“We had a good relationship with Hitler before he invaded the rest of Europe.”
That was how Democratic candidate Joe Biden attempted to sum up President Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy in Thursday’s debate, arguing that Trump cozies up to “thugs” in North Korea, China and Russia, while he “pokes his finger at all our allies.”
It was a line that might play well among Biden’s base, but, with its vague allusions to appeasement in the run up to World War II, it was indicative of a debate that had little genuine substance when it came to current foreign policy challenges, with both leaders choosing to use other countries as attack lines more than anything else.
An initial question about allegations of election interference quickly derailed into both candidates tossing accusations of corruption: Trump brought up Hunter Biden’s alleged ties to Ukraine and China, while Biden pointed to the President having a Chinese bank account.
Biden did promise to “get China to play by international laws,” an area where Beijing has arguably benefited from Trump’s America First strategy and suspicion of multilateral organizations. However, he offered little insight into how he would actually go about doing that, especially as China is far stronger both internationally and domestically than it was the last time Biden was in office, beyond working with allies to try and rein Beijing in.
Unlike the vice presidential debate, no parts of Thursday’s live broadcast were censored in China, presumably because the candidates’ comments were not seen as harmful to Beijing.
A case in point was Biden’s attempt to discuss the South China Sea, where Beijing has been building up islands and expanding its military footprint. Rather than outline the dangers posed by Beijing’s expansionism, Biden skirted over the issue, merely saying that US planes would “fly through” Chinese identification zones, something that the US military has done at increased levels under Trump.
A section on North Korea was comparatively more substantive, but Biden often seemed stuck in the past, and refused to acknowledge long-standing criticisms of the Obama administration’s failed approach to Pyongyang – which expanded its nuclear arsenal during that period – instead hitting Trump for supposedly appeasing leader Kim Jong Un.
“He’s legitimized North Korea,” Biden said, referring to a country that has existed since 1948 and has a seat at the United Nations. “He has talked about his good buddy, who is a thug, a thug.”
While Trump took credit for a rapprochement with North Korea that many view as largely driven by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, he rightly pointed to the failure of previous administrations’ posturing to actually rein in Pyongyang’s weapons program.
“They left me a mess, North Korea was a mess,” Trump said. “There was a very dangerous period in my first three months, before we worked things out a little bit.”
Although North Korea is not the flashpoint that it appeared to be at the start of Trump’s term, actual flashpoints for foreign conflict were largely ignored – for all both candidates’ tough talk on China, neither mentioned Beijing’s posturing towards Taiwan, to which the Trump administration this week agreed to sell more weapons. Also unmentioned were ongoing human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the crackdown in Hong Kong, and growing calls to boycott the 2022 Olympics in China over such measures.
As it assumes its role as the world’s second superpower, China is likely to be the major foreign policy challenge of the next decade for the US, and yet neither candidate really gave any insight into how they will react to Beijing’s growing foreign clout and a new bipolar world. More often than not, China was referenced in relation to the global pandemic, with Trump blaming it for unleashing the coronavirus currently devastating the US.
The impact of the pandemic is such that it would have made sense for the debate to pivot back to this – which it often did – but too often foreign policy matters, and foreign countries, were used as cudgels for ad hominem attacks and wild accusations.
In a discussion about climate change, Trump sidestepped substantive issues – and his woeful record on climate – and instead said he wanted American water and air to be perfectly clear, unlike other countries: “Look at China, how filthy it is, look at Russia, look at India, it’s filthy. The air is filthy!”
Trump’s comment was quickly picked up by Indian media, and on Twitter, where there was outrage from some Indians, who pointed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strong embrace of Trump, only to have his country maligned on a global stage.
“Did Modi’s friend Trump just call India ‘filthy’?” said Gaurav Pandhi, an activist with the opposition Congress Party. “Totally unacceptable. Is this why BJP organized ‘Namaste Trump’ so that he can go back & call our beautiful nation ‘filthy’?”
In a mostly substance-free foreign policy debate, that throwaway line could end up being the most diplomatically costly of the night.