How the presidential candidates see top foreign policy issues

At the NATO summit in Washington in July, Biden will seek to boost allies’ support for the conflict while passing Ukraine coordination duties to allies in Europe — moves seen as insulating the conflict from a hostile U.S. Congress or future president.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow, June 14, 2024. President Joe Biden has vowed to support Ukraine in its war with Russia “as long as it takes,” but former President Donald Trump's view of the conflict is complicated. VOA
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow, June 14, 2024. President Joe Biden has vowed to support Ukraine in its war with Russia “as long as it takes,” but former President Donald Trump's view of the conflict is complicated. VOA

WASHINGTON — An aggressive Russia, an emboldened China, a tempestuous Middle East and the fragile global relationships needed to confront these challenges are major foreign policy issues neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump can dodge if either wins November’s election.

As the two men hold their first presidential debate on Thursday, they’ll likely use their talking points to paint a picture of the role they want the United States to occupy on the world stage.

The difference couldn’t be starker, said Jeremi Suri, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Biden’s approach is a combination of liberal internationalism and forceful realism, echoing the Cold War,” he said. “Trump’s approach is a combination of isolationism and unilateralism, echoing the United States before World War II.”

Here’s a look at how they view major foreign policy hot spots.

Russian aggression

Biden’s administration sounded the alarm ahead of Russia’s February 2022 invasion and has vowed to support Ukraine “as long as it takes.” But that support faltered this year, when congressional Republicans stalled for six months on a $61 billion aid package.

At the NATO summit in Washington in July, Biden will seek to boost allies’ support for the conflict while passing Ukraine coordination duties to allies in Europe — moves seen as insulating the conflict from a hostile U.S. Congress or future president.

Trump’s view of the conflict is complicated, contradictory and colored by his own experience with that nation’s leader. It was, after all, a July 2019 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that sparked his first impeachment. A majority of the Republican-dominated Senate acquitted him of the charges that he improperly sought help from a foreign power to boost his reelection chances by asking Zelenskyy to help him discredit Biden politically.

On the war, Trump told a recent interviewer, “I will have that settled prior to taking the White House as president-elect.”

Analysts say he hasn’t made clear how.

"He advocated only for the need to start some types of talks and negotiations, and he said that he could be willing to engage in these negotiations between [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Zelenskyy, but he never specified the design of the future outline of this peace agreement,” said Sergiy Kudelia, an associate professor of political science at Baylor University.

Biden recently assured Zelenskyy that their new 10-year bilateral security agreement serves as “another reminder to Putin: We’re not backing down. In fact, we’re standing together against this illegal aggression.”

But this tough stance is not limited to Biden, analysts say.

"We do know that Trump perceives himself as a strongman and does not want to be associated with foreign policy failure,” former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst told VOA.” And a Russian victory in Ukraine, if Trump is president, would look very much like a foreign policy failure."

U.S. and Chinese flags are set up before a meeting between Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng in Beijing, on July 8, 2023. VOA
U.S. and Chinese flags are set up before a meeting between Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng in Beijing, on July 8, 2023. VOA

Chinese ambition

Biden’s mantra on Beijing is “competition, not conflict” — and economic statecraft is Washington’s tool of choice in this high-stakes game. This narrowed view of the relationship with China ties into what a consistent majority of Americans identify as a top election priority: the economy.

In May, Biden highlighted the risks he believes China poses, by imposing steep tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles, batteries, solar cells, steel, aluminum and medical equipment.

“American workers can outwork and outcompete anyone as long as the competition is fair,” Biden said. “But for too long, it hasn’t been fair. For years, the Chinese government has poured state money into Chinese companies. ... It’s not competition, it’s cheating.”

And Trump, a self-professed fan of tariffs, recently proposed a tariff on all imported goods and another levy of 60% or more on Chinese imports.

On China, professor Konstantin Sonin of the University of Chicago said, both men are aggressive. Biden, analysts note, has not reversed many of the Trump administration’s tough tariffs on China.

“Eight years ago, it sounded as if he would be a very different kind of U.S. president,” he said of Trump. “But actually, he was not that different. And a lot of things that Trump did were then continued by the Biden administration.”

But on Taiwan, where the policy of American “strategic ambiguity” comes into play — the idea that Washington refuses to signal how it would react if Beijing were to invade Taiwan — this hits different, depending upon who’s in charge, Sonin said.

“I think that these are still very different presidents,” he said. “For example, if it escalates around Taiwan, then perhaps Donald Trump would react differently.”

But, he added, further emphasizing Trump’s rhetoric, “In foreign policy, sometimes he sounds harsher than he acts. And this is true in respect to China, not only China [but] with respect to Mexico, as well.”

Middle East malaise

Trump’s ambivalence and use of superlatives come wildly into play when it comes to the Middle East. While Biden has publicly styled himself as Israel’s strongest supporter — yet increasingly publicly letting slip that he is often annoyed at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the war in Gaza rages on — Trump’s personal relationship with the Israeli leader seems to shape his view of the region.

“I had a bad experience with Bibi,” Trump said, using the prime minister’s nickname, in a wide-ranging April interview with Time. “And it had to do with [the U.S. strike that killed Iranian military officer Qasem] Soleimani, because as you probably know by now, he dropped out just before the attack. ... And I was not happy about that. That was something I never forgot. And it showed me something.”

A boy carries salvaged items from the rubble of a building destroyed during Israeli bombardment at al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on June 22, 2024, amid the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. VOA
A boy carries salvaged items from the rubble of a building destroyed during Israeli bombardment at al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on June 22, 2024, amid the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. VOA

But then in May, when Biden pledged to withhold weapons from Israel if its forces were to launch a major ground assault on the highly populated Gaza city of Rafah, Trump fired back.

In a post on his Truth Social account, Trump described Biden’s words as "taking the side of these terrorists, just like he has sided with the Radical Mobs taking over our college campuses."

Here, Trump uses a particular rhetorical trick: using one issue — in this case, Israel — to bring up a keyword — “terrorism” — that polls say is a top voter concern, and then using that to reach back to domestic issues. In this case, he noted growing campus protests over the war in Gaza with loaded language that appeals to voters’ feelings.

Americans’ top foreign policy issues, as documented by the Pew Research Center, appear to be focused through the same, particular lens that also seems to motivate voters: fear.

“The majority of Americans say preventing terrorist attacks (73%), keeping illegal drugs out of the country (64%) and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (63%) are top priorities,” the group said in its most recent roundup of Americans’ foreign policy priorities.

But then, Pew says: “Even with these priorities, foreign policy generally takes a back seat to domestic policy for most Americans.” VOA

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