been a catastrophe, namely the pullout from Afghanistan, which allowed for the Taliban to overrun the country. On a wider level, the number of things that have gone wrong around the world should highlight exactly how many things Donald Trump did not get credit for, simply because his achievement was ensuring that wars did not break out, countries were not invaded, governments were not overthrown, and crises did not occur.
Some examples speak for themselves. Democrats and the media mocked Donald Trump for allegedly not succeeding in building some sort of modern-day Great Wall of China along the United States-Mexico border. But the “wall” was never a vanity project. It was a policy vision which involved multiple approaches ranging from actual physical construction, hundreds of miles of which were indeed completed, to the renegotiated NAFTA agreement, to reform of asylum policy, to security cooperation with Mexico and Central American states that drastically reduced illegal immigration. The policy succeeded because it was not premised on merely building a steel structure to keep migrants from entering the U.S., but by deterring them from coming in the first place by setting up multiple lines of security, not just on the U.S. border but on Mexico’s southern border as well, and by making clear that there was nothing waiting for them if they did manage to arrive.
Joe Biden, by disassembling the political agreements with the Mexican and Central American governments, effectively opened the border, while rhetorically his pledge to welcome migrants psychologically ended Trump’s deterrence. At that point, all that was left was actual U.S. border security, itself undermined by the stop to wall construction and by political attacks on border agents. The result is the crisis we see today.
Joe Biden applied the same approach in Eastern Europe, which is why he is facing another crisis that did not occur under Donald Trump: a threatened Russian invasion of Ukraine. Donald Trump received over-the-top criticism, open abuse and was subject to constant conspiracy theories when it came to U.S.-Russian relations. He was even impeached for supposedly holding up aid to Ukraine by House Democrats. Yet during Donald Trump’s entire tenure, Russia was remarkably quiet. There was no invasion of Ukraine, and the Donbass was largely calm. The mixture of rhetorical respect for Putin and Russia, with a firm refusal to make substantive concessions that would look like appeasement, allowed Trump to avoid either provoking Russia or encouraging Putin to try his hand. Because the U.S. calculatingly played to Putin’s ego for the Russian leader’s domestic political purposes, Putin had no need to pick fights. And the U.S. made clear that if he did, there would be hell to pay.
By contrast, Joe Biden has openly provoked and insulted Putin and Russia while giving no indication that he would do anything if Russia acted. In the case of Ukraine, Biden seems to have pressed the Ukrainians to launch a wide-ranging purge of anyone seen as having worked with Donald Trump, likely as payback for attacks on Hunter Biden during the 2020 election, and the effect was that Ukraine shut down major Russian language media and drove Pro-Russian politicians into exile. If Biden had also stationed troops in Ukraine or done this as part of some sort of wider strategy, it might have made sense, but it appears to have been petty revenge. The result has been to cause the victims of this purge to appeal to Putin for help while at the same time encouraging Putin to think if he “helped” them, Biden would do little or nothing.
In Asia, Biden and the D.C. foreign policy establishment seem in the grip of total panic about the security of Taiwan. Donald Trump never compromised on Taiwan’s security or its autonomy, but it is worth noting that for all of the criticism of Donald Trump for being anti-China – the tariffs which Democrats alleged qualified as a “trade war,” calling out the Chinese for their role in the spread of COVID, and defending Hong Kong – China never seriously threatened Taiwan while Trump was President. Chinese military maneuvers and threats to invade Taiwan only began under Joe Biden. The implication is again that Joe Biden’s mixture of provocation and appeasement is provoking conflict – a conflict the U.S. may lose – where Trump’s mixture of firmness with a clear willingness to work with leaders we may not have liked did in fact keep the peace.
Those are just a few high-profile places. But they are not the only ones. North Korea has resumed its menacing behavior, and Biden seems to have no idea what a successful approach might look like. In Europe, Trump was attacked for being unpopular in the West, anti-NATO, and Pro-Russian. Yet both the European Union and NATO functioned well under Trump, and American partners finally began to pull their weight financially. Brexit occurred before Trump was elected, and under his presidency, the U.K. and E.U. reached not one but two deals, and Northern Ireland was quiet. Under the “Irish” Joe Biden, Northern Ireland has erupted into sectarian riots, Britain and France have come close to “war” over fishing rights, Poland faces sanctions from the E.U. while receiving little support against hybrid warfare from Belarus, and Bosnia is threatening a breakup that would likely trigger an outbreak of war. Even Kosovo and Serbia, the leaders of which Trump hosted at the White House in September of 2020, were threatening war exactly one year later.
In the rest of the world, things are bad, so bad almost no one in the American media even bothers to keep track. The governments of both Myanmar and Sudan were overthrown by the military, in the former case with brutal killings of students and other Pro-Democracy activists. Trump had managed to secure a peace deal between Sudan and Israel and removed Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in October of 2020, conditional on the new civilian government remaining in power. Biden seems to have forgotten that commitment or lost interest, as no action was taken when the army seized power. Nor was much action taken when an agreement for new elections that had ended seven years of civil war in Libya was abandoned by one of the parties. In the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, once the fastest growing economy in Africa, has fallen into a brutal civil war, with Chinese, Turkish, and UAE drones dueling in the skies, while America is nowhere to be seen. Although Joe Biden has threatened economic sanctions if the fighting does not cease, his demand was ignored by Chinese drone operators.
It would be easy to blame this all on the loss of American prestige following the withdrawal from Afghanistan. That symbolic defeat was important and acted as a psychological shock that encouraged America’s enemies and undermined the faith of our allies. But there is as much correlation as causation here. It might be more accurate to say that the same flaws in decision-making, defective decision-makers, and general indifference to anything which does not personally interest Joe Biden’s inner circle are causing a similar unraveling everywhere.
Donald Trump was also accused, especially by aides of Mattis and Tillerson, of not understanding the importance of the network of alliances or America’s complex web of obligations around the world. But it is the Biden team that seems unable to grasp the delicacy of political balances within regions or countries and is prone to breaking them. Donald Trump was impeached for trying to take an interest in Ukrainian internal politics and anti-corruption efforts. The Biden team reduced all Ukrainian politics to a binary conflict between “Pro-Russian” forces, namely anyone who worked with Donald Trump or said mean things about Hunter Biden, and Pro-Western forces, namely anyone willing to go after the former. The result was to shatter the balance. The same approach was brought to the southern border. The deals made with Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador were negotiated by Donald Trump, so by definition, they had to be “bad deals” and the leaders of those countries had to be “bad leaders” by virtue of having worked with Trump. The result was again to apply the wrecking ball. The deals with Sudan, Kosovo, and Serbia were all suspect. After all, those leaders had “helped Donald Trump” by having the nerve to make peace during an American election year.
This total lack of interest in any possibility that something other than U.S. domestic politics could matter to foreign governments or populations, combined with an obsessive desire for payback for the 2020 campaign (call it the January 6th-ization of foreign policy), appears to be the one abiding principle of the Biden team. The result has been aggression and attacks on anyone seen as Pro-Trump. Total indifference to anything or anyone else. And the consequences have been devastating.
The Trump administration’s record was–contrary to conventional wisdom among elites–incredibly successful, and would have been a tough act to follow for any administration. It is doubtful, given their performance in other fields, that the Biden administration could ever have done so. But instead of trying, they have done the opposite, with the result that after just one year, the world is on fire.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.