Trump vs. Biden: A Side-by-Side on Key Foreign Policy Issues

By: Anushka Sapra, Noah Blackman

As Glimpse From the Globe continues its special coverage of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, it’s important to highlight the differences in key areas of the candidates’ foreign policy agendas. In this piece, we will look at how the incumbent, President Donald Trump, and his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, will tackle the United States’ most topical international issues, including the superpower’s role in the Middle East, the global climate crisis, foreign aid, immigration policy, China and trade. 

An overwhelming trend in this analysis is that Trump’s foreign policy agenda is centered around unilateralism and protectionism, while Biden’s is focused on strengthening the United States’ relationships with its allies and promoting multilateral cooperation.

Middle East

The Middle East represents a key pillar of U.S. foreign policy, given its geopolitical significance for the United States’ economic interests, as well as the country’s counterterrorism, military and humanitarian efforts in the region. Whether it’s Iran’s relentless pursuit to acquire nuclear weapons after the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal, the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen or the unresolved Israel-Palestine dispute, the upcoming presidential election will determine U.S. action, or inaction, in the region.

Trump: After moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and brokering the landmark Israel-UAE peace agreement, Trump can be expected to continue strongly supporting Israel. In January 2020, he released the New Middle East Plan in collaboration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump vehemently opposes Iran and has undertaken many actions against the state including withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, imposing severe economic sanctions in an effort to curb its nuclear program and authorizing the air strike in early 2020 that killed Major General Qasim Soleimani. Trump has also withdrawn U.S. troops from Syria, but has ordered they remain in Iraq. Over the past few years under Trump, the United States has also improved its relations with Saudi Arabia, especially after Trump expressed his support for Prince Mohammed bin Salman even after Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in 2018. 

Biden: Joe Biden is a long-time supporter of Israel and a self-proclaimed Zionist. Perhaps the only area of confluence we see in Trump and Biden’s foreign policy is vis-a-vis their support for Israel. However, their stances are not totally aligned — Biden opposes Israel’s annexation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and is a strong advocate for the two-state solution. When it comes to Iran, Biden, like Trump, is strongly opposed to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. However, he believes that Trump’s decision to strike Soleimani without Congress’ approval was an “enormous escalation” of tension and pledges to rejoin the Iran Nuclear Deal. Additionally, it is important to note that Biden has had a long involvement with Iraq policy in his past roles of senator and Vice President, which will likely shape his foreign policy agenda. Unlike Trump, Biden is not warm to the idea of close relations with Saudi Arabia and seeks to stop arms sales with the country.


In recent years, the scientific community has called on countries to speed up their process of reducing carbon, methane and other greenhouse gas emissions. Climate organizations have alluded to the dire consequences of shifting climate patterns such as food shortages, the spread of diseases and mass migration of animals and humans, making climate change the fastest growing threat to global security.

Trump: Trump is doubtful of how much human activity contributes to climate change and is a strong advocate for expanded fossil fuel production and use. He withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement, which set higher standards on vehicular emissions and imposed new and stricter regulations on power plants, and rescinded Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Over the past few years, Trump has also slashed funding to the Environmental Protection Agency and has repealed dozens of other environmental regulations. In August 2020, he finalized a plan that allows drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, part of his efforts to open almost all U.S. waters and protected lands to oil and gas drilling. Apart from this, he also hopes to expand new oil pipelines throughout the United States and reduce automobile fuel efficiency standards.

Biden: Biden has released his version of the “Green New Deal,” a climate plan that aims to ensure that the U.S. economy has net-zero emissions by 2050. He is vehemently opposed to new drilling and fracking on public federal lands and pledges to rejoin the Paris Agreement. He aims to reduce the United States’ carbon footprint in transportation, agriculture, and housing sectors and halt the flow of foreign aid to coal-fired power plants overseas. To encourage countries to implement green policies, he also wants to offer debt relief and expand G20 climate efforts. Though Biden is criticized by some environmental activists and organizations for not being more aggressive on climate change, his policies toward climate change demonstrate a stark contrast to Trump’s approach.

Foreign Aid and Multilateral Cooperation

Multilateral diplomacy and foreign aid are key aspects of the liberal international order and are often propagated through international institutions. International institutions serve as both a framework and a platform for international engagement, debate, and cooperation. The United States has been the chief architect of alliance building through international institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), United Nations (UN), World Bank and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). 

Trump: Trump has withdrawn from several international alliances and organizations such as the Paris Agreement, Iran Nuclear Deal, Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the UN Global Compact for Migration. Most recently, amid the global coronavirus pandemic, Trump withdrew the United States from the World Health Organization (WHO), the international organization responsible for coordinating the world’s pandemic response. Regarding U.S. allies, Trump has often questioned the relevance of NATO in the post-Cold War era and has been critical of organizations such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Even relationships with long-term allies of the United States, such as the European Union (EU) have not been stable under his presidency. And, with regard to foreign spending and assistance, budget proposals under his administration have cut foreign aid spending by almost a third.

Biden: In contrast, Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” plans to convene all democratic countries in a single forum to discuss three major global issue areas — fighting corruption, addressing the rise of authoritarianism and combating the proliferation of human rights violations. If elected, Biden not only pledges to rebuild the U.S. Department of State but has also stated that he would re-enter alliances and agreements that the United States has left under the Trump administration. Biden has pledged to reenter the Paris Agreement, for example. Biden has also continuously warned against the current rise of populism as seen in waves throughout the world and calls for increased international investment in collective security and prosperity. In a Biden administration, one could expect the United States to reenter the liberal international order and place a heavy emphasis on multilateralism and global leadership.


Immigration has long been an important issue in the American political scene and despite the countless number of American families that can trace their family history to migrants, many voters approve of isolationist and nationalist immigration policies. The debate over immigration in the United States has reared its ugly head in the form of rising xenophobia and bigotry, a critical aspect of Trump’s rhetoric throughout the 2016 presidential election.

Trump: Immigration is a huge issue for Trump, who has championed a zero-tolerance immigration policy since his candidacy in 2016. In 2019, he attempted to complete his vow of building a wall on the Mexican border by shutting down the federal government, and declared a national emergency on the southern border, allowing him to allocate federal funds to this project. Additionally, the president threatened tariffs against Mexico if the country didn’t improve their own border enforcement. The administration has also imposed a zero-tolerance border crossing policy, which has led to the separation of families at the border and mass incarceration of migrants. In efforts to keep migrants from reaching or staying in the United States, he launched the Remain in Mexico program, which requires asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico as they await their immigration proceedings. Additionally, Trump has brokered “safe third country” agreements with Guatemala and Panama, allowing for migrants who travel through those counties to be deported back if they do not apply for asylum there before they arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In 2017, Trump instituted a ban on incoming travel from several majority Muslim countries. While the original executive order was rejected by courts, a revised version banning travel from Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Yemen was passed. There have been a number of legal changes that Trump has promoted to attempt to reduce immigration overall. He has reduced the cap on the number of refugees accepted into the United States every year to less than 18,000, down from around 80,000; shifted the definition of asylum to no longer include survivors of domestic and gang violence; ended temporary protected status for citizens from Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti and El Salvador; and sought to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has prevented the deportation of 700,000 individuals who were brought to the United States as children. 

Inside our borders, Trump has expanded interior enforcement raids, although his deportation numbers do not meet the peaks seen under the Obama administration; attempted to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities; and, in July of 2020, attempted to revoke the visas of international students studying online, only to reverse the order after MIT, Harvard, USC and 17 states filed lawsuits against the policy.

Biden: Biden and Trump’s immigration policies stand on polar opposite sides of the spectrum. The former vice president has condemned the current administration’s policies as “racist” and “morally bankrupt.” However, Biden grapples with a past painted by restrictionist policies under the Obama administration. 

Biden wants to overturn policies that separate families at the border, establish public-private networks that address humanitarian needs, and make DACA permanent. He opposes the president’s ban on several Muslim majority countries and would eliminate the ban if elected. Additionally, he wants to extend temporary protected status to citizens of El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan and Venezuela, as well as use aid packages to stabilize the countries that migrants originate from. He also backs a 2013 immigration reform plan developed under the Obama administration, that focuses on strengthening border security, cracking down on employers of undocumented workers, creating a path toward earned citizenship, and streamlining the legal immigration system. 

But, Biden’s pro-immigrant stance conflicts with his senatorial record, which includes voting for a law that increased penalties for illegal immigration and expanded the government’s deportation authority in 1996; supporting the Secure Fence Act in 2006, authorizing 700 miles of fencing along the southern border; and, in 2008, proposing to jail employers of undocumented workers, crack down on sanctuary cities, and build more fencing to prevent the entry of drug dealers at the U.S.-Mexico border. 


Since former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping began to revamp the Chinese economic and trade strategy in the 1980s, China has been transforming itself into an economic juggernaut. As we enter the 2020s, China will seek to shed its image as a developing country with an unmatched economy and grow into a true global leader. This has not gone unnoticed by U.S. leadership. Former President Barack Obama’s “strategic pivot” towards Asia in an attempt to counter CCP influence in the region, as seen with the creation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). While both candidates have similar platforms regarding grievances held against the CCP for human rights abuses, territorial disputes in Taiwan and the South China Sea, intellectual property theft and unfair trade practices, each candidate proposes a different strategy for interacting with the rising superpower.

Trump: President Trump has often criticized international institutions like the WTO and multilateral trade deals like the TPP — from which Trump used an executive order to withdraw the United States — for creating advantages for countries other than the United States. Thus, his game plan against China has often revolved around unilateral actions aimed at weakening the Chinese economy and strengthening U.S. producers. Most outstanding in this plan was a series of tariffs on over $350 billion worth of Chinese goods into the United States. Using national security concerns to justify the trade war, Trump has imposed tariffs on goods such as solar panels, washing machines and other household appliances, as well as agricultural products. This led to the US-China Phase 1 Trade Deal which called for the United States to reduce tariffs in exchange for Chinese purchases of U.S. agricultural products. 

Trump has also taken aim at the Chinese technology sector, which many intelligence agencies have argued is guilty of stealing technology from the United States as well as other countries. In 2018, Trump helped push reforms that allowed for the U.S. government to investigate and intervene in foreign investment into domestic companies, particularly taking aim at Chinese venture capital in U.S. technology firms. Additionally, he has imposed restrictions on Chinese tech operations and products in the United States, such as Huawei, Wechat, and TikTok

Other instances of Trump challenging China include being the first president since 1979 to speak to Taiwan’s President and proposing arms sales to the island, ending Hong Kong’s preferential trade status following China’s national security law restricting free speech in the region, and imposing sanctions on companies involved in human rights abuses of the Uighur Muslim minority in China. 

Biden: While Biden agrees with the President that the CCP must be held accountable for breaking internationally accepted trade rules. committing human rights abuses and challenging the U.S. energy, infrastructure and technology sectors, he ultimately believes that unilateral tariffs do more harm than good — citing damages to U.S. manufacturing and agriculture industries. He also thinks that the Phase One Trade Deal focuses too much on agricultural purchases rather than changes to Chinese business practices. As opposed to the United States acting alone against China, Biden believes that the United States must rebuild frayed relations with the world’s democracies — including EU member states and U.S. neighbors, Mexico and Canada — and then approach China through multilateral pressure. Biden believes that this is the best way to force the CCP to subscribe to internationally accepted trade and human rights standards. Biden also supported the Obama-era TPP trade pact and the admission of China into the WTO in 2001, showing a strong belief in the use of international institutions to engage with the growing economic powerhouse.


The backbone of American influence abroad in the post-Cold War era was the Washington Consensus and its focus on an open and liberal international trade and financial system. Rising inequality has led to skepticism toward international institutions on both sides of the aisle. But once again, though both candidates acknowledge these issues, their tactics differ on proposed courses of action. 

Trump: Donald Trump has been vocal about his ‘America First’ agenda since the first weeks of his candidacy in the 2016 election. In his opinion, the United States must combat an international system that is rigged against it and is to be blamed for a large trade deficit, reductions in U.S. manufacturing and the offshoring of American jobs. To combat this, Trump has focused his trade policy on removing the country from allegedly unfair trade deals and renegotiating bilateral agreements to the country’s advantage. President Trump has called the WTO a disaster and has crippled the organization by refusing to nominate judges to its appeals court. In the Asia-Pacific, the President pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, renegotiated bilateral trade conditions with Japan and other member countries and launched a trade war with China that cost the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars. 

Across the Pacific Ocean, the president oversaw the rewriting of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and signed the updated U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which was passed by the U.S. Congress following amendments including strong labor and environmental considerations. Across the Atlantic, Trump has been taking shots at the EU’s trade relationship with the United States, which he calls “worse than China.” In 2019, he placed tariffs on $7.5 billion of EU goods in retaliation to the EU’s subsidization of aircraft manufacturer, Airbus. 

Biden: The former Vice President’s grievances against international trade stems from a lack of consideration for environmental and labor protections. Biden believes that the United States should take charge of the creation of “the rules of the road for the world” to make climate change and human rights centerpieces of the international order. Biden was a part of the negotiating team during the construction of the TPP, joining Obama in the belief that the best counter to China’s influence in the Pacific Rim would be to build a trade deal in the region focused around the United States. Additionally, he voted to pass NAFTA and approved of the revised USMCA, supporting the additional labor and environmental protections. He believes that “aggressive” retaliation is necessary for countries that break international trade rules and that the rules need to be more thoroughly enforced. Ultimately, Biden wants to use free trade as a tool to strengthen ties with African states, thereby opening up new markets to U.S. businesses.


Though this is not a complete list of Trump and Biden’s stances on these critical global issues, it is important for the American populace to gain a basic understanding of how each candidate has impacted global affairs and how they are projected to impact international issues in the future. Additionally, an introductory awareness of how each candidate seeks to position the United States within the international system is of extreme importance, especially as the world continues to grapple with the ongoing economic, political and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.