Here's how Trump and Biden stack up on crucial foreign policy issues, from Iran to China

Key Points
  • In one week, the United States will either reelect President Donald Trump or send former Vice President Joe Biden to the White House.
  • Either Trump or Biden will have to deal with an array of issues, from trade with China to wars in the Middle East.
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WASHINGTON — In one week, the United States will either reelect President Donald Trump or send former Vice President Joe Biden to the White House.

In addition to contending with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic recovery, either Trump or Biden will also have to deal with an array of global pressures.

From the wars in the Middle East to trade relations with China, here's a look at the foreign policy challenges awaiting the winner of the U.S. presidential election.

Trade relations with China

President of China, Xi Jinping.
SeongJoon Cho | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The crumbling relationship between Washington and Beijing has intensified following an attempt by the world's two largest economies to mend trade relations.

Over the past four years, the Trump administration has placed blame squarely on China for a wide range of grievances, including intellectual property theft, unfair trade practices and recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who served as Trump's second national security advisor, said last week that China posed the biggest national security threat to the United States. He added that the winner of the presidential election next month will need to elicit the help of the international community in order to rein in a more ambitious and aggressive China.

"I think whoever gets sworn in on Jan. 20 has to ramp up international coordination and cooperation," McMaster said in an interview on CNBC's "Closing Bell." "Since the 1990s, China has increased their military spending 800%. It's the largest peacetime military buildup in history," McMaster said.

China is the biggest security threat, regardless of who wins the election: Fmr. White House national security advisor H.R. McMaster
China is the biggest security threat, regardless of who wins the election: Fmr. White House national security advisor H.R. McMaster

"This isn't just a U.S.-China problem, this is a free world-China problem, and if the world's largest economies work together to counter Chinese economic aggression as well as physical aggression, I think we can go a long way in convincing [Chinese President] Xi Jinping that his aggressive strategy is not working," McMaster added.

Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security, told CNBC that either administration would have to quickly deal with the large array of high tariffs on Chinese goods.

"The administration's first question will be what to do about them: leave them in place, eliminate them, or trade their elimination for some concession by Beijing," Fontaine said.

"Biden has said he'll review the tariffs but hasn't specified a plan; it's likely that he'll seek something different from Beijing – think agreements on intellectual property theft or forced technology transfer, say, rather than Trump's focus on Chinese purchases of soybeans and autos," Fontaine added.

Biden has previously said he would work more closely with allies in order to mount pushback against China. He has also said that during his political career he has spent more time with Xi than any other world leader, experience that Trump lacks.

Wars in the Middle East

US President Donald Trump speaks to members of the US military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq, December 26, 2018.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Trump, who campaigned in 2016 on stopping "ridiculous endless wars" in the Middle East, took to Twitter earlier this month to announce that American forces currently serving in Afghanistan will be home by Christmas.

It was unclear if Trump, who is seeking reelection next month, was giving an order via tweet or reiterating a long-held campaign promise in order to appeal to voters.

"Trump has had four years and has ended no wars, despite making some progress on Afghanistan. He picked national security advisors and secretaries of State who supported continuing the wars. His policy of menacing Iran makes fully getting out of Syria and Iraq impossible," Benjamin Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, told CNBC.

The war in Afghanistan, which has dragged on to become America's longest conflict, began 19 years ago and has cost U.S. taxpayers $193 billion, according to a Defense Department report.

The Taliban welcomed Trump's announcement, saying it was a positive step toward a lasting peace.

Earlier this year, the United States brokered a peace deal with the Taliban that would usher in a permanent cease-fire and reduce the U.S. military's footprint from approximately 13,000 to 8,600 by mid-July. And by May 2021, all foreign forces would leave the war-torn country.

As a presidential candidate, Biden is running on his experience shaping U.S. diplomacy and national security priorities in the Middle East.

"Biden is an experienced politician, and the politics will likely move toward reducing if not fully ending U.S. war efforts," Friedman told CNBC, adding that it is unclear whether Biden will entirely pull out troops.

"Biden talks about leaving counterterrorism troops behind in some countries, including Syria and potentially Afghanistan, so he doesn't seem to fully want out," Friedman said.

A file photo from September 2007 showing then-Senator Joseph Biden speaking to U.S. Marines during a visit to Ramadi, Iraq.
John Moore | Getty Images

When he was a senator, Biden supported the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As vice president, Biden pushed for troop reductions in Afghanistan and Iraq and has since called the invasion of Iraq a "mistake."

Biden's son Beau, who died of cancer in 2015, served in Iraq for a year and later earned the Bronze Star.

The Democratic presidential nominee has demanded that Trump "humbly apologize" to the families of fallen U.S. service members following reports that the president called them "losers" and "suckers."

"When my son was an assistant U.S. attorney and he volunteered to go to Kosovo while the war was going on as a civilian, he wasn't a sucker," Biden said in September. "When my son volunteered and joined the United States military as the attorney general and went to Iraq for a year, won the Bronze Star and other commendations, he wasn't a sucker," Biden said.

Trump has denied making the comments that were first reported by The Atlantic.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden talks with his son U.S. Army Capt. Beau Biden (L) at Camp Victory on July 4, 2009 near Baghdad, Iraq. Bidden's first visit to Iraq as the Vice President comes days after U.S. forces pulled out from Iraq's cities.
Khalid Mohammed | Getty Images

In Afghanistan, Biden has called for bringing most U.S. service members home from during his first term as president.

He has previously said that Washington should keep a small number of U.S. forces and intelligence assets in Afghanistan as talks on a permanent peace agreement with the Taliban continue.

In 2018, Biden called the ongoing civil war and humanitarian crisis in Syria as one of the "biggest conundrums" for the United States. He has been critical of Russian and Iranian involvement in the war-weary country.

Standoff with Iran

Hassan Rouhani, Iran's president, pauses whilst speaking during a news conference in Tehran, Iran, on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019.
Bloomberg | Getty Images

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have mounted following Trump's withdrawal from the landmark Iran nuclear agreement calling it "the worst deal ever."

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA accord, brokered by the Obama administration, lifted sanctions on Iran that had crippled its economy and cut its oil exports roughly in half. In exchange for sanctions relief, Iran accepted limits on its nuclear program until the terms expire in 2025.

The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the JCPOA in 2018.

Trump has previously said that he wants to reach a broader deal with Iran that puts stricter limits on its nuclear and ballistic missile work and suppresses the regime's role in regional proxy wars. Tehran has refused to negotiate while U.S. sanctions remain in place.

In October, the United States unilaterally reimposed U.N. sanctions on Tehran through a snapback process, which other U.N. Security Council members have previously said Washington does not have the authority to execute because it withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018.

"With Iran, we know Biden will try to reenter the JCPOA. Whether or not that succeeds in pulling Iran back into compliance with its full obligations is not entirely clear," Friedman told CNBC.

Getting through a second Trump term without a war with Iran would be a small miracle.
Benjamin Friedman
policy director at Defense Priorities

Friedman added that under a Trump administration, Iran may restart malign activities within the region.

"If Trump is reelected, they may resume some combative activity, attacks on shipping perhaps. And with Pompeo remaining as secretary of State, and U.S. troops increasingly deployed to the region to menace Iran, the odds of war will continue to be high. Getting through a second Trump term without a war with Iran would be a small miracle," Friedman added.

Earlier this year, a U.S. strike that killed Iran's top military commander triggered the regime to further scale back compliance with the international nuclear pact. In January, Iran said it would no longer limit its uranium enrichment capacity or nuclear research.

North Korea's nuclear ambitions

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017.
KCNA | Reuters

North Korea, the only nation to have tested nuclear weapons this century, spent most of Trump's first year in office developing its nuclear arsenal. 

Under third-generation North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the reclusive state has conducted its most powerful nuclear test, launched its first-ever intercontinental ballistic missile and threatened to send missiles into the waters near the U.S. territory of Guam.

Since 2011, Kim has launched more than 100 missiles and conducted four nuclear weapons tests, which is more than what his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung, launched over a period of 27 years.

While North Korea has paused nuclear tests that prompted Trump's threat to bring "fire and fury" upon that country, it had already made significant progress before the historic dialogue with the U.S. started in 2018.

The two leaders first met in 2018 at a summit in Singapore. That was followed by a second round of talks in Vietnam in February 2019, but that summit abruptly ended after Trump reportedly handed Kim a note demanding he turn over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and bomb fuel.

"Trump's efforts to cut a deal with North Korea seem to have run their course," explained Friedman. "It's hard to say what would happen there if he were reelected. But given history and the personnel involved, a reanimation of tension and war talk can't be ruled out," Friedman told CNBC.

President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

Biden has described Trump's meetings with Kim as "photo-ops" that have yet to yield any concrete commitments from North Korea. He has also said that he would not pursue diplomatic talks with Kim without securing concessions from Pyongyang first.

Biden has also stressed that the United States needs to engage its allies and coordinate with China in order to advance negotiations with Kim. Biden has criticized the Trump administration for straining Washington's relationship with crucial Asian allies, like South Korea.

Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden's running mate, has also downplayed the president's efforts to rein in Kim. She said "Donald Trump got punked" when she was asked about the administration's North Korean policy during the fifth Democratic primary debate.

"I suspect that a Biden administration would come around to continuing to negotiate with the North, for lack of better options," Friedman said, adding that Biden was "boxing himself into a policy that preserves tension."

"Biden could still get somewhere in talks with North Korea if we accepted denuclearization isn't going to happen and went for normalizing relations and reducing tension," Friedman added. 

The future of NATO

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to speak to the media at a NATO news conference in Brussels, Belgium.
Sean Gallup | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Throughout his presidency, Trump has frequently dressed down NATO leaders claiming that too many members of the world's most powerful military alliance do not contribute enough financially.

He also made good on a threat to reduce U.S. military support if allies, like Germany, do not meet 2% of GDP spending, a goal set at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales. Last year, Trump singled out German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a NATO summit for not meeting the 2% goal.

"So we're paying 4 to 4.3% when Germany's paying 1 to 1.2% at max 1.2% of a much smaller GDP. That's not fair," Trump said in December 2019.

At the time, the United States spent about 3.42% of GDP on defense, less than what Trump noted, and Germany spent 1.38%, which is an increase of about 11% from 2018. Germany was only one of 19 NATO members that had not met the 2% GDP spending goal.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) looks at US President Donald Trump (R) walking past her during a family photo as part of the NATO summit at the Grove hotel in Watford, northeast of London on December 4, 2019.

In June, the Pentagon announced its plan to withdraw 9,500 U.S. military personnel from Germany in order to redeploy those forces elsewhere.

"Trump is a question mark here," explained Fontaine, when asked about the future of the NATO alliance under Trump.

"He doesn't like NATO, may even seek to withdraw from it, but might not be successful in the effort. And though he takes a warm rhetorical line with Putin, his administration's policies have been quite tough. So it's difficult to say," Fontaine added.

When asked about the future of NATO under a Biden administration, Fontaine said that the former vice president will "quickly call allies to let them know America is back as a reliable and trustworthy partner."

European partners will be more cautious about dealing with any future U.S. administration as trust and credibility have been severely damaged.
Heather Conley
director of the Europe Program at CSIP

"A Biden administration would likely rally transatlantic partners to take a firm hand with Russia," he added.

Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said NATO and EU allies will feel a dramatic change in approach should Biden win the election.

"There will no longer be a feeling of great fear and anxious trepidation when a NATO summit is scheduled out of fear of what President Trump could say or do to damage NATO or surprise announcements of U.S. troop withdrawals from Europe," Conley said, adding that Biden will still likely call on Europe to take greater responsibility for its security.

"A Biden administration will continue to demand that Europe take greater responsibility for its security and defense and regional policy challenges but it will do so in a spirit of shared objectives and cooperation rather than with spite or malice," Conley said, adding that "European partners will be more cautious about dealing with any future U.S. administration as trust and credibility have been severely damaged."

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