From his rejection of multilateralism to his embrace of hostile dictators, President Trump’s foreign policy has failed all but a small clique of committed war hawks, defense contractors, and international corporations. As Joe Biden and Kamala Harris work to present a stark contrast to Trump on the home front, it is important that he draw no less clear a distinction when it comes to U.S. policy abroad.
Practically speaking, this would mean embracing international cooperation to manage ongoing crises including human rights violations, climate change, corporate concentration, and economic inequality, and eschewing military action as a primary avenue of conflict resolution. It would also mean adopting equitable trade deals that benefit American workers and fight climate change. However, proposals alone are not sufficient and must be paired with a commitment to appointing personnel dedicated to realizing a progressive foreign-policy vision.
Rather than turning to neoliberal veterans of the Clinton and Obama administrations who have bounced between government positions and the private sector, Biden should appoint those with a proven track record of effectively advancing the public interest. Particularly, a Biden administration must take the following steps:
Appoint Pro-Labor, Pro-Climate Trade Officials
Recent U.S. trade deals have contributed to a marked redistribution of wealth upward at the expense of labor and environmental protections. Given these outcomes, it is perhaps unsurprising that previous U.S. trade representatives charged with negotiating these deals have consistently had deep ties to industry. President Trump’s chief trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, served as deputy U.S. trade representative under Ronald Reagan before a 30-year spell leading Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP’s international trade group. Obama’s trade representative Michael Froman, who negotiated harmful deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which never passed), joined the administration after holding several leadership roles at Citigroup, a reckless firm that required incomprehensibly large federal bailouts to survive. Froman is now vice chairman and president of strategic growth for Mastercard.
A progressive vision of trade will have to rethink the current structure of patent and copyright protections that prioritize corporate interests over social and economic justice. Reining in corporate capture of trade deals would also mean eliminating the anti-democratic investor-state dispute settlement provisions that limit countries’ capacities to regulate entities in the interests of their citizens. Equally important are clear and actionable provisions that adequately protect workers and the environment. Finally, tech companies’ rapidly growing power on the global stage signals the need for a fair international system to regulate the digital economy.
Biden must appoint officials who can push such a vision forward. Unfortunately, several corporate globalists from past administrations are already attempting to influence Biden’s trade platform. One is Jennifer Hillman, a former trade official under Clinton and Bush who helped push the notorious anti-labor deal NAFTA. After leaving the White House, Hillman served on the WTO’s appellate body, where her views on trade were so controversial that Obama blocked her reappointment.
Another example is former State Department economist Heidi Crebo-Rediker, who joined the Obama White House after two decades as an investment banker working for notorious banks including Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. Crebo-Rediker has since exploited her White House connections to advise financial institutions on trade policy.
Perhaps most troubling of all Biden’s current advisers is Steve Ricchetti. As a former aide to President Clinton, Ricchetti was instrumental in passing NAFTA and opening up trade relations with China, leading to a decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs. After leaving the White House, Ricchetti went on to lobby on behalf of pharmaceutical companies and financial institutions before returning to Biden’s side for his presidential run.
In order to truly enact a progressive trade agenda, Biden must end industry’s influence on U.S. foreign policy and commit to appointing trade officials who will serve the public interest, not their former employers and clients. So far, he has shown no indication he will break from his pro-corporate predecessors.
Seal the Revolving Door Between the Defense Industry and the Pentagon
The revolving door between the Department of Defense and the arms industry has helped pave the way for excessive militarism and corporate enrichment. William Lynn, Obama’s first deputy secretary of defense, was a lobbyist for Raytheon before his appointment. Subsequent Pentagon chief Ashton Carter, also came in by way of Raytheon. Before serving as President George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, Gordon England was president of General Dynamics.
The defense industry’s stranglehold on the Pentagon has only tightened under Trump. A report from the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) found that the top 20 defense contractors hired 645 former senior government officials, legislative staff, and legislators in 2018. All of Donald Trump’s acting and permanent secretaries of defense have come from the industry, from mainstream media favorite James Mattis (General Dynamics) to his acting replacement Patrick Shanahan (Boeing) to current chief Mark Esper (Raytheon’s top lobbyist).
The defense industry’s influence on national-security policy has led to a consistent, reckless prioritization of military action over diplomacy, including the United States’ military involvement in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Libya, and its continued support of Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemeni civilians. Bloated defense spending sails through Congress while investments in health care, infrastructure, medical research, education, and housing struggle to get traction.
A future Biden administration has the ability to pursue a progressive national-security agenda: prioritizing diplomacy over military action, reducing the Pentagon’s budget, opposing regime-change interventions, supporting refugees, and condemning governments that violate human rights. But the Biden camp must first end the military-industrial complex’s influence in the executive branch.
So far, the Biden campaign has instilled little hope on this front. The campaign’s six “unity task forces” made up of experts from both the Biden and Sanders camps, did not include a task force on foreign policy. Instead, Biden has been receiving advice from a cast of conflicted advisers, including Michèle Flournoy, Anthony Blinken, and Avril Haines, all of whom began working for the defense industry after leaving the Obama administration.
Pursue an Aggressive International Agenda to Address Climate Change
The climate crisis is a fundamental threat to the world, particularly in communities of color and low-income communities, and requires international cooperation. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has undone many of the positive steps taken by the Obama administration, leaving the Paris Agreement, repealing the Clean Power Plan, and scaling back numerous environmental protections.
Trump’s catastrophic climate policy can be credited to his top EPA appointments, both of whom have spent most of their professional life attacking environmental regulations. Scott Pruitt, a climate change denialist, sued the EPA over ten times as attorney general of Oklahoma, and his election campaigns were sponsored by fossil fuel industry executives. Similarly, Andrew Wheeler joined Trump’s EPA after numerous years as a registered lobbyist for Murray Energy, one of the country’s largest private coal companies. With these individuals at the helm, the Trump administration has pushed for reversal of 100 environmental rules, successfully completing 68 of these proposed rollbacks.
Breaking with his predecessors, Joe Biden has proposed a hugely ambitious climate plan that will invest $2 trillion in his first term on clean-energy initiatives, including transitioning the country’s energy grid to run on 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2035. Although he has not proposed a nationwide ban on fracking or a phaseout of fossil fuels, various climate groups have praised the campaign’s more progressive direction.
But we cannot tackle climate change on our own; it must also play a central role in our foreign-policy agenda. That begins with rejoining the Paris climate agreement. Our trade officials should refuse to join any trade agreements that prop up the fossil fuel industry. In addition, a Biden administration must proactively work with allies to develop and integrate green-energy technology and infrastructure globally.
Beyond trade and diplomacy, our national-security decisions must center climate change, the effects of which have already caused global instability, destruction, and death across the globe. Biden should not leave the protection of the environment to the EPA alone. All foreign-policy appointees, including secretary of state, U.S. trade representative, undersecretary of the Treasury for international affairs, deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, and U.N. ambassador, must prioritize climate change in all policy decisions.
Without a foreign-policy task force, it’s not clear who would be appointed to these top positions. Biden’s climate advisers include multiple board members of fossil fuel companies and the director of a fossil fuel industry–funded think tank.
For far too long, foreign-policy decisions in both Republican and Democratic administrations have been controlled by the wealthy and well-connected. A Biden administration has the opportunity to break this cycle. To do so, he must stop empowering individuals who serve the interests of corporations over those of the public. Instead, Biden should appoint individuals who will recommit to multilateralism, reject trade deals that only benefit corporate interests, ensure climate and labor interests are represented in trade negotiations and decisions, commit to reducing defense spending, and prioritize diplomacy over military intervention.