Last month, Foreign Affairs posed an interesting question to a panel of experts: Has Trump permanently altered US foreign policy? If you have a chance to read it—it’s behind a paywall—we encourage you to do so. You’ll see a wide range of views from a host of scholars and analysts.
Below Drs. Yohanes Sulaiman and Brad Nelson offer their thoughts on the same question posed by Foreign Affairs.
Yohanes Sulaiman: Neutral, confidence level 5.
On the one hand, Trump escalated America’s dispute with China, which accelerated a downward trend in the relationship between the US and China. His so-called foreign policy disasters are not as big and widespread as many people argue, however. Moreover, keep in mind that the rest of the world still needs the US to maintain order. So despite the world’s distaste of Trump, they stuck with the US and continue to stick with the US as the lesser of two evils. You can see it in the ISEAS “The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report,” that despite declining trust in the US, Southeast Asia still relies the US for leadership: 48.3% trust the US, compared to China's 16.5%. And if ASEAN has to pick sides, the majority of the organization’s members will still pick the US.
In essence, systemic effects matter. Threats, particularly local threats, matter. Despite Trump, states still pick the US because the alternatives, like China or Russia, are likely worse.
Brad Nelson: Agree, Confidence level 5.
Yes, it's true that there are some Trump-era policies and strategies that Biden can reverse. In fact, he's already started this process. Biden has cozied up to Europe, placed the US back into the Paris Accords, promised to contribute money to COVAX, extended the New Start nuclear deal, reduced support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen and overturned the terrorist label on the Houthis, and so on. For those who like liberal internationalism, this is a good start.
However, there are some policies and initiatives that Trump has embraced that will be difficult to change or counter. Three immediately come to mind. First, the "no new wars" crowd has been for years a fringe element of US politics. Not anymore. Trump added the weight of his presidency to a "no new wars" position, bringing supporters of this (on the left and right) out from the cold, and created a growing expectation among Americans that the US is done with fighting wars that aren't of self-defense. Sure, 20 years of war has played a role in turning Americans off to more war. But it's also importantly to note that Trump mainstreamed this view and effectively made it a new policy status quo, thereby making it harder than usual to break down the line. Just look at Biden’s recent air strikes on Iranian proxies in Syria. He’s received significant blowback from folks, including Democratic Congresspersons and supporters, who fear that the US is sleepwalking into a war with Iran.
Second, we can argue about whether Trump's specific statements and policies on China were the right ones. But what isn't arguable is that there's a widespread belief, on the right and left, that his strategic approach to directly confront China was the right one, and one that's been long overdue. Going back to a more mealy-mouthed, squishy engagement policy is effectively ruled out for the foreseeable future.
And third, the literal idea of America First—that US foreign policy should first and foremost benefit the US and Americans—is here to stay. The Washington establishment's desire to work on pet foreign projects—an en vogue part of US foreign policy for most of the post-cold war era, particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s—isn't feasible anymore. Trump has forced Americans to ask whether the policies the US pursues serve the national interest. Frankly, this is already playing out in the Biden era. It's why his foreign policy promises to connect US foreign policy to US domestic politics and economics and to the overall welfare of Americans.