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How Has U.S. Foreign Policy Changed Over The Years? The Answer May Surprise You


How much did the United States really change foreign policy when it changed presidents? Joe Biden is a very different person from Donald Trump. But Richard Haass argues that their approach to the world is less different than it seems. Haass is the head of the Council on Foreign Relations. It's a private group that includes a great deal of the U.S. foreign policy establishment - you know, diplomats and officials, some of them famous, many not, who engage with the world and wield influence as they go in and out of government over time.

In the magazine Foreign Affairs, Haass argues that in recent years, many people in that establishment have developed a bipartisan consensus about the world that is wrong. He says three very different presidents - Obama, then Trump, then Biden - have been pushing the United States in the same direction.

Why would you say the past three presidents have not been that different in their foreign policy direction?

RICHARD HAASS: All three of them had a domestic-first bias. All three of them were reactions to what they saw - correctly, I would argue - as the overreach of George W. Bush and large role of the United States in the world in terms of Iraq, Afghanistan, trying to transform other societies into democracies. And in their own ways, what they've all done is introduced a counterreaction. And suddenly we're against, quote-unquote, "forever wars." We're getting out of the Middle East or Afghanistan, a real suspicion of free trade and the turning inward.

INSKEEP: Hasn't Joe Biden changed the words that are used to describe U.S. foreign policy pretty dramatically?

HAASS: He has. He's described the world as a fight or a battle between democracy and authoritarianism. That's obviously very different from Donald Trump. He talks about getting back into the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. He's gotten the United States back into the Paris climate process. What's not so different is the actual foreign policy. We've said any number of demonstrations of American unilateralism, most recently with France over a submarine deal, also the way the United States got out of Afghanistan was positively Trumpian. Even democracy - even though we talk about it a lot more, well, when push came to shove, we didn't do anything to help the people in Cuba. We didn't do anything vis-a-vis Haiti. The Uighurs in China along with the people in Hong Kong are living under extraordinarily repressive rule. I mean, we're talking the talk on democracy. I'm not sure we're walking the walk.

INSKEEP: We think of administrations in terms of personalities, and the personalities have been very different for the last three presidencies. But I think you're arguing something deeper - that American public opinion more broadly, the foreign policy consensus, as you call it, is moving in the direction these three presidents are taking it.

HAASS: Absolutely. You see it most with China - a much, much more muscular policy towards China. There was a hope that China would become more open politically, more market-oriented economically, would continue on a relatively benign course in terms of its foreign policy. None of these things have come to pass. I think we can actually start talking about what I would call a post-post-Cold War foreign policy. After the - what you might call the drift of the Clinton years, the overreach of the Bush 43 years, we've now had three presidents in a row who were dialing it back and are reducing America's involvement in the world.

INSKEEP: So you're saying that after the Cold War, there was a period of several decades where the United States wasted its opportunities, didn't get a lot done. And now three state presidents have tried to correct that. What is wrong with the way they're trying to correct it?

HAASS: What's wrong with the way we're trying to correct it now is we're doing less in the world at just a time that COVID and climate change showed that what happens in the world directly affects us. And I simply don't see a serious effort on our part, whether in this case it's to produce and distribute vaccines around the world, to do something about climate change, to do something about North Korean or Iranian nuclear weapons. We're not on a serious trajectory there. So what I'm struck by is the gap between what's going on in the world and the arrangements we're trying to put into place and, instead, what I mainly see is a focus on China, which is necessary. But even if everything goes our way with China, it's not going to deal with any of the problems I just mentioned.

INSKEEP: You don't seem to think that the U.S. even has the policy right on China.

HAASS: I don't. I think it's almost hard to describe what the policy is. For some, it's regime change. For some, it's dealing with Chinese human rights and democratic infractions. I don't think we have it right either in the narrow sense or in its relationship to the rest of our foreign policy.

INSKEEP: Biden administration figures who've been on our air have suggested that American public opinion broadly is part of this. They have pointed out that if you do not get a foreign policy that is broadly supported by the public, one thing you may end up with is Donald Trump, which is not a thing that you want if you're a member of the Biden administration. What can Joe Biden do given that American politics are what American politics are?

HAASS: Well, first of all, when it comes to foreign policy, presidents have enormous latitude. And so the president can pretty much have the foreign policy he wants. He didn't have to get out of Afghanistan when he did or how he did. He chose to do it. And then let's also (ph) just make the larger point. You don't run foreign policy by public opinion poll. You run foreign policy by what you think is smart and right. And then you go out and sell it, and you defend it, and you explain it.

INSKEEP: Public opinion does seem to be the way, though, that Republicans, for example, have backed off of their historic defense of free trade. It wasn't popular. Particular guy got nominated by denouncing free trade, and he has shifted the whole party, and it's accepted that that's where the party base is.

HAASS: And you may be right, and I think making the case for free trade is going to be difficult. The polls, by the way, still show that a surprising number of Americans favor it in principle. The problem is that the opponents bring much greater intensity to the fight. One idea I've got is, why don't we use trade agreements to try to promote our goals on climate change? That might be something that we could get Democrats who otherwise would not support free trade, that might get them on board if we said they'll be special taxes that will be put on manufactured goods that are produced with coal or other fossil fuels. It will be an uphill fight because, for years, the defenders of free trade assumed that it would never go on the defensive, and they lost. The debate turned against free trade, even though this country has arguably been, over the decades, the greatest beneficiary.

INSKEEP: Richard Haass, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

HAASS: Thank you, sir.

INSKEEP: Richard Haass is the head of the Council on Foreign Relations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.