Excerpt from my new book, “America in Retreat: Foreign Policy Under Donald Trump”

[Note to the Reader: The following excerpt is from the final chapter of the book. It was written earlier this year, but I think everything that has happened since gives further support to the analysis. I hope many of you will buy the book and tell friends about it; and if you email me at mgurtov@aol.com, I’ll send you a publisher’s discount form (25% off) that you and they can use. Many thanks.]

After acquittal, some Republican senators said they hoped Trump had been chastened by the process and would be more cautious in his actions, but this proved to be wishful thinking—as demonstrated by his false claim that he was now “the chief law enforcement officer of the country” and his exploitation of the pandemic to close the border with Mexico.  In a second term, unless Democrats take control of the Senate, we can therefore expect a further erosion of democratic norms, expansion of Trump’s anti-environmental agenda, and a full-blown purge of “disloyal” officials.

In foreign policy, Trump, unlike Nixon—who, according to Henry Kissinger, “went through the motions of governing” once the Watergate crisis broke out, and essentially ceded Kissinger full control—can be expected to be even more unrestrained in a second term. His policy positions will only be reinforced, and taking unwarranted risks in the name of national security are certainly possible with a president who believes he is not accountable to anyone, including the military. At the least, Trump will continue the US retreat from involvement in alliances and international organizations. Critical issues such as climate change, peace with justice in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, global health epidemics, and nuclear arms control are likely to find the United States standing alone and often inconsequential. Russia will remain free to interfere in US elections.  China will have an easier path to satisfying its global ambitions, contrary to Trump’s belief.

But what if a liberal Democrat, meaning Joe Biden, were to be elected in 2020?  He would probably be an articulate spokesperson for human rights, democracy building, a humane immigration policy (including honoring amnesty requests), freedom of the press, and science-based decision-making. He would surely arouse the public to the dangers of radical nationalism in Europe and beyond and perhaps distance the United States from relations with far-right nationalist governments. He would restore foreign aid programs, revitalize US ties to NATO and other treaty partners, and reaffirm the US commitment to the Paris accord.  Renewed respect for the role of congressional oversight and for public opinion could also be expected.  Biden would surely seek to restore Obama-era environmental regulations and the removal of industry lobbyists, lawyers, and others who went to work for Trump’s EPA.  Under Biden, we will not find a US representative to an international conference on climate change saying, as happened under Trump at COP24, that “no country should have to sacrifice their economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability.”

But Biden’s foreign policy agenda would probably preserve some highly questionable directions, in some instances with Cold War coloration. High on the list would be military spending, for which most Democrats in recent years (Obama included) have consistently voted major increases. Like liberals before him, Biden would probably be unable to resist right-wing pressure to keep modernizing the nuclear weapons inventory. He would probably continue US involvement in and financing of multilateral institutions such as the WTO and IMF, and support of “free trade” agreements like the TPP and the USMCA, despite all their deficiencies in governance and inattention to labor conditions and environmental protection. As an establishment Democrat, Biden would still promote arms sales abroad, even to friendly authoritarian governments. Relations with Russia and China might well plummet to new lows, perhaps even back to a containment strategy.[iv]

 Joe Biden would probably embrace American exceptionalism.  He might also be more inclined than Trump to intervene abroad with force.  Obama, after all, had planned to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, only to reverse gears and restore US involvement in those “endless wars.”  Biden, however, seems to have learned from that experience, at least with respect to the Middle East.[v] But he might also depart from Obama’s central idea of engagement with adversaries, and thus be unlikely to pursue normalizing relations with North Korea and possibly not even willing to revitalize Obama’s signature achievements—restoring relations with Cuba and the nuclear deal with Iran. In fact, Biden might reaffirm Trump’s pro-Israel policies rather than take the political risk of challenging them.

A progressive administration, by contrast, would be defined by a deeper relationship between domestic and foreign policy—that is, domestic priorities would not merely shape but would significantly dictate foreign policy priorities. Fighting authoritarianism, inequality, and environmental irresponsibility abroad begins by promoting democracy, social justice, and environmental protection at home. The military budget would be substantially trimmed, with much of the savings transferred to pay for social needs that bear on human security. Protecting the environment and public health would be elevated to the top of the national security agenda. A progressive US president would take the lead in creating a global coalition on mitigating and reversing climate change and promoting scientific collaboration on pandemics. And on economic globalization, “free trade” would come in for major revision, with an eye to whether or not agreements promote social well-being at home and abroad. The privileged position of multinational corporations would be reduced by removing their numerous tax advantages. . . .

A return to diplomacy and, specifically, dialogue with adversaries would be high on the list of a progressive president’s priorities, though in 2020 it is hard to find any politician willing to talk about a trying a new approach to Russia or challenging the demonizing of China.[i] How do we know dialogue would work with, say, Iran or North Korea? We don’t, but we do know this much for sure: Dialogue worked with Iran, producing a breakthrough nuclear deal that combined incentives with rigorous verification; and it worked with North Korea to produce, among other agreements, acceptance of the principle of “action for action” rather than (as Trump and previous presidents had it) disarmament first and rewards second. Whether or not serious talks—meaning substantive, verifiable agreements undertaken with mutual respect, incentives for peace, and sensitivity to history—could work now cannot be predicted. We only know that it was rarely even considered under Donald Trump.



  1. Hi Mel:

    Good summation of probable “liberal Democrat” foreign policy under Joe Biden, contrasted

    with what progressive policy would look like. Note typo in last pp, 2nd line: “willing to talk about

    a trying a new approach” (delete the first “a”).

    It is troubling, in that I just finished reading “Which Past Is Prologue? Heeding the Right Warnings

    From History” by Univ of Toronto historian Margaret MacMillan, the excellent lead article in the Sept-Oct Foreign

    Affairs (pp. 12-22). She notes that today’s unstable world looks like that of the 1910s and 1930s, and that

    “unchecked or unmoderated tensions could lead to extremism at home and conflict abroad.” Also that

    “at times of heightened tension, accidents can set off explosions…if countries in moments of crisis lack

    wise and capable leadership.”

    – Mike

    PS: Who is your publisher and when will your book be out?

    PPS: Are you getting any California smoke up in Oregon? My sister in Oakland is wearing a face mask for

    smoke (as well as COVID), and ashes are settling on her cars.

  2. Gentlemen, In these "extraordinary", "unprecedented", "unprepared for" times, thank you for keeping me up to date with why these are extraordinarily extraordinary, unprecedentedly unprecedented, and invariably unprepared for times. As I struggle to care for a beloved but difficult patient, juggle three 'deadlines' of major projects (one next week) and prepare for meetings with two surgeons next Friday the message(s) below arrive at an intellectually 'interesting' time: – quite by accident in my never-ending effort to bring some order to my 'paper' (background) I came upon the first draft of the 11/6/14 Marien/Gurtov ?op ed? "Let's Have Real Debates". Very timely and, updated, should be re-submitted. – I am well into the Summer 2020 (hard copy) Foreign Policy journal, which I have subscribed to for 18 years – so half as long as to the Economist. The magazine's Cover begins with the question "Will This Time Be Different". As a de Geussian I rephrase the question to What If This Time Will be Different. So much mental stir. – in this FP journal are stored a number of Economist pieces from the past eight months. One, from the May 9th, 2020 edition is Margaret MacMillan's invited 'op-ed' on the world after COVID-19: The Pandemic is a turning point in history. Every 'woke' person should read it. I wish you all continued freedom from COVID-19. sincerely, David

    <!– <!– <!–

  3. Hi Mel,

    Congratulations on the publication of your book # 95!

    Please send me your publisher’s discount form.

    Please don’t stop.


    From: In the Human Interest – Mel Gurtov Reply-To: In the Human Interest – Mel Gurtov Date: Friday, August 21, 2020 at 3:48 PM To: Subject: [New post] Excerpt from my new book, “America in Retreat: Foreign Policy Under Donald Trump”

    Mel Gurtov posted: ” [Note to the Reader: The following excerpt is from the final chapter of the book. It was written earlier this year, but I think everything that has happened since gives further support to the analysis. I hope many of you will buy the book and tell frie”

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