How Trump and Biden stack up on foreign policy, NATO and the Arctic

How a Biden or Trump win in the U.S. election could affect NATO, the Arctic and other major foreign policy files.
Written by Ryan Flanagan
Edited by Phil Hahn
Part 3

In 2016, Donald Trump warned the world that if he became president of the United States, his support for NATO would be contingent on many of its member countries increasing their defence budgets.

That announcement signalled the possibility of a new-look American foreign policy, one based less on the idea of the U.S. leading the world and more in tune with the "America first" ideal.

While there has indeed been a shift in how the U.S. treats the rest of the world over the past four years – who could have predicted Trump slapping tariffs on Canada and other allies while cozying up to North Korea, or European leaders saying they can no longer rely on the U.S.? – NATO has endured.

Another four years, though, and that might not be the case, according to two analysts.

"If Trump gets re-elected, you can probably kiss NATO goodbye," Stephen Saideman, director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network and co-host of the podcast Battle Rhythm, told via telephone on July 29.


Trump NATO Breakfast

Trump seems to have had little regard for NATO as a formal military alliance, notably pulling American troops out of Syria and more recently announcing a withdrawal from Germany. His main stated preoccupation with NATO, however, is that many of its member nations, including Canada, spend less than two per cent of their national GDP on defence – a target agreed upon by all countries in the alliance.

The president has repeated this "not paying their fair share" argument so often that he even mentioned NATO in what seemed to be a joking response to a scene featuring him being removed from a CBC broadcast of the film "Home Alone."

"He still continues to use the same language, that people owe the United States and NATO money for falling short in the past, as if it's a country club or a protection racket," Saideman said.

"If he gets re-elected, he'll be much less constrained."

Steven Lamy, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, agrees that "NATO could just be hollowed out" if Americans give their president a second term. If Democrat candidate Joe Biden wins the Nov. 3 election, though, he sees a very different outcome.

"It's not going to be the leadership of the hardcore realist presidencies; it's going to be more a leadership in the Obama style," Lamy told via telephone on July 29.

That "Obama style" could well harken back to the speech the former president gave in Ottawa in 2016, in which he told Parliament that "NATO needs more Canada." Biden, who was Obama's vice-president, made similar comments when he visited Ottawa a few months later, asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take the reins of globalism following Trump's election.

Saideman said he has heard concerns that a Biden administration might continue to try to pressure Canada and other below-two-per-cent NATO countries into increasing their defence system – after all, Trump didn't invent the complaint; Obama occasionally brought it up, too.

That prodding might continue with Biden in the White House, Saideman said, but it "won't be quite as visible, because it'll sound too Trumpian."

NATO is not the only aspect of American foreign policy that Biden would look to revert to what it was when he was vice-president. His platform in this area is light on new ideas, and heavy on words such as "restore," "renew" and "reinvigorate."

"What you're going to expect to see from a Biden presidency is they'll make the best possible effort to return to pre-Trump normalcy across the board," Saideman said.

"Just as Trump went through pretty much everything and said 'if this is an Obama thing, I'm going to get rid of it,' I think the Biden people are going to go through the list of 'OK, here's what Trump did and here's how best to undo them.'"


Afghanistan soldiers

The winner of the election will also have to find their way through two seemingly eternal aspects of American foreign policy: the future of the country's military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Thousands of American troops are on the ground in Iraq, assisting that country's military in its battle against ISIS. There are even more American soldiers serving in Afghanistan, although a peace deal signed in February calls for them to pull out of the country by next July.

Both military operations are the remnants of U.S. invasions that were launched more than 15 years ago. Lamy said Biden is more likely than Trump to potentially see the U.S. as having an obligation to aid the two "failed states" it helped create.

"We've never had a discussion about the screw-up in Afghanistan or the screw-up in Iraq," he said.

"I think that's the kind of discussion you can have in a Biden administration, but you're not going to have in a Trump administration."

If Biden is elected and that discussion does happen, Saideman said, Biden could find himself caught between prominent Democrats who want the U.S. to help rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan and the many party voters who are ready for American troops to leave both countries.


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Lamy sees one more part of American foreign policy as worthy of Canadian concern: the Arctic.

He said both Trump's existing stance on the Arctic and Biden's prospective stance on it are reminiscent of each candidate's overall foreign policy.

In Biden's case, as the former second-in-command to the first U.S. president to visit the Alaskan Arctic, that means highlighting and addressing the effects climate change is having on the region.

The Trump administration, on the other hand, has focused on the Arctic through the lenses of economics and national security, calling Canada's claim to the Northwest Passage "illegitimate" and more recently re-establishing a U.S. consulate in Greenland – after first attempting to purchase it.

"The only interest that we have now is to keep China out," Lamy said.

Still, even that sort of "nationalistic, militaristic" view of the Arctic may present an opportunity for Canada, Lamy said, as it might open a diplomatic vacuum among other Western nations that could be willing to follow Canada's lead in the Arctic.