OCTOBER 31, 2020
In the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, President Trump has been seeking a global legacy that will outlast his tenure, with or without a victory on Nov. 3, doing his best to cement a world order that a potential President Joe Biden could find most challenging to unravel.
The key question is whether foreign leaders — or even members of his own administration — are prepared to go along with his ideas, which in many cases appear to be only on the fringe of realistic, or even safe for America.
As a case in point, Trump appears devoted to his already-stated goal of bringing home all, or at least a large chunk, of the US troops still in Afghanistan by the end of the year. On Oct. 7, Trump tweeted (his preferred form for major military or foreign policy announcements) that he was planning to withdraw all these forces by Christmas. “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!” the President tweeted. Only hours earlier, his national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, had said that the number of US troops in Afghanistan would be drawn down to 2,500, but not until early next year.
The Trump tweet caught American commanders, from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley on down, utterly by surprise.
Joe Biden has already laid down his own marker. In a September interview with Stars and Stripes, Biden said “these ‘forever wars’ have to end,” but observed that on-the-ground realities in Afghanistan, as well as Syria and Iraq, require an American military presence without a concrete end-date. The day after Biden talked with Stars and Stripes, Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, said that American forces in Afghanistan would shrink from 8,600 to 4,500 by late October.
Even if a major foreign policy pronouncement never happens, Trump has already done his best to cement policies that could prove expensive, even dangerous, to unwind.
Several of these involve Israel. The diplomatic-recognition agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan leave several festering wounds that Biden would have to deal with. First, the deals require Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to temporarily refrain from acquiring land and establishing new settlements in the occupied West Bank. Yet barely a month after the signing ceremony, Israel reportedly approved the construction of more than 2,000 new homes across the West Bank, with a total of more than 4,000 on the agenda for approval by Israel’s Civil Administration, the military-run unit that oversees the region’s civilian affairs.
At the same time, the push continues for a new, permanent American embassy in Jerusalem. While the ambassador and a handful of aides are currently working out of the US Consulate building in that city, plans for a massive new embassy complex of 269,000 square feet are still on the drawing board. But just in case Biden, if elected, would have any interest in reversing these plans, Trump friend Sheldon Adelson quietly purchased the ambassador’s residence in Tel Aviv last month for $80 million. Presumably, that would make it even harder for Biden to reverse Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, were he inclined to.
All these moves engineered by Trump have enraged the Palestinian community, and its leadership has effectively severed all ties with Washington. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told the European Parliament on Oct. 12 that the only viable road to peace in the region was an end to a Trump presidency. “The election is very important. God help us, the EU, and the whole world if there are four more years of Trump,” he said.
Beyond the Middle East, there are no shortages of other foreign policy and military initiatives that Trump has hustled through, the unwinding of which would pose substantial challenges for a Biden presidency.
In Africa, Trump has made several moves toward potentially dangerous withdrawals of American forces. The latest is the news this month that Trump has told advisers he plans to withdraw 700 American troops stationed in Somalia. That could only have been welcome news to al Shabab, the al Qaeda offshoot that analysts suspect has nearly 10,000 fighters and which the US Africa Command’s top intelligence official cited as the “most capable” terrorist group on the continent. Across the continent in West Africa, Trump has also been talking about pulling out substantial American forces monitoring a host of terrorist groups operating across a vast swath of territory. This could also mean shuttering a $110 million drone base in Niger that has only recently gone into operation.
Beyond these trouble spots, there are other critical zones where Trump initiatives will need to be unwound in some fashion. The president appears anxious to cement a legacy in Russian-American arms negotiations, or at least to extend the New START agreement set to expire in February. Trump has already torpedoed several other critical agreements, by withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
Scrapping or renegotiating the New Start treaty would complete the horrific trifecta of a bequest to a new administration. Initially, the Russians seemed to recognize the futility of trying to bring off a new pact by the end of a first Trump term: The Russian Foreign Ministry described as a “delusion” the American negotiator’s claim that an agreement in principle had been reached. Still, Russia has proposed a one-year “extension” of the deal that could avoid changes that might advantage the US.
Then there are other areas like intelligence cooperation, where the 74-year-old Five Eyes cooperation between the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand has been threatened over friction about use of Huawei equipment in modernization.
Repositioning the United States by undoing a host of other Trump-era global initiatives — including, as Biden has pledged to do, returning to the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization — would be added burdens on a new administration. But for many diplomats, especially in Europe, that moment can’t come too soon.
Harvard professor and former Kennedy School dean Joseph S. Nye Jr. told me in a conversation Thursday, before the start of a conference sponsored by Friends of Europe, that “a European diplomat told me, ‘We can hold our breath for four years, but eight years?'”
This is the challenge facing the American electorate, as a host of global leaders and thinkers hope that American voters will make a choice that would enable the next administration to undo initiatives that are destabilizing to the world order and are becoming increasingly entrenched.