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Trump’s legacy on foreign policy, and the challenges facing Biden

During the early days of the 2016 campaign trail, then-candidate Donald Trump assured supporters he would pursue an "America First" approach to foreign policy. But what legacy will President Trump leave behind, and what are the challenges for President-elect Biden? Judy Woodruff spoke with four foreign policy experts to learn more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    During the early days of the 2016 campaign trail, then candidate Donald Trump assured his supporters that he would pursue an America first approach to foreign policy.

    But what legacy does President Trump leave behind? What are the main foreign policy challenges facing Joe Biden? And how is America's role in the world changing?

    To assess all of this, I spoke with four foreign policy experts.

    Susan Gordon served as principal deputy director of national intelligence until August of last year. She spent most of her career before that at the CIA.

    Charles Kupchan was special assistant to the president on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. He's now a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is "Isolationism: A History of America's Efforts to Shield Itself From the World."

    Rebeccah Heinrichs, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, she also served on Capitol Hill on the House Armed Services Committee staff.

    And Sam Vinograd has served in the Bush and Obama administration in several national security roles, including senior adviser to the national security adviser. She's now a senior adviser at the University of Delaware's Biden Institute.

    And we welcome all of you back to the "NewsHour." Thank you very much for joining us.

    Sam Vinograd, I'm going to start with you with a pretty simple question. What is the legacy of President Trump and his foreign policy?

  • Samantha Vinograd:

    Judy, I think that President Trump's foreign policy legacy is really defined by a historic level of systemic incoherence, hypocrisy, as well as a unilateralism across the board.

    On the systemic incoherence front, we have seen a historic number of instances in which the foreign policy establishment within the administration pursued a bifurcated foreign policy. We had the national security apparatus going one way, and then President Trump going the other. That was confusing to everyone abroad, as well as here at home.

    Second, we had the president and his national security team inconsistently apply international rules and U.S. values. People that President Trump found to be politically expedient were treated one way, and everyone else was treated another.

    In terms of the hypocrisy, we saw individuals like Secretary of State Pompeo and others ask foreign leaders to do things that President Trump wasn't doing here at home. That particularly relates to advancing democratic freedoms, like free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and the freedom to peacefully protest.

    Overall, that undermined U.S. credibility abroad and undermined the ability of the president's foreign policy team to execute the policies that they saw fit overseas.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot of points there to digest and to think about.

    Rebeccah Heinrichs, what would you say is the president's legacy?

  • Rebeccah Heinrichs:

    I think President Trump's rhetoric sometimes could have distracted from a lot of the policy, good, sound policy that came out of his administration.

    And I think a lot of what he did, this America first, really translated into a correction of the liberal internationalism that was ongoing, not just the Obama administration, but really before him in the Bush administration as well.

    And what President Trump's foreign policy did was it re-established that the United States is not going to remain the world's preeminent power just by default. We have to fight for it, and that our primary rival is China, and that China, combined with Russia, presents a very formidable challenge to the United States economically, militarily, and so that the United States has to fight for that.

    That became the thing that pushed American foreign policy and really established the United States on much sounder footing, and then also countered Iran very effectively and worked with our Arab allies, which is why you see a lot of these great normalization agreements between Israel and these Arab states, because they were — the Trump administration really created conditions that were conducive to establishing this great — these great accomplishments.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Charles Kupchan, pick up on that. And we have heard the word unilateralism.

    You have written, you have said that what we're seeing now in President Trump may not be so much an outlier, when you compare it to the sweep of America's foreign policy since the founders.

  • Charles Kupchan:

    Well, when he said America first in his inaugural address, Trump was really going back to 1940, the America First Committee that formed to keep the U.S. out of World War II.

    And although we have lived in an America that's been very engaged in the world, from 1789, when we began life as a federation, right up until Pearl Harbor, the U.S. tended to shy away from engagement. We were very much connected to the world commercially, but not strategically.

    That changes in '41. Then it changes even more after the end of the Cold War and after 9/11.

    And I would agree with what Rebeccah said, that Trump was trying to correct for what I see is overreach, overreach strategically, overreach economically, trade deals that didn't work for average Americans, overreach perhaps in immigration, where many Americans felt we didn't have control of our borders.

    Where I think Trump went wrong is, he vastly overcorrected. Instead of pulling back, instead of judiciously trying to correct, he took a wrecking ball to the world America built, the institutions. He pulled out of the Middle East without any real strategy.

    So, I think his instincts politically were correct. The American people said, hey, let's tap on the brakes, let's pull back from the world a little bit. But he went way too far in the implementation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sue Gordon, it's a lot to ask you to pull all that together.

    (LAUGHTER)

    But, from your perspective, someone who's worked so closely in the intelligence community for so long, how do you see it?

  • Sue Gordon:

    So, I think Sam, Rebeccah and Charles all made great points.

    One, I think history is going to decide what his legacy is. And President Biden is going to have a lot to say about it. I put his actions in three bins. I think there's some good. Clearly, the national security work he did to highlight the threat that China posed is going to be one of his greatest legacies.

    I think you have to say that the Middle East, despite the lack of orthodoxy, is a more peaceful place than it was when he took office. Certainly, the Islamic caliphate has been tamped down.

    And I think North Korea, even though you could give it a neutral grade, you do have to admit that there has been in the last three years no nuclear tests of any weapons. So, I think there's some good there.

    I also think there's some massive failures. I think his work on Russia, Russia is more brazen. The cyberattack shows it. NATO, even though you're seeing more European contribution, you have almost broken the spirit of it, whether it's going to come along. Alliances that are so necessary have been really broken.

    So, I think you have a lot of viewers so I think you have a mixed bag, but the Biden administration is going to kind of have to come in, and its actions will dictate whether the gains will be maintained or whether the loss of leadership is going to be just devastating.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Sam Vinograd, I'm thinking back to what you said.

    And what we're hearing from our other panelists is that there is a rationale for at least some of what President Trump has been doing. What about that? And what about whether one can look at this as an attempt to pull back from what had been an overreach?

  • Samantha Vinograd:

    Well, I think that President Trump certainly felt that there needed to be a review of existing U.S. commitments around the world.

    We saw that with respect to alliances like NATO, Germany and South Korea, in which President Trump tried to review the funding commitments that the United States made, in light of what our partners were putting forward. We saw President Trump review our commitment to key multilateral institutions, including the U.N. itself, as well as various entities within the United Nations.

    It appeared to be that he was trying to cut overall U.S. funding to these entities. He was successful in some regards. NATO allies have increased their contributions to the NATO budget.

    But, overall, President Trump seemed to be pursuing policies that he viewed as benefiting him or benefiting the United States, and acting alone, and trying to pull other countries in with him after the fact. I think that approach was dangerous.

    Our alliances are built around coordination, cooperation and discussion. And I don't think that our allies appreciated being told what they had to do.

    President-elect Biden is going to have to contend with pursuing his affirmative foreign policy goals, while reacting to President Trump's somewhat instinctual desire to focus within our borders. So, we could see president-elect Biden try to undo some of what President Trump did with respect to our commitments abroad.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Rebeccah Heinrichs. I would like to turn to what the challenges are that lie ahead for president-elect Biden.

    Based on what you're all saying in your own ways, what should President Biden's priorities be? Where should his focus, his main focus be?

  • Rebeccah Heinrichs:

    I think President Trump's administration really laid bare, if it wasn't clear before, that China is the number one geopolitical rival for the United States. It will be for our generation.

    We have to understand that China is contesting the United States militarily in the Western Pacific economically and diplomatically, and that the United States needs to fight for American preeminence and with our allies and partners to deter Chinese aggression, certainly against Taiwan, but then also be prepared to fight and win a military contest, if deterrence fails.

    There are a variety of other ways and fronts in which the United States needs to shore up our sovereignty, our industrial base, our technological edge vs. China. And I am afraid that, mainly because some of the signaling coming out of the president-elect Biden's appointments, especially John Kerry's appointment to lead this climate change envoy, that climate change could be the driving force vs. China, and that China then therefore might take a sort of a backseat on these other issues.

    That would be a grave mistake.

    The last point I would make is, President Trump got into a lot of — he was criticized heavily for a lot of the things that he said and did against our allies and some institutions he pulled out of and arms control deals he pulled out of.

    Many of those things were right, though, and long overdue. And he made a lot of good points about our allies and partners needing to invest in their militaries to help the free world defend against these autocratic regimes.

    And so president-elect Biden, when he becomes president, needs to make sure that he doesn't just go back and try to rejoin these bad deals and agreements that the Russians, et cetera, were cheating on.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Charlie Kupchan, do you think there's a chance that that's what Joe Biden is going to do?

    I know you have told us that you think one of — the first thing that's going to happen is the unilateralism that was a — such a feature of the Trump presidency is going to go away quickly.

  • Charles Kupchan:

    Yes, I think the most destructive part of Trump's foreign policy has been the unilateralism, pulling out of pacts, isolating the United States from its key allies, pulling out of the World Health Organization in the middle of the greatest pandemic since 1918.

    It just — it didn't make any sense. So, I think the U.S., on day one of the Biden administration, will go back to being a team player.

    Another big change is that democracy will be back. Joe Biden will restore a sense of liberal democracy, of republican values to the country. We still have a sitting president who has yet to admit that he just lost the election. Most of the world is staring at us with amazement.

    Where I think you will see more continuity than change is continued pullback from the Middle East, because Democrats and Republicans alike agree it's time to end the forever wars, standing up to China, as Rebeccah was saying, particularly on the trade front.

    And I also think you're going to see Biden focus heavily on trying to make the case that American foreign policy works for average Americans. That probably means more money on things like cyber, on things like global health, on things like climate change, probably less on defense spending, and also more investment in America's middle class, making sure that our trade agreements work not just for big corporations, but also for working Americans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Sue Gordon, you touched on some of these things in your remarks a moment ago.

    But bring us, finally, back to this question of America's role in the world. And to what extent does — should Joe Biden have a fixed idea in his own mind of what America's role is in 2021 and in coming years?

  • Sue Gordon:

    So, I think the first thing that I hope the president-elect realizes is, this is a changed world. There is no going back to before 2016.

    If I were to say three things, it would be, number one, there are few in the world that can offer the leadership in these disruptive times than the United States can. So, figuring out our leadership role, our value proposition, our support for democracies is one.

    The second is, invest in trust and truth. That goes all the way from trusted technologies to keeping your word. There is so much untruth that is governing what we do.

    And the third is, I really do believe, in the midst of COVID and the economy and climate and societal unrest, there has to be room for national security. There has to be room for rebuilding the institutions that are actually responsible for effecting his policies that have been so distant from the — from President Trump's policies.

    So, just a few of the things. Easy day. I'm sure he's up to it.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's a full plate, for sure.

    Well, we want to thank all of you for giving us this important look as we begin this next year.

    Sue Gordon, Charlie Kupchan, Rebeccah Heinrichs, and Sam Vinograd, thank you very much.

    And, again, our thanks to all four of them.

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