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Election 2024: Joe Biden Makes the Case for Allies and Alliances

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: President Joe Biden spoke with Time magazine about the importance of alliances to U.S. security.

Time magazine is on a roll. Last month it did a deep dive on Donald Trump’s foreign policy based on two extended interviews with the former president. This week, Time is out with a feature story on President Joe Biden’s foreign policy based on an extended Oval Office interview.

Trump was clearly, and understandably, top of mind for Biden. Four sentences into his response to the first question, which asked whether the United States could still “play the role of world power that it played in World War Two and in the Cold War,” Biden drew a core distinction with his rival:

I have a fundamentally different view than Mr. Trump has on a range of things. Number one: I really believe that we have a values-based as well as practical-based alliances around the world. And he, Trump, wanted to just abandon them. He says he’s practical, one-on-one things he’s doing.

Biden returned repeatedly during the interview to the importance of alliances and his efforts to deepen and expand them upon taking office. Biden took credit for making NATO “considerably stronger than when I took office,” putting “together an Indo-Pacific strategy that is incredibly broad,” persuading Japan to devote “3 percent of its GDP to defense,” and encouraging closer relations between Japan and South Korea. He further argued that because he cultivated America’s diplomatic garden that:

I was able to put together four or five major initiatives in Europe. I put together a Quad that never existed before. I put together—I mean personally put together—worked on it, I put together AUKUS with Great Britain and Australia. I put together an agreement between Japan and the Philippines dealing with making sure that we know the international rules of the road pertaining in terms of air and water and territorial integrity.

The particulars of Biden’s claims can be disputed. Japan’s defense spending as a percentage of GDP stands at just 1.6 percent in 2024. (The Japanese government has pledged to get to 2 percent of GDP by 2027.) Likewise, the Quad—or more formally, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue involving Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—originated in efforts to respond to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

But the general thrust of Biden’s claims rings true. He has done a lot to repair the damage done to U.S. alliances in Europe and the Indo-Pacific during the turbulent Trump years. And while Biden didn’t create the Quad from scratch, he further institutionalized it, including by organizing the first- ever Quad leaders’ summit. In a nutshell, alliances are critical to U.S. power, and they are stronger than they were four years ago.

The question is, who is listening to Biden’s pitch for investing in alliances? Given fears that a second Trump presidency would roil U.S. foreign policy even if doesn’t lead to Washington’s withdrawal from the world, the heads of allied governments most certainly are. As Biden noted toward the end of the interview:

There’s not a major international meeting I attend that before it’s over—and I’ve attended many, more than most presidents have in three and a half years—that a world leader doesn’t pull me aside as I’m leaving and say, “He [Trump] can’t win. You can’t let him win.”

It is far less obvious, though, that American voters are listening. It’s not that they are hostile to alliances. Quite the contrary. Most polls show that Americans like having friends and partners and believe the United States should stand by its commitments. It’s rather that alliances—and foreign policy generally—fall way down the list of worries that Americans take with them to the polls.

That political reality is why most U.S. allies agree with Biden that “America’s back” while also been asking, as French President Emmanuel Macron put it at the 2021 G-7 meeting, “For how long?” November 5 will provide the answer.

Campaign Update

The fallout from Trump’s conviction in a New York State court last week on thirty-four felony counts continues to shake the campaign and American politics. Some Republican lawmakers now want the prosecutors pursuing criminal charges against the former president investigated and prosecuted. Trump himself called on the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in his sentencing hearing, presumably to overturn his conviction:

The problem for Trump is that the judicial system doesn’t work that way. With a few narrow exceptions that don’t apply in Trump’s case, convictions in state courts can’t be appealed directly to the Supreme Court. They instead need to work their way through a state’s appellate court process. That usually takes time. Trump is almost certain to appeal and has a range of issues he can raise with the New York Appellate Division Court.

What the Candidates Are Saying

Biden was in Normandy yesterday to mark the eightieth anniversary of D-Day. He used much of his sixteen-minute speech to hail the bravery of the men who stormed Normandy’s beaches in June 1944, citing the stories of some of the men who returned to the site of their heroism eighty years later.

Biden also used the moment to hail the importance of alliances being in America’s “own self-interest,” to warn against the dangers of isolationism, and to stress the importance of standing by Ukraine:

America’s unique ability to bring countries together is an undeniable source of our strength and our power.  Isolationism was not the answer 80 years ago, and it is not the answer today.  

The United States and NATO and a coalition of more than fifty countries standing strong with Ukraine. We will not walk away, because if we do, Ukraine will be subjugated. And it will not end there. Ukraine’s neighbors will be threatened. All of Europe will be threatened.

Biden never mentioned Trump by name. But the former president likely came immediately to mind to those listening to Biden’s remarks.

What the Pundits Are Saying

The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins spoke with European diplomats and dignitaries and concluded that most of Europe views Trump’s election in November as “all but inevitable.” They aren’t happy at the prospect. As Coppins put it, “in capitals across the continent—from Brussels to Berlin, Warsaw to Tallinn—leaders and diplomats expressed a sense of alarm bordering on panic at the prospect of Donald Trump’s reelection.”

Politico’s Elena Schneider, Eli Stokols, and Lisa Kashinsky argued that foreign policy will be a liability for Biden in November. A quote in the piece from an anonymous Democratic strategist summarized their conclusion: “Foreign policy is a problem for Biden because it undermines the central tenet of his 2020 candidacy, when he said he would restore America abroad and return us to normalcy.”

TheWashington Post’s David Lynch wrote about how both Biden and Trump want to hike tariffs on Chinese imports while insisting that American consumers won’t have to pay more as a result. “Biden’s tariffs on $18 billion in Chinese electric vehicles, batteries and computer chips, announced last month, are likely too small to lift the economy’s overall price level,” according to the economist Lynch spoke with. “But Trump’s plan for 60 percent tariffs on all $427 billion in goods that China ships to the United States each year would almost certainly reshape trade in ways that consumers would notice.”

The New York Times’ Jess Bidgood assessed what Biden’s shift to a harder line on asylum policy might mean for his reelection chances. “It could be difficult for Biden to make inroads on the border in a polarized country,” according to Bidgood. However, “polling suggests that Americans are broadly supportive of proposals like Biden’s executive order. A CBS News poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans want Biden to be tougher on immigrants trying to cross the border. The proposal could also help Biden make inroads with Hispanic voters, three-quarters of whom see the situation at the border as a crisis or a major problem, according to Pew.”

What the Polls Show

538’s Nathaniel Rakich reviewed the early polling results on the impact of Trump’s felony convictions on his election chances. “Four pollsters have already conducted national polls of the 2024 presidential election entirely since Trump was found guilty,” according to Rakich, “and a handful more have asked about the verdict but not the election explicitly. They show that Americans are taking the verdict seriously, and it may be giving President Joe Biden a small boost in support. However, it’s still too early to draw any definitive conclusions.” The New York Times’s Nate Cohn and Ruth Igielnik reached much the same conclusion after reviewing conversations with some two thousand participants in New York Times/Siena College surveys conducted in April and May. “The group favored Mr. Trump by three points when originally interviewed in April and May, but this week they backed him by only one point.”

The concerns that McKay Coppin found among European elites about the future of the U.S. commitment to the transatlantic alliance are reflected in European public opinion according to a poll by the Institute for Global Affairs (IGA) at Eurasia Group out this week. “Only 6% of Western Europeans see the US as a “very reliable” guarantor of European security over the next decade,” according to IGA. “Americans are about four times as likely as Western Europeans to see the US as a very reliable guarantor.” Mark Hannah, an IGA senior fellow, wrote an article for Foreign Policy highlighting the fact that “nearly three times as many Europeans said they seek a neutral relationship with the United States as respondents who wanted Washington to be primarily responsible for Europe’s defense.”

The Campaign Schedule

The first presidential debate is in twenty days (June 27, 2024).

Donald Trump’s sentencing hearing is in thirty-four days (July 11, 2024).

The Republican National Convention opens in Milwaukee in forty-five days (July 15, 2024).

The Democratic National Convention opens in Chicago in eighty days (August 19, 2024).

The second presidential debate is in 102 days (September 10, 2024).

The first in-person absentee voting in the nation begins in Minnesota and South Dakota in 112 days (September 20, 2024).

Election Day is 158 days away.

Inauguration Day is 234 days away.

Source: CFR