Post-CNN Debate: Visions for the World in 2025

On June 27, CNN held a debate between former president Donald Trump and incumbent president Joe Biden. Both men are in the unique position of running against a previous office holder, and the election itself is a rematch of the socially distanced contest held between the same two candidates in 2020.

There is arguably no area of governance where a president has greater freedom and impact than foreign policy. To better understand how the candidates used foreign policy positions on the debate stage, and the limits of their understanding or desired policies, the fellows of the Center for International Policy have assembled to offer some deeper insight. A transcript of the debate can be read here.
 

Sina Toossi, on the Middle East in the Debate

The presidential debate offered little hope for a more peaceful and just U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East. The most egregious moment was Trump’s use of “Palestinian” as an insult in an exchange with Biden over their “pro-Israel” stances, a shocking display of racism that has largely escaped mainstream scrutiny.

Trump’s false claims about his Iran policy—asserting Iran was impotent and “broke” by the end of his term—belie the reality of his maximum pressure campaign, which provoked increased aggression from Iran, including unprecedented attacks on U.S. assets and allies, and accelerated nuclear activities.

Biden also faltered, with factual inaccuracies about Iran having intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities and misleading claims about U.S. military members not being killed under his watch in the region. Both candidates failed to present a coherent vision of the realities of U.S. policies towards the region.

 

Joanna Rozpedowski, on NATO in the Debate

Voters concerned about America’s security and geopolitical strategy face a pivotal choice between two starkly different approaches to international conflicts the new president will inevitably confront.

In the CNN debate, President Biden emphasized the importance of robust alliances and collective security measures, arguing that NATO and allied support are essential for deterring Russian aggression and maintaining global stability.

Former President Trump’s transactional approach prioritized national sovereignty, extreme frugality, and direct negotiation over costly multilateral commitments. His rhetoric indicated skepticism about the economic and tactical burdens the US bears in supporting NATO’s Ukraine approach, which thus far failed to result in the war’s peaceful settlement and risks further escalation onto neighboring European countries.

In November, this strategic divide presents Americans with a critical decision: maintain strong international alliances, an aggressive deterrence posture, and multilateral NATO engagement or attempt to resolve the conflict through diplomatic channels and direct negotiation. The decision rests squarely with the electorate.

 

Michael Chamberlin, on Mexico in the Debate

Regarding the issue of fentanyl crossing the border, neither candidate focuses on addressing the root causes. They fail to discuss how to collaborate with Mexico to strengthen its justice and anti-corruption institutions or how to stop Mexican criminal groups from obtaining guns in U.S. stores. Nothing was said about gun control in the United States or the movement of guns south through the same border, which arms the cartels that later send fentanyl north. Additionally, they overlook the importance of preventive measures from a health service perspective. Approaching the problem from a prohibition standpoint alone will never stop drug abuse.

 

Negar Mortazavi, on Iran in the Debate

Neither Trump nor Biden offered a coherent policy on Iran and the broader Middle East. Trump claimed that Iran had no money under his administration which is false. It’s true that he imposed broad sanctions against Iran that hurt the economy. But the impact of sanctions is mainly felt by average Iranian citizens and it does not really influence or change Iran’s foreign policy and regional spending. In fact, during Trump’s term tensions were high between Iran and its network of allies, the Axis of Resistance, and the U.S. and its regional allies.

Trump’s assassination of the top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani brought the two countries to the brink of a dangerous war, with Iran retaliating against the U.S. by shooting missiles from its soil targeting U.S. forces in Iraq. Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy towards Iran was not only dangerous but failed to achieve its stated goal of bringing Iran to the negotiating table for a better deal.

Biden’s policy towards Iran in general has not been very different or successful either. Candidate Biden had promised to prioritize diplomacy with Iran and revive the nuclear deal, but he couldn’t deliver on that promise.

 

Van Jackson, on China in the Debate

Biden has accepted Trump’s premise about China and economic statecraft. He now thinks reducing the trade deficit with China is a mark of progress. He imagines political economy as a zero-sum terrain where their gain is not just our loss; it’s a threat to us. This is the kind of economic nationalism that ultimately serves defense-industrial interests and reactionary political projects.Trump, for his part, openly accused the sitting American president of treason and corruption–he called him a “Manchurian candidate.” This is actual red-baiting; literally John Birch Society stuff. The notable thing, which is of pattern, is that Trump is using China as the wedge to attack his political opponent. The fascistic, corrupt politician is using the China bogeyman to advance his politics against his democratic opponent. The GOP did much the same in 2020 and 2022.

It’s true that politicians from both parties try to play the “China card” to their advantage…but it’s false that the “China card” is some value-neutral object that anyone can use for their purposes with equal effectiveness. China-threat rhetoric systematically biases toward reactionary, demagogic political outcomes; it’s unfavorable terrain for democratic politics. That’s why Democrats who tried to out-hawk their opponents on China in 2022 fared poorly in the general election.

Trump is not wrong that Biden’s foreign policy is pushing us toward World War III—we’re still insisting on a strategy of primacy in a world where power realities simply make it impossible. And by pursuing primacy anyway, the national security state naturalizes the necessity of the most dangerous kinds of policies: containment, arms-racing, and economic nationalism. This will not end well for anyone. The falsity in Trump’s rant though is that he is any better. Indeed, Biden’s China policy is Trump’s China policy. Worse, Trump’s implied theory of war prevention appears to be a form of extortion. Cultivating personal relationships with dictators, he insists, is the way to prevent World War III. That means that Trump puts himself in the position of telling the public, “Look, you want me to be friends with Xi and Putin and Kim. That’s how I’m preventing Armageddon.”

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CIP Condemns COVID Vaccine Disinformation Campaign by Pentagon

In response to the shocking report that the Pentagon initiated a social media manipulation-based disinformation campaign under the Trump Administration to discredit Chinese-origin vaccines and protective equipment among the Filipino public in an effort to undermine perceptions of China in the Philippines in the midst of the COVID pandemic, Center for International Policy President & CEO Nancy Okail issued the following statement:

“Americans should be outraged that their government launched a disinformation campaign under Donald Trump that essentially weaponized the COVID pandemic, imperiling the lives of countless innocent people in the Philippines and beyond.

Spreading dangerous lies about vaccines and personal protective equipment among an especially hard-hit population is inhumane in and of itself. To have done so for the sole purpose of eroding public perceptions about China in a partner country, while callously disregarding the certainty that it would jeopardize the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents, is utterly indefensible.

We are glad that the Biden Administration appears to have ended the campaign within its first few months of taking office. We call on relevant Congressional committees and leaders to seek a thorough investigation of this disinformation campaign and hold those responsible for it fully accountable.

It is dangerous to let an abstract geopolitical concept override the urgent necessity of saving human lives. The outrage and distrust of the United States this cruel gambit is already beginning to engender demonstrates some of the inherent dangers of the ‘great power competition’ mindset that is  shaping US foreign policy across the globe. Rather than cooperating in areas like global health where US and Chinese interests align, the obsession with undercutting China on every issue and in every region leads to outcomes that ultimately harm US standing and security. The United States can be clear-eyed about the need to address China’s destabilizing actions and repressive policies, while at the same time better serving our essential interests by engaging China in a manner that reduces dangerous tensions rather than exacerbating them.”

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Taiwan & Tensions with China: Five Recommendations for US Policy

Taiwan has built a vibrant democracy on values Americans share and is an important US economic partner. China is the largest power in the region and sees Taiwan’s fate as central to its own national interest. US leaders need to manage these realities in a way that enhances regional and global stability, rather than framing disagreements over Taiwan as part of a dangerous narrative of inevitable conflict with China. Rhetoric about “winning” wars that neither Americans nor the people in that region want to fight is misguided and reckless. The US can best serve Taiwan’s security, and our own, by stabilizing relations with China in a manner that reduces the dangerous tensions that have built up between Washington and Beijing. The Center for International Policy has developed the following recommendations for US action toward that goal.

Recommendation #1: Ratchet “competition” rhetoric down rather than up

The people and government of Taiwan—as well as nearly all countries in the region—are saying loud and clear that they want a reduction in US–China tensions. Most countries also do not want to be forced to align with one side against the other. 

The United States should amplify statements and actions that bolster the status quo. It should reiterate its longstanding position of strategic ambiguity to both China and Taiwan, and avoid inflammatory symbolic gestures that do little to increase Taiwan’s security but signal to China that Taiwan is moving toward formal independence. While opinion in Taiwan is highly fragmented on what status to ultimately aim for, there is an overwhelming consensus on what to do today: four of every five people in Taiwan want to maintain the ambiguous status quo.

When Chinese official actions warrant criticism, the United States must also take care to clearly distinguish between the Chinese Communist Party-controlled government and the Chinese people. Calling out the human rights violations, repressive policies and authoritarianism of the Chinese government is crucial, but so is countering the increasing vilification of China in American politics, which not only puts the Chinese diaspora and Asian-Americans at risk of increased discrimination and violence; it repeats the dangerous “clash of civilizations” narrative reminiscent of the disastrous “war on terror” era.

Recommendation #2: Support—don’t jeopardize—Taiwan’s self-defense

Meeting the United States’ long-held objective of preserving stability in East Asia and the Pacific requires avoiding and dissuading others from taking actions that increase risks of war, encourage militarist policies, or empower reactionary politicians. America’s key tasks in this regard are to foreclose on the prospect of a future crisis and make miscalculation less, rather than more, likely.

That means robustly supporting Taiwan’s self defense according to a principle of non-offensive or non-provocative defense, balancing the need to defend against and render prohibitively costly Chinese attempts at conquest with the twin imperatives of both preventing war in the first place and reducing the prospects of nuclear escalation should a war occur. Accordingly, US arms sales should focus on capabilities that support the political status quo and preserve strategic stability. That includes systems to help Taiwan blunt Chinese power projection while avoiding new weapons systems that could range deep into the Chinese mainland and eschewing an arms buildup on a scale that would be reasonably misperceived as mobilizing for war. It also means undertaking efforts to ensure Taiwanese cybersecurity and combat disinformation that could stoke belligerent sentiment and trigger confrontation.

Recommendation #3: Foster stability by ensuring the legitimacy of international law survive its tests in Ukraine and Gaza

While differences in the precise circumstances and histories of each conflict are apparent, Chinese aggression toward Taiwan would be subject to the same international humanitarian law (IHL) obligations as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the war in Gaza. The extent to which the United States affirms and acts to uphold the laws of war, human rights and democratic principles with regard to those conflicts has a tremendous impact on the international legal landscape in which China operates vis-a-vis Taiwan.

Failure to champion adherence to international law in these conflicts – either by backing away from material support for Ukraine as it fights illegal conquest or by continuing to largely ignore Israeli IHL violations both in Gaza and in connection with its deepening occupation and annexation of the West Bank – undermines the universality of their application and makes it easier for actors like China to ignore them without fear of consequences from other states. The US unwillingness to take meaningful steps to protect Palestinian lives and rights in the Gaza war has led to accusations of hypocrisy. Continuing that mistaken approach, alongside the movement by rightwing forces in the US to limit or cease support for Ukraine, will only further degrade the international order the US constructed after WWII, eroding an important barrier to China and other actors that may consider more aggressive actions of their own.

Recommendation #4: Invest in the US domestic critical technology workforce, while cooperating with China on shared challenges like climate change.

The Biden administration has already taken steps to increase domestic production capacity for technologies critical to the security and economy of the United States, especially advanced technologies and those essential to address dire challenges like climate change. US technical innovation led the way in the 20th century and should continue to do so as we face new global challenges. Increasing government support for programs to ensure an ample and sustainable workforce for these industries – including through transitional income support, student loan forgiveness and substantially increased across–the-board investments in public education and societal welfare – should therefore also be pursued as a US security priority. 

At the same time, US strategic investments in American democracy, equality, and prosperity must be undertaken in such a way that they do not simply redirect insecurity toward the rest of the world. The technologies needed to survive, mitigate, and overcome challenges like climate change and global health threats will not be built in one nation, and will require significant investment and cooperation from governments across the world.

Both China and the US face tremendous challenges from warming temperatures, particularly in the area of desertification and water security. Cynically exploiting these vulnerabilities in China, as some have argued the United States should, in the hope that they lead to crisis and instability is both immoral and dangerous. Catastrophic or even substantial dysfunction in one of the world’s largest countries, economic engines and a nuclear power would imperil US and global security in a multitude of areas. Instead, the United States should approach cooperation on addressing urgent climate change imperatives – such as working with China to leverage non debt-creating climate finance investments and provide critical technical assistance to developing countries – as an opportunity to build trust and identify areas of mutual benefit on other issues.

Recommendation #5: Advance global priorities that break away from an outdated and counterproductive “Great Power Competition” mindset

The explicit embrace of a “Great Power Competition” worldview by the Biden Administration and much of the US foreign policy establishment drives its fixation on reducing China’s presence and influence around the world. The dangerously unquestioned need to “counter” or even “beat” China in region after region across the globe is not only reactionary, but subordinates US interests at home and abroad to a zero-sum fight that drains US resources and goodwill. China’s leaders, in turn, seem happy to accept the prestige that comes with being the apparently destined competitor of the United States. They shape China’s foreign and military policy with this confrontation paradigm in mind, with Taiwan’s fate teetering at the leading edge.

The United States needs to recognize and secure its interests in the reality of a multi-polar world, rather than futilely attempting to forestall it via a costly and ultimately self-defeating effort to constantly disadvantage China. US military spending is already three times that of China (which is investing much of the difference in sectors like green technology). While China has a larger naval fleet in terms of vessel numbers, the US has far greater naval capability. What ultimately matters is not the actual balance of forces, but what a nation does with its share of the balance–and that has much to do with the overall tenor of relations and policy choices outside the military domain. The challenges that we face globally – among them climate change, political instability and pandemics — require equally global cooperation and cannot be solved militarily. 

To break out of the zero-sum competition that dominates strategic thinking on both sides, a new approach to defining success in global influence is required, focusing on 1) global public goods like universal public health infrastructure and green energy for all; 2) significantly increasing development investment in those countries and regions that have been starved of capital for decades; and 3) guaranteeing human, political and labor rights globally. Building international cooperation around such a transformation of the global economy would reestablish US–China relations  on a new foundation, revive the legitimacy of international norms by expanding the opportunity it offers to people of all countries, and address the truly existential threats humanity faces today.

CIP Response to the 2024 State of the Union

Matt Duss is the Executive Vice President of the Center for International Policy

On foreign policy, President Biden’s State of the Union last night didn’t give us too much to work with. He did come right out of the gate strong, talking about Ukraine. I can’t remember the last time a president opened the State of the Union talking about foreign policy, but it really served to underline the urgency of the need to pass the Ukraine aid package which has been stalled in Congress for months.

The section on the Gaza war was unfortunately as expected. Yesterday’s announcement of the building of a Gaza port to facilitate humanitarian aid shouldn’t be dismissed  – more aid for Palestinians on the brink of starvation is obviously good. But as with the airdropping of aid it just reveals the incoherence of U.S. policy right now, in which we’re trying to ease Palestinian suffering while continuing to unconditionally arm and support the government that is intentionally inflicting that suffering.

The president seems to recognize that ultimately this conflict will require a political solution, but is still unwilling to bring the full weight of America’s considerable leverage to that goal. Biden’s potted history of the conflict didn’t help. Hamas’ atrocities on October 7 were obviously the precipitating event, but this war did not begin on October 7. It has been waged against the Palestinians every day for years in the form of a violent and humiliating military occupation. Any effort to bring this conflict to a just resolution will need to confront that reality, and Biden seems unprepared to do that.

On the bright side, Biden took what I think is exactly the right approach on his administration’s biggest foreign policy priority: China. He basically told everybody to chill out about it, he’s got this. This isn’t dismissing the challenge, he hasn’t done that, but I think taking a less hysterical approach is something that will lead to a more rational discussion and better, more effective policy.

On immigration, a key goal must be tackling root causes, such as corruption and violence, in US-Latin America policy. The president unfortunately allowed himself to be drawn into a back and forth with Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green over the murder of Laken Riley, a 22 year old Georgia nursing student who was murdered by an undocumented migrant who had been released into the country after being detained. Biden’s statement that Riley had been “killed by an illegal” was a misstep that plays right into the right’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, which is unfortunately in keeping with his general approach to immigration lately, where he’s been willing to tack right and offer some pretty dangerous concessions to try and save the Ukraine aid package. But many of the principles and values at stake at our border are the same ones at stake in Ukraine: human safety and dignity, a commitment to international law. It’s wrong to think we can promote one while selling out the other.

But the bottom line is there just wasn’t much foreign policy in it at all. A few paragraphs in a nearly 90 minute speech. And that reflects his administration’s approach: they would like to talk about foreign policy as little as possible. President Biden has a strong case to make in terms of his administration’s domestic accomplishments. They’ve been able to get important things done that are showing huge benefits to the American people. He has a similar opportunity to advance a foreign policy agenda that improves the lives of Americans and global populations alike. Given that foreign policy is clearly going to be a much bigger issue in this election than anyone expected, I think it was a missed opportunity to stake out a bolder vision.

 

What we’d love to hear President Biden say on Foreign Policy in his State of the Union address

In February 2021, in his first major foreign policy address as president, Biden declared the US must engage with the world “with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”

Since then, the President has made some significant progress: restoring alliances, leading a strong and calibrated response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, ending the US war in Afghanistan, attacking the corruption and violence in Latin America fueling the migration crisis. But he must finish the job.

In his State of the Union address tonight, here are five (of many) opportunities for what President Joe Biden could say if he wants to show Congress, the American people and the world that he is serious about advancing true US interests and global human security:

 

  1. There must be a ceasefire, return of all Israeli hostages and massive emergency humanitarian aid effort in Gaza. Furthermore, this administration can and must fully enforce relevant US and international law to ensure protection of civilians from indiscriminate bombardment, starvation and disease.
  2. The US response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine offers a positive case study for US engagement with the world in a way that honors our principles and advances security – but universality and consistency are necessary to safeguard the benefits. President Biden will be right to call on right-wing extremists in Congress to end their obstruction of aid to Ukraine – desperately needed aid, replete with the transparency and accountability mechanisms necessary to ensure the American public and the world can scrutinize its rightful use. Consistent adherence to international law will only strengthen his case.
  3. China and our allies in Asia alike must know that Americans’ highest aspirations for the Pacific are that the world’s most populous region be one of peace, prosperity and unlimited potential. The US-China relationship is not zero-sum. Tensions are inevitable, but escalation and war are a choice. While we will never shy away from defending the democratic and human rights of all in the region, our priority is to coexist and cooperate on our many areas of shared interest.
  4. The man-made climate crisis is here. The only reasonable discussion to have is how to minimize and mitigate it effectively and fairly – that means we and international partners must commitment to aggressive multilateral carbon reduction goals, massive public investment in a just and sustainable transition away from fossil fuels – including breaking the harmful feedback loop between militarism and climate change – and the equitable sharing of burdens of climate and other ecological change impacts.
  5. We must make clear that the survival of not only democracy around the globe, but the American experiment itself depends on whether we succeed in countering rising ultranationalism, autocracy, kleptocracy, oligarchy and corruption – as well as the inherent inequality, discrimination, repression and economic precarity that comes with them.

The President has an opportunity tonight to demonstrate that he is the leader that the people of this and other nations want and deserve – the leader that earned him praise and support in years past. To do that, we must stop repeating the failures of the past, especially when it comes to foreign policy.

Issue Brief: U.S. Security Cooperation with Taiwan

An overview of U.S. security cooperation with Taiwan amid rising tensions with China