On U.S. Foreign Policy, the New Boss is Not the Same as the Old Boss
Anatomy of a New York Times analysis
One of the things about teaching, researching, and writing about foreign policy is that you develop assessments of the journalists who write in the same space. For example, I have made no secret that I am a fan of Politico’s Nahal Toosi, a crackerjack State Department reporter who doesn’t just produce good copy — she is almost always asking uncomfortable questions to administrations a news cycle or two earlier than everyone else.
The New York Times has a bevy of excellent national security beat reporters as well. This includes Edward Wong. One of his analysis pieces from the summer, however, missed the mark in important ways, and it is worth analyzing what and why he got it wrong.
Here’s the precis of Wong’s article:
More than a year and a half into the tenure of President Biden, his administration’s approach to strategic priorities is surprisingly consistent with the policies of the Trump administration, former officials and analysts say….
Mr. Biden has denounced autocracies, promoted the importance of democracy and called for global cooperation on issues that include climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.
But in critical areas, the Biden administration has not made substantial breaks, showing how difficult it is in Washington to chart new courses on foreign policy….
“The policies are converging,” said Stephen E. Biegun, deputy secretary of state in the Trump administration and a National Security Council official under President George W. Bush. “Continuity is the norm, even between presidents as different as Trump and Biden.” (emphasis added)
There is no denying that Biegun’s emphasized statement contains a large grain of truth to it. Indeed, a story noting the continuities between presidential administrations on foreign policy would have been unremarkable as recently as five years ago — hence all the unproductive “Blob” talk.
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Trump represented such a radical break from recent U.S. foreign policy, however, that I think it has caused folks like Wong to look at any continuities between Trump and Biden and conclude that the Blob is still pulling the strings behind the scenes. Indeed, Wong writes, “Some scholars say the tradition of continuity between administrations is a product of the conventional ideas and groupthink arising from the bipartisan foreign policy establishment in Washington, which Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama, derisively called ‘the Blob.’”
A closer look at the substantive continuities between Biden and Trump, however, completely falsifies the Blob theory. Here are the most important areas where Biden has maintained some foreign policy continuity with
The complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan;
Keeping the U.S. embassy to Israel located in Jerusalem;
Maintaining high levels of trade protectionism, particularly toward China
Preserving the Abraham Accords
Of those four policies, the only one the Blob probably endorses is the Abraham Accords, which is also the least significant of them. Mainstream foreign policy commentators were not keen on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, placing the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, or the overall increase in trade protectionism. Maybe there is a greater appetite for specific trade policies targeting China, but even in that area there are deep divisions within the foreign policy community about best practices.
The continuities from Trump to Biden cannot be explained by any one thing, but by a host of smaller dynamics in foreign policy. On Afghanistan, Trump’s impulse to withdraw meshed well with Biden’s decade-long preference to get U.S. forces out of there. The geopolitics of the Middle East necessitate any administration to prevent ties with both Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries from deteriorating too far. Finally, there is simple path dependence. There remain a few areas where one presidential action binds successors into following the same path — or be willing to absorb enormous costs to alter the status quo. The embassy decision falls under this category.
The one area where continuity between Trump and Biden might be considered surprising is on the trade front. As I wrote in April, “the Biden administration’s approach to trade and investment has barely deviated from the Trump administration’s.” That does represent a new development, as does the bipartisan embrace of industrial policy.
Beyond that, however, the differences between Trump and Biden stand out far more than the continuities. Biden’s biggest foreign policy moves — rejoining the Paris climate change accords, countering Russia in Ukraine, bolstering the Quad, negotiating AUKUS — largely consist of initiatives that the Trump administration either opposed or lacked the capacity to implement. There is simply no way to imagine Trump rallying the support of the advanced industrialized democracies to counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Furthermore, the lack of congressional buy-in for many (but not all) of these policies means that the next Republican president will be able to reverse many of Biden’s signature foreign policy accomplishments. It is the Mexico City policy writ large.
There is one other subterranean but significant difference, which is the relationship between the president and the executive branch. As Axios’ Jonathan Swan has reported, a second Trump term would mean a massive effort to politicize the national security and foreign policy bureaucracy — one that would make their first-term efforts seem modest by comparison.
Overall, Wong’s story is not factually incorrect but it misses the overall picture. The surprise in Biden’s foreign policy has not been the continuities with Trump, but rather the ways in which the president is increasingly able to U-turn significant foreign policies