- Blog Post
- Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.
After being a no-show at Election 2020’s first—and likely last—presidential debate, foreign policy made an appearance at the vice-presidential debate. The discussion left most policy wonks wanting more and better. That’s to be expected. Presidential and vice-presidential debates are about scoring political points not exploring ideas. But what was said on Wednesday night—or more accurately, what wasn’t said—highlighted two challenges that will face whoever takes the oath of office next January 20.
Moderator Susan Page’s first foreign policy question asked the two vice-presidential nominees how they would describe America’s “fundamental relationship with China? Competitors? Adversaries? Enemies?” Both Mike Pence, who went first, and Kamala Harris sidestepped the question, choosing instead to use it as an opportunity to attack the other’s foreign policy record. Pence chided Harris for opposing the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and blamed China for the coronavirus. Harris criticized the Trump administration for bungling the response to the pandemic and for launching an ill-considered trade war against China.
Ignoring the question and going on the attack made political sense. But Page’s question is also a difficult one to answer in a sound bite. The reality is that the United States and China are both rivals and partners. Washington wants Beijing to stop intimidating its neighbors, play by international trade rules, and respect human rights. It also wants China to cooperate on common problems like climate change, import American soybeans and natural gas, and buy the treasury notes that fund the U.S. government’s trillion-dollar deficits. These objectives, of course, conflict. Campaigns, however, are about making promises, not about acknowledging trade-offs. That’s the stuff of governing.
Page’s second question asked for a “definition of the role of American leadership in 2020?” Again, both candidates largely sidestepped the question. Harris criticized Trump for favoring adversaries over allies:
So I love talking with Joe about a lot of these issues, and Joe, I think he said it quite well. He says, “You know, foreign policy, it might sound complicated, but really it’s relationships.” Just think about it as relationships. And so we know this in our personal and professional relationships, you got to keep your word to your friends. Got to be loyal to your friends. People who’ve stood with you, got to stand with them. You got to know who your adversaries are and keep them in check. But what we have seen with Donald Trump is that he has betrayed our friends and embraced dictators around the world.
Pence defended Trump’s foreign policy record:
President Trump kept his word when we moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, the capital of the state of Israel. When Joe Biden was vice president, they promised to do that and they never did. We stood strong with our allies, but we’ve been demanding. NATO is now contributing more to our common defense than ever before thanks to President Trump’s leadership. We’ve strengthened our alliances across the Asia Pacific, and we’ve stood strong against those who would do us harm.
Left unsaid was whether the United States still can, or should, lead globally, and if so, to what end and via what means, and who exactly will follow? These are big questions on which a substantial amount of disagreement exists, both within the United States and outside it.
The next occupant of the Oval Office won’t have the luxury of the debate stage to sidestep tough questions. He will need to confront trade-offs in China policy and decide where and how the United States should lead. The choices he makes will be consequential for decades to come. But Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate didn’t provide much insight into what those choices might be.
The Candidates in Their Own Words
Trump was off the campaign trail this week dealing with the coronavirus. He did tweet about Afghanistan Wednesday night:
We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2020
National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien announced plans earlier in the day to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from the current level of roughly 5,000 to 2,500 by early next year.
With Trump convalescing, Biden had the campaign field to himself. The former vice president didn’t make any major foreign policy news, though he did weigh in on a few issues. He released a statement last Friday on the second anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s death saying his administration would “reassess our relationship with the Kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.”
Biden marked the thirtieth anniversary of Germany’s reunification on October 3 by linking that heroic struggle to the fight for democracy in 2020: “The spirit of German reunification is felt by people from Belarus to Hong Kong in their own fight for self-determination, human dignity, and free and fair elections. To those European countries that are failing to live up to their democratic aspirations, it should serve as a living reminder of the enduring power of the people’s voice.”
Biden released a statement on rising Greece-Turkey tensions, vowing to “support the efforts of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and our European allies, as well as the United States, to defuse tensions in the eastern Mediterranean and avoid a conflict from emerging within NATO… The Trump administration must press Turkey to refrain from any further provocative actions in the region against Greece, including threats of force, to create the space for diplomacy to succeed.”
While campaigning in Miami, Biden visited the Little Haiti and Little Havana neighborhoods. Ahead of his stop at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, the Biden campaign released a fact sheet criticizing the vulgar term Trump allegedly used two years ago to describe Haiti. The campaign also promised a review of Trump’s decision to end Temporary Protective Status (TPS) for undocumented Haitian immigrants. In Little Havana, Biden called Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro “a dictator, plain and simple” and promised to grant TPS status to Venezuelans. The former vice president also argued that Trump’s Cuba policy “is not working. Cuba is no closer to freedom and democracy than it was four years ago.” He added that “as president, my policy will be governed by two principles. First, Americans, especially Cuban Americans, are the best ambassadors for freedom in Cuba. Second, empowering the Cuban people to determine their own future is central to the national security interests of the United States.”
What the Pundits Are Saying
Five major national security organizations published a joint statement yesterday in Newsweek explaining why they have endorsed Joe Biden for president. One of the seven reasons the groups gave was that “the long peace of the post-World War II world was built on international agreements and organizations which provided the foundation for discussion and cooperation of important global issues. The current administration has criticized and withdrawn from a number of these organizations.”
Delaware Senator Chris Coons argued that a President Biden would help return bipartisanship to U.S. foreign policy, writing: “If Biden is elected, politics still may not stop at the water’s edge, but the United States will have a leader who can work with Congress to craft a renewed global role—one that is principled, pragmatic, and cognizant of the interconnected nature of today’s world.”
Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, wrote that Biden would be tougher rhetorically on America’s authoritarian allies in the Middle East, but his “career and public statements reveal little evidence of a moral commitment to, or even interest in, democracy in the Middle East.”
Jordan Henry wrote that Biden’s focus on restoring American leadership is “emblematic of a Washington establishment still in the grip of nostalgia.”
Nahal Toosi wrote that if Biden becomes president he will need to confront “lingering suspicions” that progressive Democrats have about him. These suspicions “foreshadow a passionate intraparty brawl over the shape of his foreign policy if he is elected—a domestic squabble that could sorely test his diplomatic skills.”
Jihoon Yu, Jiyoon Kim, and Erik French recounted the strains that the U.S.-South Korea relationship has experienced under Trump and speculated that disagreements about the alliance “will likely dissipate” with a Biden presidency, though the two capitals could continue to squabble over policy toward China.
Fareed Zakaria joined Vox’s Ezra Klein to discuss Biden’s foreign policy strengths and weaknesses. The CNN host and Washington Post columnist offered that “Biden will be an effort at restoration” of post-World War II American foreign policy. Zakaria added that he doesn’t “know the degree to which Biden would be willing to creatively rethink it” in light of how much things have changed over the years, “because he is himself a creature of that older order and that older world.”
RealClearPolitics’ average of national election polls has Biden leading Trump by 9.6 percentage points, 51.6 percent to 42.0 percent. Biden’s lead is up from 6.8 points last week. FiveThirtyEight estimates that Biden has an 85 percent chance of winning based on current trends, six points higher than last week.
With thirty-seven states now permitting early voting, more than eight million ballots have already been cast. Here are two statistics to put that number in perspective. First, at this point in the 2016 race, states reported receiving less than half a million ballots. Second, roughly 137 million ballots were cast for president in 2016. Turnout is likely to be higher in 2020, but even so, it’s likely that almost 6 percent of voters have already cast their ballot.
Legal challenges to election rules remain a booming business. The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday reversed a lower court’s decision to waive South Carolina’s requirement that voters have a witness’s signature on their mail-in ballots. Federal judges handed down rulings that pleased Republicans in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, and North Carolina who oppose loosening voting procedures. Meanwhile, federal judges handed down rulings that pleased Democrats in Iowa and New Jersey looking to make voting procedures less restrictive. Federal rulings went both ways in Arizona. A federal appeals court stayed a lower court’s ruling that would have given Arizonans five additional days to cure mail-in ballots returned without a signature, while a federal district judge extended Arizona’s voter registration deadline from October 5 to October 23.
The Texas Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the elections administrator for Harris County, one of Texas’ largest counties, could not automatically send out applications for mail-in ballots to all the county’s voters. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is allowing Republicans to pursue an appeal of the state’s extended mail-in ballot deadline.
Benjamin Franklin once quipped that nothing is certain in life except for death and taxes. If the author of Poor Richard's Almanack were reincarnated today, he might add mistakes with mail-in ballots. About 2,100 voters in Los Angeles County received mail-in ballots without the presidential ticket included. That number is tiny relative to the roughly 5.6 million ballots that the county is sending out. But if the final results on Election Night are close, this and similar mishaps around the country will spawn an array of conspiracy theories.
By tomorrow, forty-four states plus Washington, D.C., will have begun sending out mail-in ballots. Nine states—Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon, Virginia, West Virginia—plus the District of Columbia have voter registration deadlines next week. If you are a Wisconsin resident and want to register online or by mail, you must do so by October 14, though you have until October 30 or on Election Day if you want to register in person. But why wait?
Today is the deadline to request an absentee ballot online in Kentucky. If you live in Rhode Island, your local board of canvassers must receive your mail-in ballot application by next Tuesday, October 13, at 4 p.m.
Election Day is just twenty-five days away.
Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.