The Republican debates expose fractures in US foreign policy consensus

Republican attacks on the president as ‘soft on China’ feed into criticism of his climate policy and support for Ukraine, eroding bipartisan alignment.

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The second GOP debate, much like the first, took place in the shadow of Donald Trump. Despite the attacks made on the former president at the event, polling tells a clear story: two candidates, Trump and Biden, are lined up to win their respective party nominations.

The two leading candidates ignored the debate and continued to court voters. On Tuesday, President Biden became the first US president to join a picket line with members of the United Auto Workers Union. That both candidates took time to court white working-class voters in Michigan is a reminder that swing states continue to be play a pivotal role in US elections.

On Europe, China, climate science, and especially Russia, Democrats and Republicans embrace very different world views

On the surface, the 2024 election looks like a re-run of 2020. But this election will test the assumption of a bipartisan consensus in foreign policy, especially on the policies that matter most. On Europe, China, climate science, and especially Russia, Democrats and Republicans embrace very different world views.

‘Soft’ on China

Last night’s debates revealed, once again, that Republican candidates are united in attacking President Biden as ‘soft’ on China, seeing it as an electoral tactic with real potential.

Candidates competed to take the toughest line, with Ramaswamy stating that ‘we need to declare independence from China’, and Doug Burgum saying that the US is ‘in a cold war with China.’  

Republicans and Democrats agree that US policy towards China should be tough. But the Biden administration’s policy is to invest in the US, align with US allies, and compete with America’s strategic rival. Donald Trump has rejected Biden’s economic strategy for investing in the US. And other leading contenders for the Republican nomination follow this line.

The duelling Michigan visits reveal this consequential divide. Investing in renewables and in electric vehicles is central to the first component of Biden’s China policy. When President Trump turned up one day after Biden, just a few miles down the road, he told workers that the Biden administration’s support of electric vehicles meant they would lose their jobs to China.

Pushback by some leading economists against what they see as a dangerous turn to ‘industrial policy’ resonates with many Republican voters.

The second component of Biden’s China policy, aligning with US partners and allies, is also antithetical to Trump’s world view

The second component of Biden’s China policy, aligning with US partners and allies, is also antithetical to Trump’s world view.

Where the former US president revelled in attacks on Germany, NATO and the G7, the Biden administration has committed to working with US partners and allies, especially in Europe. One of its chief diplomatic investments has been via the US-EU Trade and Technology Council.

The Biden team has also walked a careful line, trying to guard against a dangerous escalation of tensions with China by recommitting to international diplomacy – an effort that has seen four high-level diplomatic visits to China since May. Republicans have repeatedly attacked the president for allowing these diplomatic visits to proceed.

The third component of Biden’s China policy is one that both Republicans and Democrats share: the Biden administration has continued Trump’s tariffs on China.

The third component of Biden’s China policy is one that both Republicans and Democrats share: the Biden administration has continued Trump’s tariffs on China. But its focus has been on technology competition and national security. Controls on exports and investment in China are designed in line with its concept of a ‘small yard, high fence’ policy.

Republican attacks, including those by the former president, may be primarily designed to appeal to voters. While president, Trump was careful to balance rhetorical appeals to working-class Americans, with policies that benefited powerful business interests. His tax cuts combined with a commitment to deregulation helped the latter.

The rhetoric at the Republican debate suggests that US restrictions could ratchet up under any future Republican administration – it would certainly be the case if Trump were elected. Either way, anti-China political speech is likely to grow significantly more confrontational under a Trump administration. And words matter.

Climate

It is on climate policy that the myth of a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy truly unravels. Both GOP debates revealed a set of candidates that either reject the climate agenda, or at least, do not see it as a priority.

Vivek Ramaswamy has called the climate change agenda ‘a hoax’. And the current frontrunner, Donald Trump, has continued to signal his intention to double down and drill for more oil.  

Trump’s recent visit to Michigan showed how Republicans are using China as a vehicle for attacking Democrats’ climate policy

But the more consequential divide between Trump and Biden is in their linkage of policy on climate and on China. Trump’s recent visit to Michigan showed how Republicans are using China as a vehicle for attacking Democrats’ climate policy.

The lead contenders for the Republican nomination all look set to play this card. The aspiration to work with China to achieve progress on climate change would likely suffer.

Some experts believe that private actors, state-level action, and technological change will sustain at least some positive momentum regardless of who next takes residence in the White House. 

And it is true that state level climate action, and the work of civil society across the US continued to progress climate action even during Trump’s presidency.

But the GOP debates once again confirmed Trump’s negative impact on basic assumptions of climate science across Republican candidates.   

Ukraine

For Europe, though, it is the future of America’s Ukraine policy that is cause for the greatest and most immediate concern.

The longer the war continues, the more that Europe will have cause to worry, regardless of who is US president.

The prospect of a Republican administration will unsettle anyone looking for certainty about America’s Ukraine policy.

But the prospect of a Republican administration will unsettle anyone looking for certainty about America’s Ukraine policy. Even with strong support from many Republicans in Congress, a Trump presidency would be a game-changer.

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The former president has said he would strike a deal with Putin immediately. And four years of Trump’s presidency confirmed his affinity for the Russian leader.

Others in the Republican Party may be playing a political card and could change course if elected. Some, like Nikki Haley, have made an emotive case that supporting Ukraine is an essential part of a ‘tough on China’ policy.

Ultimately, though, none of the other Republican candidates seem as committed to sowing internal division as the former president, who in the words of Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, has been ‘the great divider’. This is one dimension where candidates may matter more than parties.

But fundamentally, the rest of the world should be concerned by the signals sent at the Republican primaries. Trump’s divisive legacy still overshadows all of the candidates. And continuing division in US domestic politics will mean that current uncertainties in US foreign policy will only grow worse.