The Bazooka vs. the Blunt Scalpel

Trump and Biden battle it out on foreign policy

(Getty Images)
June 22, 2024

The upcoming presidential debate will provide a much-needed jolt in a race largely devoid of primary challenges. So far, the campaign coverage has mostly focused on Joe Biden’s age and Donald Trump’s legal troubles. As much attention as these issues draw in the United States, the rest of the world is focused on other aspects of the election—the ones that may determine their country’s survival.

With Vladimir Putin and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rampaging across their regions, Xi Jinping pushing around his weaker neighbors, and Kim Jong Un waiting in the wings, the United States has rarely faced such a determined and dangerous combination of adversaries. This coming week, the two presidential frontrunners will lay out for the American people their preferred tools for confronting these dictators. One offers a blunt scalpel; the other, a bazooka.

Donald Trump stormed onto the scene in 2015 promising to punish America’s enemies, and he largely succeeded. First, he stepped up and carried through the campaign against ISIS. He then initiated a "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran, including killing Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. He was the first president to forthrightly confront China, and despite some dismaying remarks about Vladimir Putin, he also armed Ukraine with defensive weapons and killed hundreds of Wagner mercenaries that attacked U.S. troops in Syria.

Bazookas can do a lot of damage to their target when they score a hit, but their back-blast is guaranteed to wreak havoc close to the launcher. Trump was just as determined to get even with the allies that he perceived to be taking advantage of the United States as he was to push back against the dictators. In addition to his trade war with China, Trump also levied tariffs on both of America’s neighbors, Canada and Mexico, along with the European Union and the most capable U.S. ally in Asia, Japan.

America’s foreign policy elite often describe Trump’s diplomatic record as an unmitigated disaster, but he collected an unusual group of international admirers. He was very popular in India and Israel, and South Korea’s progressives still speak fondly about his outreach to Kim Jong Un. Japan's Shinzo Abe forged a close relationship with him, despite the trade friction, and Eastern Europeans appreciate that he did more to curb Russia than Barack Obama did.

This time around, Trump is promising more of the same. Taking full advantage of his reputation for unpredictability, he has bandied about ideas to pressure Ukraine into giving Russia territory while also green-lighting the recent House bill to arm Ukraine and talking about bombing Moscow, not for the first time. He is also planning on a 10 percent universal tariff that would hit friends and foes alike.

Biden argued during the 2020 campaign that Trump was the source of much global instability, and that a Biden White House would preside over a more serene world. Once Trump was gone, he would just need to make a nip here and a tuck there to the old liberal international order. But to avoid provoking America’s enemies, he chose to blunt his scalpel. Early in his presidency, he tried to pacify Russia with new arms control negotiations and Iran by offering sanctions relief and a return to the 2015 nuclear deal that Trump exited.

Neither attempt worked, and Ukraine and Israel are paying the price. The Biden team is preoccupied with deescalating crises and avoiding confrontation, so they keep trying to do just enough to dissuade America’s adversaries without provoking a backlash. But China, Iran, and Russia have learned that the Biden team always aims for the capillary, not the jugular, so they have continued their destructive behavior. Paradoxically, the "chaos candidate" enjoyed more global stability than his successor who pledged to restore a sense of normalcy to international affairs.

At home and abroad, Biden is presenting himself again as the stability candidate. The problem is that, as he acknowledges with his frequent comments that the world is in as dangerous a situation as it was at the onset of World War II, the world has not grown calmer because of his policies. Russia initiated the largest war in Europe since the Second World War, Hamas is undefeated after months of fighting, Iran’s other proxies are attacking international shipping and terrorizing the region with little consequence, and China is stepping up the pressure on Taiwan and the Philippines.

Biden seems to believe that he can win the campaign by distributing more largesse to favored constituencies and telling the American people that Trump is an existential threat to democracy and the American-led international order. He’d do better if he showed that he has sharpened his scalpel. Or better yet, traded up for a bigger weapon.