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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When Will Peace Talks Become an Option in the Russia-Ukraine War?

Eventually, Russia’s war on Ukraine will end. The form of that end will reflect, in large part, the reality on the ground, the political realities and lines that soldiers fought for years to shape and hold. The end of the war will also reflect the willingness of the parties to the conflict, primarily political leadership in Russia and Ukraine, to decide when the slaughter has been enough, to find the terms for peace after violence.

As Dr. Joanna Rozpedowski, senior non resident fellow at CIP, writes for The Geopolitics:

One thing is certain, the world cannot sanction and bomb its way out of serious foreign policy conundrums. One day the guns will fall silent and as with wars of the past, the victors and the vanquished will marvel at a simple gesture of a pen affixing signatures to the peace treaty and wonder, after tallying its dead and wounded, why it took this long. In the nuclear age, this is what advanced societies ought to have the humility and courage to do.

Nuclear weapons form a bounding constraint on the court of the conflict. Russia’s arsenal, the largest in the world, limits in absolute terms the involvement of other nations in the conflict, and carries the menace of a catastrophically high price for any attempt by arms to dissolve the Russian government or state. While not explicitly named, the three nuclear armed members of NATO, including the United States with an arsenal at parity with Russia, constrain the ways in which Russia can conduct war beyond Ukraine, which it has already invaded.

To name these constraints is to acknowledge the reality of the war, and to make open the possibility for considering the way a negotiated settlement might resolve the conflict.

Continues Rozpedowski:

An international peace conference presents itself as a potential avenue for de-escalation. By convening key stakeholders—including Ukraine, Russia, EU, NATO, U.S., and relevant regional actors—such a forum could provide a platform for a much-overdue constructive and frank exchange of grievances and remedies. A rich diplomatic history of peace congresses exists, which not only gave rise to laws, declarations, conventions, and treaties but through dialogue laid out a foundation for a more humane international order and transcendence of the psychology of dominance among once enemy nations. In an era of boisterous punditry and vocal expertise from all sectors of society, when it comes to peace, why do we remain so afraid to talk?

Read more from Rozpedowski about the role of dialog in bringing an end to conflict.

The threat of space war is already here

What will happen when war comes to the heavens? Orbit, the most immediately useful part of space, is already a military domain, housing constellations of satellites that relay communications, observing the earth below, and creating useful data on the whole of the world. These military satellites are joined by commercial and scientific satellites, connecting the world and offering a host of useful services to people and companies on the planet below.

Multiple nations have successfully destroyed their own de-orbiting satellites with missiles fired from earth, and the possibility persists that a nation may attack the satellites of another during wartime.

As Dr. Joanna Rozpedowski, senior non resident fellow at CIP, writes for the Geopolitical Monitor:

Every terrestrial war is now simultaneously a space and cyber war requiring identification and active monitoring of threats from space assets and threats to space assets from rival states. In the US Department of Defense assessment, China and Russia in particular pose significant risks to space assets through various means such as cyber warfare, electronic attacks, and ground-to-orbit missiles capable of destroying satellites and space-to-space orbital engagement systems, thus disrupting civilian infrastructure on earth. This has prompted the United States to allocate substantial resources to bolster its Space Forces, with budgetary allocations to the space domain doubling from $15.4 billion to $30.3 billion between 2021 and 2024.

Orbit is shared by commercial satellites alongside military ones, and many commercial satellite products, like images of earth from above, can be purchased by private individuals and organizations.Commercial satellites can, in a pinch, end up providing data used to military ends, as forces risk communication over a commercial network, or make plans based on satellite imagery bought for reconnaissance.

Continues Rozpedowski:

Private actors must thus increasingly reckon with the unintended consequences of detailed satellite ad hoc data sharing in active conflict zones in high-demand data environments. Navigating these complexities will require international cooperation, technological innovation, and a careful consideration of ethical and political implications as well as the provision of legal guardrails to avoid the appearance of bias and undue politicization.

The existing international treaties governing space date to the middle of last century, in effect but out of date regarding present realities. Read more from Rozpedowski about the challenges of potential armed conflict in orbit.