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Political considerations drive too many presidential policy shifts

Political considerations drive too many presidential policy shifts

Every new president of a different party than his predecessor changes policies upon entering office. This is particularly the case in foreign policy, where the president is able to move quickly and, often, without the need for congressional action.

A re-evaluation of policy should be welcome when a new administration starts. A change driven by the desire to diverge from the previous administration, for that reason alone, however, might not be so wise.

When President Donald Trump took over from President Barack Obama, he made several foreign policy decisions that appeared to be motivated just to reverse Obama. Moving the United States out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, which Obama favored, for instance, made poor sense, since it created a vacuum of economic leadership in Asia, which China readily filled.

The Paris Climate Accord is another example. It is a first step in international cooperation on climate change, virtually without teeth and so incapable of harming American economic interests, which was the purported reason Trump took America out of it.  Had we stayed in during the Trump years, America could have influenced its direction, hopefully in pragmatic ways. Yet Trump was eager to reject the flagship environmental policy of Obama, so America left.

Today, President Joe Biden is at risk of the same mistake: ironically emulating President Trump by making foreign policy decisions at least in part from the motive of showing how different he is from his predecessor.  Trump declared “America first.” On Friday, Biden announced “America is back!” to the Munich Security Conference, pledging to defend America’s allies without regard to America’s interests that he termed either “transactional” or “extractive.”  His tone was reminiscent of President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address that America would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

JFK’s stirring words were right for his time; but Biden might be rushing too quickly away from the Trump approach to European allies when he criticized it as “transactional.”  Trump displayed very little diplomatic skill with Europe; nevertheless, there was nothing wrong in his insisting that NATO member countries spend the 2% of their GDP’s in defense they are all theoretically pledged to pay; thereby relieving some of America’s burden as the single highest NATO contributor, at 3.87% of our GDP.

Germany has a strong economy; its paltry 1.57% is almost insulting, and President Trump was right to call Chancellor Angela Merkel on it. Canada is even worse at 1.45%. Because of Trump’s pressure, $ 400 billion more will be spent by NATO countries by the end of 2024 than they spent when Trump took office—if the NATO partners keep the promises Trump bludgeoned them into making and don’t backslide in response to Biden’s suggestion that there will be no consequence for reneging.

Another example deals with our southern border. Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents when they illegally entered the U.S. was inhumane. As a result, every Democratic presidential candidate applied the same word to the entirety of Trump’s approach to the border. Biden is now making good on that criticism. He has announced that all new asylum-seekers can await their hearings on the American side of the border, released into the US on the hope they’ll show up for their hearing date.

Trump, by contrast, had pressured Mexican President Lopez Obrador (“AMLO”) to keep asylum seekers on the Mexican side. Why should AMLO now retain any of the 65,000 asylum seekers sent back under the Trump policy, when Biden has said all new seekers can stay in America? There’s no logic in treating the two groups differently. We can now expect AMLO to send all asylum-seekers back into the US, saving Mexico substantial cost. Trump had worked out an arrangement with AMLO. Biden should have kept it, and would have, I suspect, except for the fact that it was Trump’s policy.

Tom Campbell is a professor of law and a professor of economics at Chapman University. He served five terms in the U.S. Congress, including on the International Relations Committee. He is a former chairman of the World Affairs Council of Northern California.


Press Enterprise