PETER BAKER: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Peter Baker.
President Biden has taken a markedly different approach to foreign policy than President Trump. When asked about his policy toward China in his first formal press conference, Biden had this to say.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy. If you notice, you don’t have Russia talking about communism anymore; it’s about an autocracy. That’s what’s at stake here, we got to prove democracy works.
MR. BAKER: On Friday, the president told reporters that both Russia and China are invited to the White House virtual climate summit at the end of April. No word yet on whether they’ll attend.
Joining me tonight to discuss Biden’s foreign policy challenges are four top reporters: Errin Haines, editor at large for The 19th; Zolan Kanno-Youngs, White House correspondent for The New York Times; Sahil Kapur, national political reporter for NBC News; and Ashley Parker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post. Welcome.
Ashley, you’ve covered President Trump and President Biden. What’s the difference in their approach to America’s traditional adversaries overseas?
ASHLEY PARKER: I mean, the approach are night and day. President Trump in many ways respected strongman leaders and dictators. He did not, like President Biden and like previous presidents, his predecessors, did not really feel the traditional American president impulse to try to export American values or democracy abroad. He was more than happy to allow, for instance, human rights violations to go unmentioned, unaddressed if he personally liked the leader or he thought the United States was getting some sort of good deal. That is not how President Biden is operating. You know, you played that clip of him describing sort of it’s the fight for autocracy versus democracy in same way that President Biden framed his campaign as the fight for the soul of the nation. In some ways he views foreign policy as the fight for the soul of the globe or the world. It is a much more traditional stance where he is going to stand up for American interests abroad which President Trump in some ways did as well, but also say, you know, this human rights violation is unacceptable, this is not what we as America stand for and here’s why we think you, foreign adversary X, Y, or Z, is incorrect, and that is going to affect any number of things including how we do business with you.
MR. BAKER: Zolan, one of those leaders that Ashley was referring to, Kim Jong-un of North Korea, is one that President Trump said he had a love affair with, but just this last week, of course, we saw North Korea launch two short-range ballistic missiles in violation of U.N. rules. So how do we think President Biden is going to approach this? He did say that North Korea is going to be the top foreign policy challenge for his administration.
ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS: And even after that first – that first missile launch you didn’t see him really pay him the mind or, you know, whether it be by giving him the attention by criticizing, but insulting him, he almost didn’t want to give North Korea and Kim Jong-un the attention. I was on Air Force One earlier this week, and when we were standing there waiting for the president after he gave his speech at Ohio State on the anniversary of the ACA, he walked over to us – and this was shortly after that first missile launch – and when asked about it he almost brushed it aside. He said, look, yeah, this is just – this may just be routine kind of military actions. He didn’t want to, almost, give North Korea the attention there in terms of the missile launch. And as it was – as stated previously, that will also probably be consistent when it comes to – you know, President Trump, when it came to Kim Jong-un, said that he had a love affair with that individual. He took a trip out to almost, at times, it seemed, comfort him, and at times tried to build a relationship. You’re not going to see that with this president. You’re not going to see that with President Biden. So you – even with these two actions, you saw him not want to give North Korea the attention that it essentially was looking for.
MR. BAKER: Sahil, we got some other news on the foreign front this week when the president acknowledged that he wasn’t going to be able to meet the May 1st deadline for pulling the remaining American troops out of Afghanistan, but he did say that he can’t imagine having any troops there in his second year in office. What’s the reaction to that on Capitol Hill?
SAHIL KAPUR: Peter, this is a problem that has bedeviled the last several presidents, and I know as someone who’s steeped in foreign policy yourself you’ve covered that closely. This has been an issue that the American public has increasingly turned against, and the last several presidents have been caught in this dilemma where public opinion is increasingly end the war, get the troops home, let’s get out of that, but then the reality is always that advisors of presidents are kind of whispering in their ear this is going to turn into a disaster situation and become another safe haven and it could create another kind of fertile ground for people to plot attacks down the line in the future. I think one of the reactions on Capitol Hill is that Democrats in particular are interested in holding President Biden accountable, making sure that he follows the congressional procedure, follows the process, and gets authorization for military attacks. Some Democrats believe that they were too lax with President Obama on this and that he used previous authorizations for the use of military force to launch unrelated new call them wars, call them precision strikes, call them drones, whatever you want to call them. That’s part of the reaction, I think, from Democrats. On the Republican side you have more traditional security hawks like Lindsey Graham who say bad idea, don’t get the troops out.
MR. BAKER: Now, here’s a foreign crisis that President Biden clearly didn’t expect: a massive cargo ship is stuck in the Suez Canal, stopping all traffic through one of the world’s most important shipping routes. The U.S. Navy announced today that it plans to send an assessment team to help. Errin, after years in which President Trump talked about America first, here you have the President Biden talking about helping Egypt through this crisis. And they’re also now talking about sending vaccine doses to Canada and Mexico. So if America isn’t necessarily going to be the policeman of the world, do you think under President Biden it’s going to be the first responder in the world?
ERRIN HAINES: Well, you know, what I think is that, you know, President Biden recognizes America’s relationship to the rest of the world. I mean, this cargo ship being stuck in the Suez Canal is holding up hundreds of other cargo ships, you know, with cargo that needs to go to many places, including the United States, and so, you know, the United States has a vested interest in getting that ship unstuck, right? And the U.S. also has a vested interest in making sure that not only this country reaches herd immunity but that other countries are vaccinated as well.
I mean, it’s not just about our reopening. It’s about the globe reopening – the global economy coming back, and how the U.S. factors into that, and how, you know, their fortunes are tied to ours. And so I think that, you know, an America first policy that recognizes that our fates are bound to our friends and neighbors across the world is more the approach that President Biden is taking in these early days. And so I think that’s why you’re seeing him responding to these dual kind of catastrophes as he is.
MR. BAKER: Ashley, President Biden, of course, famously said America is back, but you wrote recently that it may not be that simple. What are we seeing in terms of the reaction around the world at this point? What lessons have we learned in these early weeks about how the rest of the world is going to respond to President Biden?
MS. PARKER: Well, it’s twofold. The rest of the world is, again, understandably far more skeptical, not of President Biden himself, per se, but what you saw under the last four years of former President Trump. They are skeptical that if Biden loses election in 2024 to, A, literally President Trump again, or just a Republican, that America policy can swing back and forth. And they believe that it is in their best interest not necessarily to count on the United States in the same way perhaps they did previously.
And President Biden too – I mean, Errin mentioned correctly that he has a vested interest in getting vaccines to the rest of the world. It’s a globalized community, and there’s talk now of Mexico and Canada. But there’s been a lot of griping from allies that the United States was not out in front on what we call COVID diplomacy, right? Normally you might have expected the United States to immediately begin deploying and helping not just our immediate neighbors but across the globe with vaccines. And one thing that we reported, President Biden said to a lot of these foreign leaders and allies in their conversation that he is in a situation where he is facing these four crises he’s laid out. Sort of most specifically and immediately coronavirus and the economy. And that until he gets things done on the domestic front – now, he doesn’t put it like America first, the way his predecessor does, but until he gets things done at home and his people taken care of, he can’t really play the traditional role that much of the world has come to count on America to play.
MR. BAKER: Ashley, I wasn’t going to bring this up, but since you did, just give me 30 seconds on this. You mentioned the fact that President Biden may end up running in 2024 against President Trump. He was asked at the press conference whether he was going to run and he said he expects to, he plans to. Which I think was somewhat surprising for those who thought he was presenting himself as a transition figure. Do you think he really means that, or is this just a way of postponing the day that people start thinking of him as a lame duck?
MS. PARKER: You know, I was sort of actually struck by his answer on fate, a sort of, you know, kind of existential. And President Biden is someone whose entire life, frankly, has been – he’s been described as both the luckiest and the most unlucky man in the world. And so I think he does intend to run. I take him at his word. But I also think he was sort of allowing for that element of uncertainty – both perhaps in practical logistical terms, that you mentioned, of what he actually wants to do and plans to do, and the uncertainty as he was trying to get at of the cosmos – (laughs) – for lack of a better way of looking at it.
MR. BAKER: All right, well, my guess is that’s not the end of that particular conversation. But we’ll leave it there for tonight. Many thanks to Errin, Zolan, Sahil and Ashley for your insights, and thank you for joining us. Make sure to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you a behind the scenes look into all things Washington. I’m Peter Baker. Good night.