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What Are The Presidential Candidates' Views On Foreign Policy?


Americans vote in a little more than two weeks. We've been spending time this week digging into some of the key issues in the campaign, and today we're going to talk about foreign policy. It's a subject the candidates haven't spent much time talking about except for a few buzzwords here and there.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As president, I have rejected the failed approaches of the past, and I am proudly putting America first.


JOE BIDEN: You know, America first has made America alone.

CHANG: The two visions the presidential candidates have laid out for America's place in the world stand in stark contrast. How might things change if Biden is elected or if Trump wins a second term? Well, we're going to dig into that with NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Hey, Michele.


CHANG: All right. So let's just quickly review President Trump's track record here. How would you characterize what America first has meant in his first term?

KELEMEN: Well, he has managed to undo some of President Obama's signature foreign policy initiatives by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal. He's also pulling out of the World Health Organization amid a pandemic and trying to get U.S. allies to pay more for U.S. troops based in their countries.

CHANG: And, of course, there's China, where it seemed the primary strategy was tariffs, right?

KELEMEN: Right. I mean, he uses tariffs to try to get better trade deals. Now, China did agree to buy more U.S. goods earlier this year, but the Trump administration has not made progress on the more structural issues in this trade relationship. And the coronavirus pandemic has really overshadowed all of this now. The Biden campaign points out that Trump was actually praising China's handling of the coronavirus earlier this year and had to reverse course only when things got bad in the U.S.

These days, Ailsa, we're hearing a lot of tough talk about China from the Trump administration - not much in the way of diplomacy. And, really, whoever wins in the elections will have to figure out a better way to manage this relationship.

CHANG: Right. Well, what about the Middle East? I mean, the Trump administration has pointed out that it's brokered agreements between Israel and Arab Gulf states. It's moved the embassy to Jerusalem. How would you describe the way Trump has changed relationships in the Middle East?

KELEMEN: Well, what they've tried to do is flip the script, as they like to say, so that it's not the Palestinian issue that's the central one, that instead it's Iran. And, you know, Gulf partners have been quietly working with Israel to counter Iran. The Trump administration has been encouraging them now to normalize diplomatic relationships with Israel, and two countries are doing that.

CHANG: And to be fair, former Vice President Biden did give President Trump some credit for that during his town hall on ABC last night. But Biden did say that, overall, Trump's approach has made the U.S. less safe. Let's take a listen to what he said.


BIDEN: You have Iran closer to having enough nuclear material to build a bomb. North Korea has more bombs and missiles available to it. We find ourselves where our NATO allies are publicly saying they can't count on us.

CHANG: So, Michele, I mean, what realistically could Biden do to change the U.S. trajectory on all of those issues?

KELEMEN: Well, a Biden administration could easily rejoin some international organizations - and the Paris climate accord, those things, he has promised to do. But rejoining something like the Iran nuclear deal is going to be far more complicated for him. And when you look at North Korea, I mean, no recent administration has figured out how to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear program. So that would be a challenge for him as well.

CHANG: Right. Well, one point of agreement that does exist between Trump and Biden seems to be this desire to end the endless wars. Is either of them offering an actual way to do that?

KELEMEN: Well, Trump says he's actually ending the war in Afghanistan. For instance, he tweeted recently that the U.S. troops will be out by Christmas. But the trouble here is, Ailsa, his military advisers don't see that happening. They have a strategy to gradually draw down troops based on the situation on the ground. So if he wins a second term, will he listen to those advisers or go by his political instincts? That's a big question mark.

One thing the Biden campaign is promising is a more deliberative foreign policy process and a strategy that's focused on diplomacy, not on tweets or transactional approach. And they like to remind voters that President Trump was impeached for putting his personal political interests ahead of America's national security.

CHANG: That is NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Thank you, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.