The Biden-Trump Debate and Foreign Policy

by June 2024
Photo credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder.

Looking like a figure out of Madame Tussauds wax museum as he gazed vacantly into the distance, the 81-year-old Joe Biden delivered a widely panned performance in the debate on June 27. A confrontation that was supposed to quell doubts about his fitness for the presidency only succeeded in amplifying them. 

As Biden resists numerous calls to quit the race, the New York Times editorial page has joined the chorus of voices urging him to do just that: “The clearest path for Democrats to defeat a candidate defined by his lies is to deal truthfully with the American public: acknowledge that Mr. Biden can’t continue his race, and create a process to select someone more capable to stand in his place to defeat Mr. Trump in November.”

There can be no gainsaying that the contrast with his State of the Union speech in March–when he stunned Republicans with his animated delivery and mastery of the facts–was unmistakable. That Biden was nowhere in evidence. He looked cowed and diffident, confirming the apprehensions of those who said he should never have run for a second term, remaining content to be a transitional figure for a new generation of Democrats such as Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro or Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Nowhere was Biden’s inability to combat Trump more vividly on display than in foreign affairs. What should have been Biden’s strong suit was barely in evidence. Biden has expanded NATO, supported Ukraine and revived alliances in Asia. Under Biden, as ret. Gen. Wesley Clark has pointed out in an important new essay in the Washington Monthly, America is the envy of Europe. By every metric America is a rising power with the economic prowess to meet its most potent challenges. American power, Clark writes, “is not declining—it is on the rise. We have the economic means and necessary alliances in place to deal with all of these challenges, and we can succeed.”

The closest that Biden came to echoing this sentiment was towards the end of the debate when he declared, “We are the envy of the world.” By then, it was too late. Throughout their encounter, Trump pummeled Biden, alleging at one point that Biden had “encouraged Russia” to invade. In fact, Biden warned Russian president Vladimir Putin of the dangerous consequences in a lengthy phone conversation on the eve of the invasion of February 24, 2022. As is his wont, Trump also bashed NATO, claiming that “we’re paying everybody’s [defense] bills.” This too Biden never challenged. 

On the Middle East, Trump contrasted his sanctions efforts on Iran with Biden’s, claiming Biden’s looser policies enabled Iran-backed terrorism. On the ongoing war in Gaza, he avowed, “Let Israel finish the job.” Biden, while stressing his record of support for Israel in the war, also said he was concerned with providing Israel with certain kinds of weapons. Expectations in the Middle East following the debate are likely to coalesce around another “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, as laid out by Robert O’Brien in a recent article. 

Biden responded trenchantly to Trump’s claim that he would drive “us into World War III, and we’re closer to World War III than anyone can imagine, and he’s going to drive us there.” Biden pointed out that it was Trump who was receptive to letting Putin rough roughshod over Ukraine. “Go ahead, let Putin go in and control Ukraine, and then move on to Poland and other places,” Biden said. “See what happens then. He has no idea what the hell he’s talking about.” Trump did not deny that he would withdraw America from NATO after Biden confronted him on the issue. 

And yet, as Sidney Blumenthal shrewdly observed in the Guardian, Biden utterly failed to pick up on the implications of Trump’s claim that he spoke with Putin about his desire to conquer Ukraine before the Russian invasion took place: “I talked to him about it, his dream.” Biden should have focused right then and there on Trump’s slavish worship of the Russian dictator. “He aspires,” Blumenthal wrote, “to be an unfettered strongman like Putin, dictator `for day one.’ That is why, as [John] Bolton observes: `Putin is waiting for Trump.’ Trump’s campaign is the essential linchpin of Putin’s strategy. Without Trump, he faces endless winter. Trump is his indispensable useful idiot.”

Throughout, Trump remained on the offensive. Biden crumpled. He never tied Trump’s statements into a unified attack on the broader isolationist proclivities that bear consequences for everything from America’s prosperity to its alliances. 

After the debate concluded, Vice President Kamala Harris in an interview on CNN gamely attempted to put the focus back on Trump, noting Trump would like to be a dictator starting on day one of his second term. But her stolid support for Biden could not deflect from his stumbling performance in Atlanta. Might Biden resign and hand the presidency to Harris, as some commentators now advocate?

One argument on her behalf is that she has the name recognition to go up against Trump. A former prosecutor, she might cut him into mincemeat in a future debate. Another possibility is that the Democrats go for an open convention, releasing the delegates pledged to Biden. This would provide the high drama that the media would love and suck the oxygen out of the room for Trump.

The most likely prospect is that Biden ignores his detractors and continues to campaign for a second term. Already the Democratic establishment is circling the wagons. Both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton issued statements the day after the debate supporting Biden. First Lady Jill BIden is urging him to stay the course. And Biden himself sought to project vigor and virility at a rally in North Carolina where he depicted Trump as representing a one-man crime spree. 

But is it enough to quell the mounting apprehensions among Democrats about whether his physical and intellectual prowess has passed its meridian? Will Biden end up disproving the naysayers and stage a political comeback? Or will his desire for a second term pave the road for a Trump restoration? Perhaps it will take the second presidential debate scheduled for September to answer those questions more definitively.

Jacob Heilbrunn
Jacob Heilbrunn is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, editor of The National Interest and editor-at-large of The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune. His book, America Last: The Right's Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators, was published in 2024.
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