Trump's Foreign Policy Wasn't All Wrong. Here's What Biden Should Retain | Opinion

As Americans were dancing in the streets this weekend with jubilation about Joe Biden's victory, many European leaders exhaled a loud, collective sigh of relief. In the minds of the vast majority of European policymakers and bureaucrats, Biden epitomizes the quintessential transatlantist—a person who grew up appreciating NATO, understood that the Russians were lurking outside Europe's door, and recognized that multilateral institutions could be useful. You can almost feel the positivity radiating in Berlin, Paris, and Brussels.

There will be an overriding sensation among the President-elect's national security team to ditch the previous administration's entire foreign policy upon entering the White House complex. As expected, the incoming Biden administration is already preparing a long list of executive actions for its first day on the job. But as tempting as it would be to simply forget the last four years ever happened, Trump's foreign policy wasn't all wrong. And as difficult as it will be for Trump's most vocal critics to admit, the outgoing President of the United States did have some sound foreign policy instincts—even if he was incapable of executing them.

The trick for President-elect Biden is knowing which Trump-related policies are worthy of keeping (and improving upon) and which should be tossed into the garbage.

Fortunately, the bad foreign policies of the last four years are hard to miss. The Trump administration's maximum pressure strategy on Iran heightened tension in the region to an unnecessary level, poisoned the well for any future negotiations, and powered a dynamic between Washington and Tehran that nearly resulted in their militaries stumbling into a war this past January. Venezuela policy, centered on economic and diplomatic sanctions, has produced nothing other than Nicolas Maduro's consolidation of power and a worsening humanitarian crisis for the Venezuelan people. On China, Trump essentially dropped all diplomatic communication with the economic superpower in favor of sanctions, trade restrictions, technology cutoffs, and freedom of navigation patrols in the Taiwan Strait. All of this can and should be reformed by a Biden administration. In most of these areas, deescalation, deterrence, and diplomacy is the name of the game.

Trump, however, was right that Europe as a whole can no longer afford to dally around and pretend the U.S. military will serve as the first-line of defense for the continent. European leaders like Macron and Merkel talk a big game about steeping up to the plate and doing more for themselves on the world stage. Yet mysteriously, those words never seem to result in concrete action.

Pushing Europe into fielding modern, capable militaries is hardly a novel concept. While the 45th President may have been impolitic, rude, and outright brash about it, U.S. Presidents from as far back as Dwight Eisenhower have been immensely frustrated by the continent's disinterest or unwillingness to both build up their own defense capacity and take primary responsibility for their own security. There is still an aversion in European capitals to lean on Uncle Sam as if it were a crutch and solution to all of its external problems. The U.S. still accounts for nearly 70 percent of NATO's total defense expenditures—this despite the fact that Europe is one of the wealthiest regions on the planet with a $15.6 trillion GDP. You can't blame the outgoing President for feeling a sense of anger about the status-quo.

Similarly, Trump's North Korea policy wasn't the dumpster-fire that is often commonly portrayed. Some corners of the foreign policy universe will find it hard to agree. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un did, after all, just unveil the biggest mobile intercontinental ballistic missile the world has ever seen. The short-range ballistic missile tests have continued, irrespective of the summitry and letter writing between Trump and Kim over the last two years. And the U.S. negotiating position was anything but realistic—whether U.S. foreign policy elites like it or not, the chances of North Korea eliminating its entire nuclear weapons stockpile are about as high as average Joe walking into a deli and picking up a $400 million lottery ticket.

However, Trump's willingness to discard the conventional North Korea playbook multiple U.S. administrations relied on was a bold decision that shouldn't be immediately condemned by Biden's national security advisers. While one can disagree with the overall policy, it's hard to argue that Trump's decision to go directly to the source and talk with Kim Jong-un himself made matters with North Korea worse off. Those who ritualistically bash the summitry conveniently ignore the fact that the more traditional, working-level talks of prior administrations over the last three decades didn't exactly solve the problem either. At bottom, the issue is not how the U.S. chooses to negotiate with Pyongyang, but rather what the U.S. is demanding of Pyongyang during those negotiations: unfettered, complete, irreversible denuclearization in exchange for sanctions relief and diplomatic normalization at some point down the line. When the policy is guided by an unrealistic objective, the technicalities and fine print don't matter all that much.

President-elect Joe Biden will become President Joe Biden on January 20. What a Biden foreign policy looks like is still very much an open question and will be determined in part on who serves in key roles. But as the new administration formulates its plans and settles on its appointees, it should take the time to honestly assess its predecessor's record instead of assuming that simply doing the opposite of will be the magic-bullet to all of America's problems.

Daniel DePetris is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, a contributor to the National Interest and a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.