Transition 2021: Should Lame-Duck Presidents Make Major Foreign Policy Decisions?
from The Water's Edge

Transition 2021: Should Lame-Duck Presidents Make Major Foreign Policy Decisions?

Each Friday, I look at what is happening in President-Elect Joe Biden’s transition to the White House. This week: Donald Trump is using all the powers of his presidency and creating a host of problems for the incoming Biden administration.
President Donald Trump delivers an update on coronavirus vaccine progress at the White House on November 13, 2020.
President Donald Trump delivers an update on coronavirus vaccine progress at the White House on November 13, 2020. Carlos Barria/Reuters.

President Donald Trump’s light daily schedule has sparked talk that he has lost interest in his job. If so, that message has failed to reach the rest of his administration. To judge by recent news reports, it is set to take a range of significant foreign-policy steps over the next two months. These include slashing U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq, imposing new sanctions on Iran, and further limiting economic ties with China.

Trump is well within his rights to take any of these steps. The lame-duck presidency is a political concept and not a constitutional one. No outgoing administration is required to act as a caretaker for an incoming administration. Indeed, it’s easy to generate examples of lame-duck presidents making major foreign policy moves, some of which conflicted with what the incoming president hoped to do.

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Of course, the fact that Trump can exercise his powers as he sees fit is not to say he should. During a transition, outgoing presidents ideally should consider whether their decisions will be sustained by the new administration. That’s not because they have an obligation to adopt their successor’s policies. It’s because U.S. interests suffer when policies are initiated and then quickly reversed.

By that measure, Trump’s decision to reduce U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq is hard to fault as an abuse of unwritten transition norms—even if his refusal to concede and to coordinate with the Biden team clearly do. When the troop-cut proposal was first floated back in September, Biden was asked if he supported the idea. His response was short and to the point: "Yes, I do. As long as he has a plan to figure out how he's going to deal with ISIS." Indeed, Biden himself has called for reducing the number of U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan to between 1,500 and 2,000 and focusing their mission on special operations against ISIS and other terrorist threats. 

Many of the other foreign-policy measures the Trump administration is set to enact, particularly the sanctions on Iran, look less defensible. Press reports frequently describe these efforts as designed to “tie Biden’s hands.” As a practical matter, such restraints rarely last. What is done with one president’s pen can be undone by another’s. The net effect instead will simply be to complicate life for Biden’s administration. Or, as one Trump administration official put it, the “goal is to set so many fires that it will be hard for Biden to put them all out.” But petulance shouldn’t be driving policy.

The bigger problem here is the length of the presidential transition. Despite many bitter election campaigns, the United States has been blessed that most, but not all, transitions have gone reasonably smoothly. The future may tell a different story. With the partisan divide in the United States growing only deeper and with Trump shredding norms about conceding elections, we may discover, as Ivo Daalder and I wrote last week, that “presidential transitions are too long to be reassuring, too short to be thorough, but just the right length to cause trouble.”


Thirteen days after every major news media outlet called the election for Biden, the head of the General Services Administration still has not provided an “ascertainment” that the election has been decided. The transition process remains in limbo as a result. On many issues this delay is merely annoying. But Biden is likely right that when it comes to the pandemic, the delay could be deadly because “more people may die” if the outgoing and incoming administrations don’t coordinate.

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What Biden Is Saying

In a press conference on Monday detailing his plans for dealing with the pandemic’s economic consequences, Biden said:

From autos to our stockpiles, we’re going to buy American. No government contract will be given to companies that don’t make their products here in America. To secure our position as a global leader in research and development, we’re going to invest $300 billion in the most critical, competitive new industries in technologies creating 3 million good-paying jobs. And the corporate American technology firms like Microsoft on the call, they all agreed. We can make sure a future is made here in America. And that’s good for business and it’s good for American workers.

That vow polls well with American voters. But it likely violates commitments the United States has made over the years to open up its procurement to all comers. If the U.S. government discriminates against foreign producers, expect foreign governments to return the favor. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander and all that.

Biden was asked at the press conference to respond to the signing by Asian countries of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest trade agreement. China is a member; the United States isn’t. The president-elect said he wouldn’t comment on specific policies because “there’s only one president at a time.” But he argued that:

We make up 25 percent of the world’s trading capacity, of the economy of the world. We need to be aligned with the other democracies, another 25 percent or more, so that we can set the rules of the road, instead of having China and others dictate outcomes because they are the only game in town.

But what I’m insisting on, and when I’ve been asked by world leaders, as to what I would do, without getting into detail, I’ve said: But I want you to know that there are three things are going to happen if I’m elected. One, we’re going to invest in American workers and make them more competitive. Number two, we’re going to make sure that labor is at the table and environmentalists are at the table in any trade deals we make. And I’m not looking for punitive trade. The idea that we are poking our finger in the eyes of our friends and embracing autocrats makes no sense to me.

That response might keep a flicker of hope alive in Asia that Biden will eventually seek to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the Obama administration championed. But if Biden does choose, at least at the start of his presidency, to put trade policy on hold so he can focus on matters at home, don’t expect U.S. trading partners to sit idly by. They will go off and strike their own trade deals. As the CPTPP and RCEP attest, that’s what they have been doing for the past four years. The results have put American exporters at a disadvantage.

The Trump administration continues to deny Biden access to the President’s Daily Brief. To help make up for that, the president-elect met with thirteen former senior national security officials on Tuesday. Among those doing the briefing was retired General Stanley McChrystal. He was famously relieved of his command of multinational forces in Afghanistan back in 2009 after making disparaging remarks to a Rolling Stone reporter about both President Barack Obama and then Vice President Biden. At the meeting, Biden vowed once again to “renew America’s leadership and put the United States back at the head of the table.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both called Biden this week to offer their congratulations. Biden also spoke to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and Chilean President Sebastián Piñera.

Biden’s Appointments 

Biden filled several senior positions on his White House staff this week. In doing so, he drew heavily from his campaign and vice-presidential staff. He says he hopes to begin announcing cabinet nominees next week. The picks for secretaries of defense, state, and Treasury are likely to be named first. Biden has already decided on his Treasury nominee. It’s not surprising that he filled his senior White House slots first. For all the talk about “cabinet government,” virtually every U.S. administration centers power in the White House.

Journalists continue to speculate about who Biden might name to senior positions on his national security team. Once he does, there will be no shortage of articles assessing what Biden’s appointments mean for his foreign policy. In Washington, personnel is policy. 

The Biden Agenda

My colleagues Matthias Matthijs and Sheila Smith joined me on the latest episode of The President’s Inbox to discuss Biden’s plans to repair U.S. alliances. When asked to predict what U.S. alliance relations will look like a year from now, Matthias responded: “We’re gonna be all breathing a sigh of relief that everybody in the rest of the world is criticizing American leadership again rather than criticizing a lack of American leadership.”

Samantha Power, who has been rumored for a possible senior position in the Biden administration, argued that “it is increasingly common to hear people contrast Washington’s debilitating partisanship and gridlock with the ruthless efficiency of Beijing’s authoritarian rule. Yet even as the United States has faltered in highly visible and costly ways, China is fumbling the mantle of global leadership, too….This reality creates an opportunity for President-elect Joe Biden and his administration.” 

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the leader of Biden’s State Department transition team, co-authored a piece with former Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns laying out ideas on “how to save the State Department.” Expect some of their ideas to be adopted by whomever Biden names as secretary of state.

Ian Bremmer wrote that Biden, for all his calls for acting multilaterally to meet global challenges, “is about to discover firsthand that he is dealing with the same world Trump is—one in which the appetite for global cooperation is limited.” 

Victor Cha recommended that the incoming Biden administration deal with North Korea “as it is rather than as it would wish it to be” and negotiate a pathway for “a new relationship” between the United States and North Korea.

Akela Lacy wrote that progressives are “keen” to push Biden to follow through on his campaign promises to stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and to reassess other international arms sales.

Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky argued that “Biden must craft a foreign policy for a world the U.S. doesn’t rule,” which among other things requires putting an end “to portraying China as an ideological threat to the American way of life and an existential threat to what is left of the tattered U.S.-led liberal international order.”  

Michael Singh and Sinan Ulgen argued that Biden should not let U.S.-Turkish relations deteriorate, but acknowledge that even if the relationship “can be stabilized, it will be more transactional than in the past.”

Jeanne Whalen reported that Biden is expected to “maintain a hard line” against Chinese technology firms such as ByteDance and Huawei but may be able to rally more international support for his position than Trump did.

The Vote Count

With California and New York among the states still counting votes, Biden’s lead in the popular vote now sits just shy of six million votes. That gives him a 3.8 percentage point lead over Trump. Biden could become the first presidential candidate to receive eighty million votes. When everything is said and done, the total vote may reach 160 million. That would put voter turnout at 66.6 percent, the highest turnout rate in any presidential election since 1900. And yes, it’s common for some states to still be counting votes more than two weeks after Election Day.

Barring something surprising in the recounts or in the courts, and assuming no faithless electors, Biden’s final margin in the Electoral College will be 306 to 232. That, of course, is the margin by which Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.

While some states are still counting votes, others are finished. Fifteen states—Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Wyoming—have now certified their votes, that is, declared official winners. The next major milestone comes on Monday when Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Maine are set to certify. The Trump campaign, of course, is contesting the vote counts in Michigan and Pennsylvania. By the end of the month, thirty-three states plus the District of Columbia will have certified their votes. California is the straggler when it comes to certification. It won’t certify its votes until December 11.

Pennsylvania won’t be recounting its votes. Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said late last week that "as no statewide candidate was defeated by one-half of one percent or less of the votes cast," she isn’t ordering a recount.

Georgia did recount its presidential vote. By hand no less. And yesterday the state announced that while Biden’s lead had shrunk by roughly 1,200 votes, he remained the winner of the Peach State’s sixteen electoral votes.

Wisconsin has begun recounting votes in the presidential race in two counties. President Trump’s campaign paid the $3 million fee that state law requires the losing party to pay to cover the cost of the recount. The two counties the Trump campaign selected—Dane County, which encompasses the state capital Madison and its surrounding suburbs, and Milwaukee County, which encompasses the city of Milwaukee, are both overwhelmingly Democratic. The Trump campaign declined to pay the nearly $8 million fee required to initiate a state-wide recount. The partial recount needs to be finished by December 1, which is Wisconsin’s deadline to certify its election results. Biden currently leads Trump by 20,565 votes in Wisconsin. Even if the recount hands Trump a victory in the state, which seems highly unlikely, it won’t change the overall outcome of the presidential race. Even without Wisconsin’s ten electoral votes, Biden has more than the 270 votes needed to carry the Electoral College.

The Electoral Calendar

December 8         State vote certifications made by this “safe harbor” date are                                 immune to challenge.

December 14       Electoral College electors cast their votes.

January 3             The new Congress is sworn in.

January 6             A joint session of Congress counts electoral votes and                                           formally declares a winner.

January 20           Inauguration Day.

Inauguration Day is sixty-one days away.

Happy Thanksgiving. The next installment of the Transition 2021 roundup will be on Friday, December 4.

Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.

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