From ending forever wars to pressing allies to shoulder more of their defense loads, the next president should pursue at least some of his predecessor’s goals.
The votes are in. After a fiercely contested election, Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States. Because of their distaste for the current president, the president-elect’s inner circle may press him to either throw out or do the opposite of Trump’s policies. But when it comes to foreign policy, Biden needs to resist this strong temptation. And the voice he listens to should be his own.
Last January, Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs, “It is past time to end the forever wars, which cost the United States untold blood and treasure.” This echoed Trump’s own pledge to end endless wars. And late in his term, he ordered the withdrawal of thousands of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq–but there are still thousands of U.S. troops in both countries. As president, Biden has a chance to bring them home. He probably won’t bring them all home, but he has argued for a scaled-back, limited presence: “a few hundred Special Forces soldiers and intelligence assets to support local partners against a common enemy.” More recently, Biden called for a maximum of 1,500 to 2,000 troops on the ground in the Middle East, adding that the military should not meddle in the political dynamics of the countries where they operate.
Moreover, since most Americans — Republicans and Democrats alike — favor military withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, Biden would be making good on his campaign pledge that he would “represent all of you whether you voted for me or against me.”
A corollary to ending forever wars is to avoid new and unnecessary involvement in military conflicts. Biden may differ from Trump on specific policies and actions, but this should still be an overarching goal. For example, a Biden administration is likely to try to get Iran to return the terms and limits of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action–the nuclear deal rejected by the Trump administration–as a way to rein in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Biden will likely make denuclearization the centerpiece of his foreign policy vis-à-vis North Korea. While some sort of deal might be a preferred outcome, he should heed his criticism of Trump and be careful to ensure that the pursuit of curbing Pyonyang’s nuclear ambitions doesn’t result in increasing the threat and risk of war. Although critical of Trump being a “good buddy” with Kim Jong Un, who Biden calls a “thug,” Biden would be willing to meet with the North Korean leader according to one of his key foreign policy advisors.
A second area where Biden and Trump agree on policy substance is NATO. Although Biden believes that “Trump has belittled, undermined, and in some cases abandoned U.S. allies and partners” and that the U.S. commitment to NATO is not transactional or built on coercion, he agrees that “Our allies should do their fair share.”
Citing “commitments the Obama-Biden administration negotiated to ensure that NATO members increase their defense spending,” a Biden-Harris administration needs to get our NATO allies to fulfill their commitments. Biden believes that “[i]t falls on the United States to lead the way” and one of the hallmarks of leadership is getting those you lead to do what they’re supposed to do. And the reality is that our European allies are more than capable of meeting their pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. Currently, other than the U.S., nine countries meet that threshold: Norway (2.03 percent), France (2.11 percent), Lithuania (2.28 percent), Poland (2.30 percent), Latvia (2.32 percent), Estonia (2.38 percent), Romania (2.38 percent), the United Kingdom (2.43 percent), and Greece (2.58 percent). Noticeably absent are Germany ($3.86 trillion GDP) and Italy ($1.99 trillion GDP). Both are wealthy countries – the fourth and eighth largest economies in the world – that can afford to make the necessary investment. The combined GDP of NATO Europe is nearly on par with the U.S. – about $17.5 trillion vs. about $20 trillion. Yet the U.S. spends more than double on defense than our European NATO allies. Other than political will, there is no real reason that all European NATO countries cannot meet their obligation to spend 2 percent of their GDP for their own defense.
Perhaps a Biden administration that wants “to fortify our collective capabilities … by reinvesting in our treaty alliances” will adopt a similar approach (but not necessarily the same threshold) with other allies, such as Australia, Japan, and South Korea. Again, these are wealthy countries that don’t need to depend on the U.S. and can afford to shoulder more responsibility for their own defense.
There will be plenty where Biden differs dramatically from Trump, but where there is some agreement that serves U.S. national security, he should be willing to risk criticism from his supporters, rise above the voices of hyperpartisanship, be true to his own words, and do what is in the national interest.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than twenty—five years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of defense—policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un—War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.
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