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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Grand Strategies of the Left: A Book Discussion with Dr. Van Jackson

Progressives are often critical of US foreign policy and the national security state – but why? What would a statecraft that pulls ideas from the American left look like?

Grand Strategies of the Left, the latest book by Dr. Van Jackson, Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for International Policy, brings the progressive worldview into conversation with security studies and foreign policy practice. It argues that American progressives think durable security will only come by prioritizing the interconnected conditions of peace, democracy, and equality.

Please join CIP for an in-person discussion with Dr. Van Jackson about Grand Strategies of the Left and the future of progressive foreign policy.

The event is free and open to the public but RSVP is required (register here).

WHEN: Wednesday, March 27, 2024

5:00 – 7:00 PM EST

WHERE: Busboys and Poets

450 K Street NW

Washington, DC

WHO:

  • Dr. Van Jackson, Author & Senior Non-Resident Fellow, Center for International Policy

  • In conversation with Matt Duss, Executive Vice President, Center for International Policy & Dr. Nancy Okail, President and CEO, Center for International Policy

 

Van Jackson

Van

Van Jackson is a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. He is also a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and a senior research scholar at Security in Context where he co-directs the “Multipolarity, Great-Power Competition, and the Global South” project. He specializes in East Asian and Pacific security, critical analysis of defense issues, and the intersection of working-class interests with foreign policy.

Jackson is the author of the Un-Diplomatic Newsletter, as well as four books on international relations, including most recently Grand Strategies of the Left: The Foreign Policy of Progressive Worldmaking (Cambridge University Press, 2023) and Pacific Power Paradox: American Statecraft and the Fate of the Asian Peace (Yale University Press, 2023). His writing has been featured in wide-ranging outlets, including The Nation, New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, Dissent Magazine, and Current Affairs. A one-time “defense intellectual” turned peace strategist, Jackson previously served as a strategist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the Obama administration and is a U.S. Air Force veteran.