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2020 Election: The Candidates on Foreign Policy

Executive Summary

With the presidential election taking place shortly, candidates Biden and Trump are doubling down on their policy positions. Even though most of the current focus is on combating COVID-19, important foreign policy decisions by President Trump are being executed with varied responses from both sides of the aisle, bringing to debate American foreign policy priorities. With natural disasters and epidemic disease transpiring at an intensifying rate, international cooperation is imperative, and the United States must leverage its diplomatic power to coordinate and ameliorate issues that threaten international security and the maintenance of peace and stability. This memo outlines various foreign policy priorities each administration may pursue.

Diplomacy: An Overview


The current president is known for reversing decades-long international agreements and partnerships. On his first day in office, Trump removed the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational trade agreement composed of countries such as Japan, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Vietnam, Peru, and Chile. He argued that trade agreements should only be negotiated with individual allies. In 2017, he withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement and later backed out of the Iran Nuclear Deal.

In his first year of office, he withdrew the United States from the UN Global Compact for Migration, citing that it “is not compatible with US sovereignty” and that the United States will decide on its migration policy. In early 2019, Trump debated pulling out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an action that would effectively destroy the military agreement known for deterring Russian aggression.

Trump has also undermined international agreements and bodies by criticizing and verbally attacking them. He has widely criticized the International Criminal Court (ICC), a body that the United States is not partied to, amid their new investigation into alleged war crimes committed by the United States in Afghanistan. In September of 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced sanctions against top ICC prosecutor Bensouda over the exploration.

If reelected in November, Trump will continue to threaten the autonomy and authority of international agreements, commonly arguing that other countries are not contributing enough or the treaty is hurting Americans. His administration has followed an overall trend toward isolationism by crafting a populist and nationalist appeal to supporters.


The former vice president supports a “Summit for Democracy” to convene all democratic nations to collaborate and discuss three key common issues: fighting corruption, defending against rising authoritarianism, and advancing human rights. With this policy stance, he largely aims to reinstate weakened or broken relationships with allies.

Comprehensively, if elected in November, Biden will recommit to alliances and agreements Trump has withdrawn from. He claims he will reaffirm support for NATO and rejoin the Iran Nuclear Deal and Paris Climate Agreement. Biden also wants to strengthen relationships that may have been weakened with Australia, Israel, Japan, and South Korea.



Trump has championed his toughness on China as one of his administration's largest successes. He argues that China commits various economic abuses: intellectual property theft, currency manipulation, export subsidies, and economic espionage. Further, he claims that jobs are being taken from American workers due to manufacturing companies moving to China as a large bilateral trade deficit places pressure on American markets.


While Biden agrees with Trump that China is breaking international trade rules and stealing intellectual property, the former vice president disputes Trump’s position as being for purely economic reasons. He condemns China’s human rights record and the new national security law imposed on Hong Kong that aims to criminalize protesters and activists, and threatens to impose sanctions on Chinese officials as a result if China attempts to silence United States citizens and companies through this law. Biden also denounced Trump’s tariffs on China as a solution to countering China’s rising power, and instead asserted a need for targeted retaliation through existing trade laws and cooperation with allies. To do this, he will increase ties with Australia, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and expand naval presence to put pressure on China.



The Trump administration's hawkish stance on counterterrorism has received both applause and criticism. He supports expanding drone strikes in the Middle East and Africa region, and in 2019 reversed an Obama-era requirement to publicly report civilian casualties caused by these attacks. The excessive number of civilian casualties has been a point of scrutiny for his predecessor.

Trump has swiftly defended the use of waterboarding, a form of torture, and claims it “absolutely works”. The use of torture was banned by a Senate vote in 2015 that reaffirmed Obama’s 2009 similar executive order. Trump is also a supporter of Guantanamo Bay and signed an executive order in 2018 to keep the prison open. It is unclear what policy actions the President may take to pursue the use of such practices, however.

In early 2020, Trump approved an airstrike in Baghdad that targeted and killed Iranian General Qasam Soleimani who was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members.” A few months prior, Trump ordered a military raid in Syria which resulted in the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader. The president championed the perceived victory of Soleimani’s death, naming him a “monster”, and demonstrating his strict stance against terrorists.


The former vice president continues to uphold his “counterterrorism plus” strategy that was used during the Obama administration and consisted of small groups of US special forces with airstrikes rather than deploying a multitude of troops on the ground. This policy includes unmanned drone strikes and remains highly controversial. His primary goal is to ensure al-Qaeda and ISIS do not regain power.

Biden also looks to restructure the funding of the American military. He argues that too much money is going towards the traditional military, and the US needs to start investing in space and cyberspace warfare to maintain primacy.

The Middle East


President Trump has affirmed strong support for Israel, in favor of a one-state solution. As a symbol of this alliance, he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem in 2017, causing widespread criticism. The Trump administration assisted in a peace deal in August between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, making the UAE the third Arab state to normalize ties with Israel.

One of his most controversial attributes as president is his strong support for Saudi Arabia, despite their disastrous human rights record and murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In April 2019, he vetoed a bill to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, a conflict that has resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis. In July 2019, Trump blocked a bipartisan bill that would end arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Trump has also reversed previous decisions and accomplishments within the Middle East. In 2018, he withdrew the United States from the Iran Nuclear Deal, an agreement negotiated under Obama, and reimposed sanctions. In 2019, he removed all American troops from northern Syria. The move abandoned the Kurds, a key ally in the fight against ISIS and a perceived enemy of Turkey, resulting in Turkey invading Syria and further exacerbating the conflict.


Former Vice President Joe Biden labels himself as a strong supporter of Israel but also promises to apply pressure on Netanyahu’s government to resolve existing conflicts. Unlike Trump, Biden supports a two-state solution and contends that Israel must stop settlements and eliminate plans to annex the West Bank. However, he supports keeping the US embassy in Jerusalem.

If elected, Biden will reassess the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia and end arms sales. Biden condemns the removal of troops from Syria and abandonment of the Kurds, describing it as “the most shameful thing any president has done in modern history in terms of foreign policy.” As vice president, Biden was previously skeptical of sending troops into Syria but now claims that the US must use military force against events of genocide and chemical weapon use, pointing to a possible increased presence in Syria under a Biden administration. However, Biden wants to end “forever wars” in Afghanistan and the Middle East by negotiations, removing troops, and leaving a small number of special forces for counterterrorism missions.



The incumbent president has been very stark on his immigration policies. In 2017, he banned all Muslims from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen from entering the country. Another travel ban proposed in early 2020 blocked further travel of people from Nigeria, Eritrea, Myanmar, and Kyrgyzstan. He has received criticism from Democrats, calling his actions Islamophobic and xenophobic.

In 2018, with the influx of asylum seekers from Central and South America, the Trump administration enacted a zero-tolerance policy that led to massive detentions and family separations. The administration refused entry for asylum seekers, an action that is illegal within US and international law. To curb migration, Trump declared a national emergency in 2019 to divert funds to build a border wall.

To restrain one flow of immigrants, the Trump administration has lowered the cap on the number of refugees allowed to be accepted each year. Since taking office, the limit has been increasingly restricted, with the decrease from 2016 to 2020 totaling 77%. However, the Trump administration has often accepted far lower than the imposed limit. In 2016, the Obama administration set the ceiling to 85,000 and accepted 84,995 refugees; four years later, the Trump administration limited resettlement to 18,000, but has only accepted 6,674. COVID-19 has impacted refugee admissions, but the same trend was true in 2018 with a ceiling of 45,000 and the admission of 22,491 refugees.

The administration has also proposed switching to a merit-based immigration system, a shift from the current structure based on family reunification. This change would prioritize highly-skilled immigrants that possess desirable labor-market attributes. Trump argues this plan “puts jobs, wages, and safety of American workers first.”

President Trump attempted to remove the Obama DACA program that protects DREAMers from deportation. These DREAMers were brought to the United States by their family at a young age, and under the Obama policy, were given temporary protected status if they met a few requirements such as graduating from high school. In June 2020, the Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration’s plan to end the program. As of now, Trump has not proposed or supported giving citizenship to DACA recipients.


Joe Biden holds a more moderate stance on immigration. He condemns and harshly opposes the Muslim ban, border wall, separation policies at the border, and restriction of refugees and asylum seekers. Biden argues that the United States should increase capabilities and screenings at points of entry instead of building a border wall. Further, he wants to strengthen the asylum process and restore the temporary protected status (TPS) immigration program for El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, Venezuela, and a few other countries.

As a strong supporter of the DACA program, Biden aims to immediately grant DREAMers citizenship if he is elected to office.



Russia has arguably been one of Trump’s most complicated allies throughout his time in office. After the 2016 election, his administration increased relations with Russia despite the findings of election interference. Trump withdrew the US from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 2019 after accusing the state of violating the agreement. However, Trump remains hopeful for a new arms control agreement with Russia.

In 2014, Russia was kicked out of the G8, now the G7, after annexing Crimea. This summer, Trump attempted to invite Putin back into the group, but the move was harshly opposed by Canada and the UK.

Trump has foreign policy positions for Russia listed on his campaign website. These propositions include countering Russian interference by sanctions on Russian election hackers, criminal charges for Russian intelligence officers, and the expulsion of Russian diplomats.


Presidential candidate Joe Biden holds a stern perspective on Putin and Russia. He argues that Putin is “assaulting the foundations of Western democracy”, citing his motivations to weaken NATO, divide the European Union, and interfere in US elections.

To hold Putin accountable, Biden calls for increased investment in NATO and the deploying of additional troops to Eastern Europe to deter Russian aggression. Similarly, military presence would be increased under the Biden administration in Ukraine for anti-corruption measures by the Kremlin.

If elected, Biden claims he will push for a new arms control agreement and negotiate for an extension of the START treaty. The START treaty’s purpose is to reduce the stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Latin America & Venezuela


The Trump administration disputed the Venezuelan election, labeling the Maduro regime as a “dictatorship,” and recognizing opposition leader Guaidó as the rightful president. Trump has described the Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan regimes as “corrupt, communist, and socialist.” Previously in 2017, Trump announced that he would not rule out military action to overthrow the Maduro government and increased sanctions on the country.

In a massive shift, Trump reversed the Obama administration's steps to normalize relations with Cuba by imposing sanctions and removing modes of travel including cruise ships, flights (except to Havana), and educational exchanges. The Trump administration also points to Cuba’s ties with the Venezuelan socialist regime and correlated human rights abuses for the reversal in diplomatic ties.


Joe Biden agrees with Trump that Guaidó should be the recognized president and Maduro should step down. Instead of taking a hawkish approach to overthrowing the dictator, Biden proposes increased sanctions on Venezuela and their supporters and distributing additional aid to help with the refugee crisis. Biden has also condemned Trump’s refusal to allow more Venezuelan refugees in, pointing to a more flexible Venezuelan refugee policy in a Biden administration.

Biden champions his successes in Central and South America under the Obama presidency. He boasts the advancements in diplomatic ties with Cuba and trade deals with Colombia and Panama. Biden led the Obama administration's effort and created a $750 million aid package for plans such as the Northern Triangle’s Alliance for Prosperity. The assistance was allocated toward developmental assistance, narcotics control, economic support and opportunity, military training, and global health.


With the prevalence of transnational issues such as pandemics, climate change, and migration, the next administration must have an effective foreign policy platform to respond to these challenges. Whether voters decide to continue with a Trump administration or divert to supporting Biden, international cooperation is at the forefront of the US foreign policy positions. Critically evaluating each candidate's platforms provides a synopsis of where discrepancies occur and how the United States will position themselves in the following years.


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