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Comparing Biden and Trump on the global stage

In a second term for President Biden or Trump, there's no question the next commander in chief will be faced with difficult choices as the global landscape evolves.
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Posted at 12:25 PM, Jun 07, 2024

The presidential election is poised to shape how the U.S. responds to significant global conflicts — from China to Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

On the campaign trail, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have touted their own records and highlighted their stark differences.

"Madeleine Albright was right. We are the essential nation. If we don't stand up, who does? Who does? If we don't unite the world, who can in our interest?" Biden said at a campaign reception in May.

President Biden has emphasized democratic values and the U.S.'s global leadership. He's sought to strengthen U.S. alliances, particularly in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. However, the continuing wars in Ukraine and Gaza have dominated his foreign policy agenda and forced it to evolve.

"Russia would have never attacked Ukraine if I were president — never, not even possible. And Israel wouldn't have happened, the Oct. 7 would have never happened," said Trump at a campaign rally in May.

Trump blames Biden's leadership and claims conflicts only happened because he wasn't president. In office, Trump rattled the international organizations and agreements that have been part of the world order for generations, including NATO and the United Nations.

There's a stark difference between how President Biden and Trump view America's relationships, according to Spencer Bakich, a senior fellow with the University of Virginia's Miller Center and professor at the Virginia Military Institute.

"Whereas Biden sees the principal challenge to the United States as an autocratic axis of resistance or obstruction to the so-called liberal international order, he has attempted to stitch together sister democracies in an attempt to push back against authoritarian creep around the world. The Trump administration has, certainly in 2016 through 2020, sought to undermine those very alliances, those very partnerships," Bakich said.

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President Biden has backed NATO's expansion and rallied international aid for Ukraine in the face of Russia's invasion, even amid some Republican opposition at home as well as critiques that aid hasn't been sent expeditiously enough.

In contrast, Trump called on European countries to spend more and threw into question continued support for NATO, but recently held back on forceful opposition to continued Ukraine aid. He has raised concerns as he has expressed admiration for Russia's Vladimir Putin and North Korea's Kim Jong-un, both of whom he met with during his presidency.

"You know, they always say he was very nice to Russia. No, I was the worst to Russia. But I got along with Putin, we got along. It's nice to get along with somebody that has a nuclear capability, right," Trump said at one of his rallies.

"We'll never forget the, his love letters to Kim Jong-un of North Korea and his admiration for Putin. He talks about how smart Putin is and how if he wants to move into Ukraine or anywhere else, have at it if they're not doing enough for us," President Biden said in April at a campaign event in New York.

On the Middle East, President Biden's initial absolute support for Israel in its war against Hamas, in response to Hamas' Oct. 7 attack, has given way to criticism over Gaza. The administration's warnings against a major ground operation in Rafah, including a pause in a shipment of bombs, did not prevent Israelis from using American bombs that killed civilians.

President Biden still backs an eventual two-state solution as he's pushed for a cease-fire and hostage release deal.

"I'm working to bring the region together. I'm working to build a lasting, durable peace. Because the question is, as you see what's going on in Israel today: What after? What after Hamas? What happens then? What happens in Gaza? What rights do the Palestinian people have? I'm working to make sure we finally get a two-state solution," President Biden said.

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The administration has undertaken significant diplomatic efforts as it has publicly balanced military support for Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government with urging more action to protect civilians. Those efforts are taking place while trying to keep the conflict from widening in the Middle East in the face of attacks from Iran and its proxies.

Meanwhile, under the Trump administration, the former president touted the U.S.'s relationship with Israel. He recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and moved the U.S. embassy there.

Trump also celebrated the normalization of relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain under the Abraham Accords.

The former president's Middle East policy also led to the U.S. pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal.

Amid conflict in the Middle East, Trump more recently told Time he thought a two-state solution would be "tough" and has urged Israel to finish the war.

"What I said very plainly is get it over with, and let's get back to peace and stop killing people. And that's a very simple statement. Get it over with. They've got to finish what they finish. They have to get it done. Get it over with, and get it over with fast because we have to, you have to get back to normalcy and peace," Trump told radio host Hugh Hewitt in an interview in April.

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Understanding the unpredictability of the situation in Gaza, Bakich says there is a difference in how each leader approaches the conflict.

"The difference, I think, between the Biden administration's future approach and the Trump administration's future approach, would be some sort of sensitivity to the Palestinian cause and appreciation for the fact that Israel's military operations are costing tens of thousands of civilian lives," he said. "I think probably the Biden administration is much more sensitive to that and understands not only the moral predicament that Israel and the United States find themselves in, but also the strategic predicament."

Meanwhile, both candidates have had to manage competition and confrontation with China, economically and militarily.

Relations between the U.S. and China reached a low point after the discovery of a Chinese spy balloon over the U.S. The Biden administration undertook significant diplomatic outreach to restore communication, culminating in a summit with Biden and Xi Jinping. At the same time, President Biden has sought to strengthen relations in the Indo-Pacific, forming groups like AUKUS and hosting a summit at Camp David with the leaders of Japan and South Korea.

Trump visited China for a state visit early on in his administration.

"The singular focus on China was multifaceted. It was an attempt to increase the presence of the United States military in the Indo-Pacific. And it was also in the trade space where the president immediately slapped a significant number, significant percentage of tariffs on a large number of goods coming from China," Bakich said of the Trump administration.

Trump implemented significant tariffs on Chinese goods, which the Biden administration also pursued. While Biden recently raised tariffs on electric vehicles and chips from China, Trump has called for it to be extended to more vehicles.

"With respect to China, I suspect that we would see a return to the hard-edged, highly competitive trade and military strategy that the Trump administration left off with in 2020," Bakich said.

Bakich indicated Trump's strategy could be similar to his first term, while President Biden could pursue a cohesive strategy to confront multiple fronts.

"I think probably what you would see is a more concerted effort to link the three major theaters into a more cohesive, hopefully more cohesive, conceptual, grand strategic approach. That's a very, very difficult task; understanding precisely how China, Russia and the Middle East interact with one another is difficult enough. And the problem there is that you don't want to create a monolithic conception of a tightly knit axis against the United States," he said.

In a second term for President Biden or Trump, there's no question the next commander in chief will be faced with difficult choices as the global landscape evolves.