Throughout his 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to reinvigorate American democracy and strengthen relationships with democratic allies throughout the world. Contrary to his predecessor former President Donald Trump, who championed a unilateral approach to protecting American interests abroad, Biden advocated for the rebuilding of American alliances and the rejoining of multilateral agreements like the Paris Climate Accord and organizations like the World Health Organization, which he rejoined on his very first day in office.
Now, Biden faces a world that devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, he must address America’s involvement in what has come to be known as the “forever wars” in countries such as Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan, and he must deal with a new world order that has been ushered in by the exponential rise of China. Biden faces these unprecedented challenges while also leading a country that is more divided than ever before. A survey from NPR found that only one of every four republicans accepts the outcomes of the 2020 election after Trump’s false claims of voter fraud led to the January 6 Capitol insurrection. Though Biden campaigned on a message of unifying the country, he will have to walk a fine line between bipartisanship and fulfilling his progressive platform.
Many foreign policy experts were critical of Trump’s handling of international diplomacy and global security issues, particularly regarding relations with countries like North Korea and Iran. Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution wrote that, “President Trump recklessly risked war over North Korea in 2017.” Biden has been urged to change course on America’s actions and recommit to a hard-lined stance on international norms violators, while strengthening relationships with historical and cultural allies.
However, there are aspects of Trump’s foreign policy that have also been applauded, such as brokering peace deals between Arab states and Israel with the Abraham Accords. Hugh Hewitt of The Washington Post wrote that, “these breakthrough agreements between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco could mean security for Israel and a broader regional stability that has eluded the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.”
Both American politicians and the general public will be keeping a watchful eye on America’s role on the international stage over the next four years; however, as domestic politics is shaped by differences and division, so is foreign policy. Across the United States, the American people are not a monolith, and many have very different wishes for a Biden foreign policy agenda. These differences can also be found among USC’s diverse political student body.
As the United States now experiences a shift in Washington brought on by the Biden administration’s first 100 days in office, Trojans likewise hold different beliefs on how the U.S. will engage with the rest of the world.
Annenberg Media sat down with two USC student-run political organizations, the Trojan Democrats and the USC GOP, to get their insight on how Biden should handle America’s most pressing issues around the world.
On the topic of national security, both the Trojan Democrats and the USC GOP agree that China will be the biggest threat to American security in the foreseeable future. The rise of China has been in progress since former leader Deng Xiao Ping assumed power in 1978. Over the past 40 years, the world has seen China transform itself into the world’s second largest economy and one of the largest militaries in the world. With this economic and military power comes influence, which can be used in negotiating trade deals and forging military alliances among other things.
With the continued expansion of China, the country is expanding its leadership and role in key collective global issues like international trade and the fight against climate change. This leadership soared during a time where the United States assumed an increasingly narrow ‘America First’ agenda under Trump. Additionally, Chinese leadership on the world stage also came with an understanding that the country faced a shaky and concerning human rights record. China has come under fire for the internment camps in Xinjiang Province, where Uigher Muslims have been being detained in these so-called reeducation camps. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the acts being committed as “genocide.”
Trojan Democrats Communication Director Lee Schlosser said China is the United States’ biggest national security threat for two key reasons.
“First, the Chinese government does not share the values and priorities of America and our allies —freedom of speech, equality, bodily rights, etc — and secondly, they have the power and sphere of influence to spread their ideas,” said Schlosser, a freshman majoring in politics, philosophy and economics and international relations.
While our country is deeply divided on many issues, both USC student organizations agreed that Xi Jinping and China are vital issues that Joe Biden must tackle during his term.
“The scariest part about China is both the exportation and importation of media, or rather, the lack thereof,” the USC GOP spokesperson, speaking on behalf of the organization, told Annenberg Media. “The innumerable human rights violations that occur there and go without confrontation from the rest of the world is terrifying.”
While there is somewhat of a consensus among America’s citizens and politicians that the rise of China poses a threat to the security of U.S. interests, there is much debate in Congress regarding the actions needed to address these concerns. In 2020, Congress passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act by a House vote of 413-1, which sanctioned all individuals involved with the Uyghur Muslim camps in Northwest China. During his presidency, Trump used economic levers like tariffs as a means of slowing down China’s economic growth and making U.S. industries, such as the steel industry, more competitive at home.
The USC GOP said it would like for Biden to continue putting economic pressure on China, similar to the actions of the prior administration.
“President Trump’s policies made it harder for China to continue their economic development, and he began to shrink the United States’ dependence on China,” the organization said.
Only a few months into office, it is already clear that Biden and his cabinet are likely to take more measures outside of tariffs to address China’s human rights abuse and trade malpractice.
“President Donald Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China… though [Biden] did not agree with all his methods,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
Biden and his team are also likely to focus on the rebuilding of alliances with countries in Europe and the Asia Pacific. At the heart of Biden’s China policy is what he calls a Summit of Democracies that would seek to establish a clear alternative to Beijing’s rule. The hope is that by working together with other countries, the United States will increase its ability to levy powerful sanctions in regards to human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
But, the USC Democrats believe that in order to effectively address our issues abroad, we first must rebuild domestically amid the COVID-19 pandemic — and that tackling this public health crisis should be the key priority of the new administration.
“The first step to countering China is tackling our own domestic issues,” Schlosser said. “I believe that in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s rise to power, Republican members of Congress need to help pass a comprehensive COVID-19 relief package and strengthen our own economy.”
China and COVID-19 are far from the only challenges that Biden and his team will have to deal with early in his first term. Infamously dubbed as America’s “forever wars,” ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan will determine much of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East early this year. U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan first began following the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. This War on Terror continues to this day.
In 2020, Trump followed through on his promise to begin the end of the country’s “endless wars.” In September 2020, the Military Times reported that Marine General Frank McKenzie said troops in Iraq would be decreased from 5,000 to 3,000 and dropped down to 4,500 in Afghanistan. The USC GOP, as well as many Republican representatives, have applauded Trump on his decision to pull troops out of the Middle East.
“Pulling troops out of Syria and Afghanistan was absolutely the right move,” the USC GOP spokesperson said. “Although we may have good intentions, sending American troops into foreign countries can sometimes cause more harm than good.”
While many Democrats also believe that the United States should end its engagement in forever wars, they have also urged caution regarding early optimism on the subject, saying that the reemergence of terrorist organizations such as ISIS and the Taliban could potentially fill the power vacuum left by the departure of U.S. troops. This array of concerns was best demonstrated at the presidential debate among the Democratic candidates in January 2020, where some candidates expressed support for a complete pull out, while others were concerned about no clear exit plan in the Middle East.
Schlosser and the Trojan Democrats believe it is too soon to know whether or not bringing troops home is the right move.
“The goal is never to put American lives at risk, and everyone in the Trojan Democrats would love to see more troops come home,” Schlosser said. “That being said, the continuously-changing nature of conflict in the Middle East means that sometimes these decisions are not clear.”
Biden will have many big challenges ahead of him in the foreign policy realm over the next four years; however, his biggest challenge may be to bring together both Congress and the American people to formulate a robust foreign policy initiative that protects and promotes the interests of the American people.
While Republicans and Democrats, at every level — whether it be in Congress or on USC’s campus — have different hopes for this new plan, many can agree that U.S. engagement with the world amid new leadership in the White House will certainly see a change.