The Age of Impunity
And How to Fight It
Almost every new American president enters the White House committed to reversing all the supposed mistakes of his predecessor. Even if there is far more continuity in U.S. foreign policy than is commonly acknowledged, new teams sweep into office eager to emphasize their administration’s departures. President Donald Trump offers an especially vivid example of this tendency, stressing even four years into his term how his approach to the world contrasts with that of his predecessors.
If Joe Biden takes office in January 2021, the impulse will be even stronger than usual, given the unprecedented nature of the Trump presidency. Nothing today binds Biden’s would-be national security officials more firmly than distaste for Trump’s foreign policy. The Trump administration’s long list of missteps has pushed experts on both sides of the aisle toward a restorationist vision of U.S. foreign policy, one that would forswear the transactional, self-interested approach of the Trump years and return to a more traditional posture. Biden himself has said that, if elected, he would quickly signal that “we’re back” to those discomfited by four years of Trump-era turbulence. His team would feel overwhelming pressure to demonstrate rapid change to the American people and the world.
Yet as it does so, a Biden administration would also do well to use, rather than jettison, some of what Trump would leave behind, including a new focus on issues different from those that dominated foreign policy thinking a few years ago and even some of the policies that Trump has adopted. Above all, the Trump administration would bequeath a stock of leverage to its successor. A new administration should employ that unique, fleeting advantage wisely.
While taking pains to draw distinctions between himself and his opponent on virtually every issue, Biden has also indicated that he would adopt some of Trump’s major changes. He is committed to greater competition with China and to a foreign policy more focused on the U.S. middle class. He supports Trump’s U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement, and would continue winding down the war in Afghanistan. His team generally seems to favor the current National Defense Strategy, with its aim to remake the U.S. military for an age of great-power rivalry. A President Biden seems unlikely to move the U.S. embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv; immediately lift the array of tariffs placed on China; or ask the government of Ukraine to return lethal arms provided by the United States.
Yet even on the many issues on which Biden and his team do seek major change, they could find their efforts aided, rather than undermined, by appropriating some of what they’ve inherited. Beyond specific policy shifts, over the last four years, Trump has generated considerable leverage over adversaries and allies alike. All presidents have used leverage, often combined with moral suasion, personal relationships, public appeals, and other efforts, to attain their objectives in international affairs. With his transactional mindset, however, Trump has elevated leverage above other instruments, often generating it unwisely but effectively. His fondness for sanctions and protectionist economic measures has put pressure on China, Iran, Venezuela, and other countries. By bashing U.S. allies and threatening to end security guarantees, Trump produced anxiety among countries underinvesting in defense. In withdrawing from key multilateral agreements, he increased existing members’ desire to see the United States return to them.
A Biden administration would also do well to use some of what Trump would leave behind.
The point is not that these decisions were wise national security moves: in most cases, they were not, and in some cases, they have been borderline disastrous. Yet by taking such steps, Trump has positioned a new administration to capitalize on them as it cleans up its predecessor’s foreign policy mess. A new team should use this leverage, even if to an entirely different end.
Most national security experts would not list Trump: The Art of the Deal among their field’s foundational texts. But it contains a useful definition. “Leverage,” it says, “is having something the other guy wants. Or better yet, needs. Or best of all, simply can’t do without.” A new Biden team would aim to reset and rebuild relations with the world. As it does so, it should mix a more reliable, internationally engaged, and multilateral approach with a clear-eyed view of when to deploy its inherited leverage.
A new administration would have several opportunities to use its leverage with American adversaries. The Iran nuclear deal, for instance, contains sunset clauses that are approaching and provisions that could stand improvement. The Trump administration aborted its attempts to negotiate a side agreement with European countries that could strengthen the agreement—itself an example of generating leverage by threatening a withdrawal from the deal and then squandering it by pulling out before the talks were exhausted. U.S. withdrawal drove Europe to resort to workaround fixes, while Tehran refuses to amend the underlying agreement. With the world’s hope and expectation of a U.S. return to the deal, a new team’s moment of maximum leverage will be before reentry rather than later. It should use it to explore, with both Iran and European parties, what improvements might be obtained before simply returning to an unchanged agreement.
The existing tariffs on China represent significant leverage as well. They are largely directed at the wrong ends, including a reduction in the trade deficit and increased purchases of goods made or grown in electoral swing states. The next president should offer to remove the tariffs in exchange for progress on other, more consequential U.S. priorities, including intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, and discriminatory treatment of U.S. businesses in China. Eliminating tariffs without receiving concessions in return would unnecessarily dissipate U.S. advantage and allow a highly transactional Beijing to pocket its perceived gains, setting a tone for the future relationship.
Other forms of leverage can be used with allies, even by an administration eager to be seen to them as kinder and more reliable. Trump has fixated on those NATO members that spend less than two percent of GDP on defense and on his desire for South Korea and Japan to increase their support payments toward the cost of basing U.S. troops in their countries. Neither focus represents a particularly effective measurement of an ally’s worth. A new administration would do better to encourage defense modernization; investments in niche capabilities that create a division of military labor rather than duplication among allies; and willingness to engage in operations ranging from counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East and Africa to maritime actions in Asian waters.
Biden has also indicated that he would adopt some of Trump’s major changes.
As it does so, it should reassure those allies—but not so much that their free-rider instinct flares. The expected reduction in the U.S. defense budget, combined with an ever-greater U.S. focus on the Indo-Pacific, will create leverage to push for allied burden sharing. Fewer U.S. military resources, increasingly directed at one region, will create security gaps that allies can fill. The next administration should set expectations accordingly, asking allies to shoulder more of the load. Contra Trump, however, it should do so not simply as a means of badgering allies into paying more but rather in service of a larger strategy that fuses a vision of new threats to appropriate burden sharing.
Leverage over other partners will grow out of the expectations that other governments will have for a new administration. Saudi Arabia, for example, will anticipate far frostier relations. A flexible approach to Riyadh would mean not simply isolating it but leveraging Riyadh’s concerns to reset relations—with the aim of ending the war in Yemen and stopping the reckless approach that has seen Jamal Khashoggi murdered, Saad Hariri kidnapped, Qatar blockaded, and more. Even the global hopes of renewed U.S. leadership can generate advantage, as foreign leaders and their publics wish to be on board with the United States. If a new team enters with a wish list of actions by friendly countries in Europe, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and beyond, it should ask early.
Foreign policy leverage could also prove useful in a domestic context, offering a chance not just to obtain benefits from foreign parties but also to reassure domestic ones. The United States’ reentry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, for example, is a tantalizing possibility, especially for the 11 countries that now make up the trade group (following Trump’s withdrawal from it). Joining the pact would give the United States greater access to key markets, help diversify trade away from China, and signal renewed U.S. economic leadership in Asia. Biden has teased the possibility of renegotiating and then signing on to the agreement. For all the campaign-season insistence that such a course is impossible, the next administration should offer reentry in exchange for changes—adding provisions on currency manipulation and modifying ones on rules of origin, for instance—that would render the agreement more politically palatable to a majority in Congress. Similarly, Republicans continue to oppose the Iran nuclear deal. But it’s conceivable that changes to the deal could sway some to support a revision.
Much of this approach would involve using leverage generated by a predecessor, and often through means—bullying allies, withdrawing from multilateral accords, embracing protectionism—highly objectionable to a new president. And yet there it will be—to be used, dissipated, or squandered. Better to use the leverage that will enable good outcomes than reset it out of existence.
Using positions of strength, however derived, need not be at odds with the desire to signal a new kind of U.S. leadership. Indeed, leverage can be a highly useful adjunct to such a campaign. A set of moves that uses inherited leverage to leave the United States stronger will render it a more capable global leader, with greater domestic support for an expansive global role. In turn, the United States can generate benefits for allies around the world and help marshal countries in common response to an array of serious challenges. This clear-eyed self-interest can drive an immediate post-Trump U.S. foreign policy on its way to renewal.
China and Russia Don’t Keep Most Americans Awake at Night