The increasingly confrontational U.S.-China relationship has aroused international concern and become a central issue in the 2020 race, heightened by the pandemic of the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, that originated there. Washington has long sought to manage China’s rise by integrating the country—now one of the world’s two largest economies—into global institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the hope that China would fully accept the prevailing international order. But U.S. policymakers have struggled to respond to Beijing’s growing assertiveness.
Trump has sought to confront China over what he says is a suite of economic abuses: intellectual property theft, currency manipulation, export subsidies, and economic espionage. He says aggressive action is required to protect American workers and to reduce the United States’ large bilateral trade deficit, and that the coronavirus crisis demonstrates the need to hold China accountable.
Biden has framed China’s rise as a serious challenge. He has criticized its “abusive” trade practices–warning that it may pull ahead of the United States in new technologies–and its human rights record. He says he would mount a more effective pushback against China than Trump and work more closely with allies to pressure Beijing.
Recent years have seen stark warnings from the scientific community that climate change and its effects are approaching faster than previously understood. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that nations must move more swiftly to slash emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gasses to avoid the most devastating effects of global warming.
Trump has repeatedly questioned the science of climate change, expressing doubts about whether human activity is responsible. He has advocated for expanded domestic fossil fuel production and has sought to accelerate his rollback of environmental regulations implemented by his predecessors.
Biden says climate change is “the greatest threat to our security,” and calls for a “revolution” to address it. He has released a national plan to reduce emissions and invest in new technology and infrastructure. As a senator, he expressed alarm over greenhouse gases, but also supported controversial energy sources such as fracking and so-called clean coal.
The emergence of the novel coronavirus disease known as COVID-19 in early 2020 has led to sweeping social and economic changes around the world as governments grapple with how to contain the pandemic. It also appears to have fundamentally transformed the 2020 presidential race.
Trump has repeatedly downplayed the threat of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, and resisted directing a strong federal effort to defeat it. He initially said the spread of the virus was under control in the United States, despite receiving warnings of an impending pandemic from intelligence agencies and health officials beginning in January 2020. Since March, Trump has overseen a patchwork national response, with some crucial measures delegated to state governors.
Biden has put forward a national plan to address the pandemic of the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19. He pledges to strengthen presidential leadership and spend “whatever it takes” to expand testing, contact tracing, treatment, and other health services; support the economy; and prepare for future pandemics. He criticizes Trump’s response as “political theater” and promises to return the United States to a position of global leadership on the crisis.
The counterterrorism debate has shifted markedly in recent years in response to a spate of high-profile shootings in the United States and other Western countries, many of which were perpetrated by white supremacists. Protecting Americans from homegrown hate groups has become a priority for many 2020 candidates, while counterterrorism operations abroad have taken on new forms nearly two decades after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Trump has called for an approach that combines increased domestic surveillance, expanded use of drone strikes in Africa and the Middle East, and tighter limits on immigration and refugee admissions.
Biden has been a major proponent of a strategy he called “counterterrorism plus.” This approach emphasizes fighting terrorist networks in foreign countries using small groups of U.S. special forces and aggressive air strikes instead of large troop deployments.
Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election revealed in stark terms the vulnerability of American democracy to foreign adversaries. Yet many of the presidential candidates believe that Washington has not done enough in the time since to safeguard the country’s electoral systems or stem the spread of disinformation on social media platforms.
Trump has feuded with a number of large U.S. technology companies, arguing that they are conspiring to defeat him in the 2020 election. Although he has often brushed aside concerns about Russian interference in U.S. elections, his administration has imposed sanctions and other measures against the Russian intelligence assets deemed responsible.
Biden says that cyber threats are a growing challenge for U.S. national security, election integrity, and the health of the nation’s democracy. Meanwhile, he thinks government should be pressuring tech companies to reform their practices around privacy, surveillance, and hate speech.
The role of the U.S. military is a perennial topic of debate, with some politicians questioning its steadily increasing costs and its extensive overseas commitments. Today, U.S. forces are fighting enemies in many countries: notably Afghanistan and Syria, but also in places such as Niger and Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Pentagon maintains bases around the globe, from Djibouti to Japan.
Trump has championed the military, pushing for increases to defense spending, major new weapons programs, and a new branch focused on space. He has also promised to wind down U.S. troop commitments in Afghanistan and the Middle East while focusing on “great-power competition” with China and others.
Biden has supported some U.S. military interventions abroad and opposed others. He has often advocated for narrow objectives in the use of force, and he has expressed skepticism over the ability of the United States to reshape foreign societies. He is wary of unilateral efforts, emphasizing the importance of diplomacy and working through alliances and global institutions.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has led global diplomatic efforts to build alliances and institutions to promote peace and prosperity. Washington has been among the chief architects of the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as well as many other international institutions.
Trump has withdrawn the United States from international agreements and commitments that he feels are a drain on U.S. resources, has feuded with longtime allies on issues from defense to trade, and has criticized global institutions that he says force the United States to “surrender sovereignty.” His budget proposals have sought to slash foreign aid and make it more conditional on support for U.S. policies.
Biden emphasizes that the United States cannot deal with the new challenges it faces without close relationships with its allies and the cooperation of international institutions. He says Trump’s withdrawal from treaties and his denigration of alliances has “bankrupted America’s word in the world.”
The United States’ ability to influence events abroad depends on the health of its economy, and many 2020 challengers argue that it is on shaky ground. Despite low unemployment and a record period of economic expansion in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, economists worry about slowing growth, rising debt, and uncertainty over President Donald J. Trump’s trade war.
Trump has emphasized tax cutting and deregulatory economic policies, which he says have spurred growth, innovation, and employment. The coronavirus pandemic cast the country into recession in 2020, while the budget deficit and national debt have risen amid unprecedented coronavirus-related spending.
Biden has positioned himself as a champion of the middle class, warning that decreasing economic opportunity and mobility is worsening the polarization and radicalization of American life. He proposes trillions of dollars in new federal spending on U.S. products, infrastructure, and research, arguing that “economic security is national security.”
Immigration has been a flashpoint of the U.S. political debate for decades. Efforts at comprehensive immigration reform have repeatedly foundered in Congress due to disagreement over creating a path to citizenship for the estimated eleven million undocumented residents in the United States, many of whom are from Mexico and Central America.
Immigration is a signature issue for Trump and a major flash point between his administration and its Democratic challengers. Campaigning on a platform of sharply reducing both legal and illegal immigration, he has taken executive action to reshape asylum, deportation, and visa policy.
Biden has condemned Trump’s approach to immigrants and asylum seekers, calling it “morally bankrupt” and “racist.” He supports comprehensive immigration reform, and has in the past backed more restrictionist policies. He emphasizes the need to address the root causes of immigration in the countries of origin.
The Middle East continues to consume the world’s attention and poses special challenges to the United States. Devastating civil wars grind on in Syria and Yemen, driven in part by outside powers, creating humanitarian catastrophes and defying efforts at political solutions. Iran is poised to resume nuclear activities while pursuing expanded influence in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. There are dwindling prospects for a lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Trump’s approach to the Middle East has been defined by strong support for Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and a more confrontational stance toward Iran. He promises to bring what he calls the “endless wars” in the region to a close and withdraw U.S. troops.
Both as a senator and as vice president, Biden has been deeply engaged in shaping U.S. diplomacy and military policy across the Middle East. As a candidate, he is running on his experience dealing with Iraq, Israel, Syria, Iran, and others in the region.
North Korea has become one of the United States’ thorniest foreign policy challenges as the Kim Jong-un regime has defied international sanctions to escalate its pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile technology in recent years. Many fear the country is closing in on military capabilities that could allow it to hold East Asia hostage and even strike the continental United States.
Trump has devoted significant attention to North Korea, launching unprecedented direct negotiations with the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in an attempt to persuade him to end his nuclear program.
Biden supports diplomacy with Pyongyang, but says that Trump’s talks with Kim Jong-un have been unsuccessful and potentially counterproductive, serving only to “legitimize a dictator.”
In the wake of Western efforts to develop a cooperative post–Cold War relationship with Russia, the country has reemerged as a top U.S. rival and an object of mistrust and suspicion. To its critics in Washington, including many of the 2020 Democratic contenders, Moscow’s foreign policy has become dangerously aggressive in recent years, from military intervention in Ukraine and Syria to interference in Western elections to violation of nuclear treaties. Read more
Trump has cultivated cordial relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and dismissed accusations that his campaign cooperated with Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election. He has argued for closer cooperation with Russia while also bending to congressional pressure to extend sanctions on Moscow, expanding military aid to Ukraine, and withdrawing from a major U.S.-Russia arms control treaty.
Biden warns that Russia under President Vladimir Putin is “assaulting the foundations of Western democracy” by seeking to weaken NATO, divide the European Union, and undermine the U.S. electoral system. He also warns of Russia using Western financial institutions to launder billions of dollars, money he says is then used to influence politicians.
Trade has taken center stage during the administration of President Donald J. Trump, who has set out to renegotiate long-standing deals and challenge a system that he says has been unfair to American workers. While the United States has long led the charge for global trade liberalization—in the belief that open, rules-based markets increase prosperity and expand Washington’s influence—rising inequality has led to growing skepticism about this model within both major parties.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has taken aim at a global trading system that he argues is rigged against U.S. interests and responsible for large trade deficits, declining U.S. manufacturing, and the offshoring of American jobs.
Biden has been a longtime supporter of trade liberalization and a critic of Trump’s tariffs, arguing that Washington should take the lead on creating global trade rules and lowering barriers to commerce worldwide. However, he is also critical of some aspects of trade.
Venezuela is in the midst of a historic economic and humanitarian crisis that is rippling across the hemisphere. Despite the country’s oil wealth, decades of corruption and mismanagement have left much of the populace struggling to buy food and medicine. Nearly four million Venezuelans, or 10 percent of the population, have fled, threatening to overwhelm the country’s neighbors.
Trump calls the Nicolas Maduro regime in Venezuela a “dictatorship” and recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s head. He decries “corrupt communist and socialist regimes” in the region, especially Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
Biden says that Trump has “taken a wrecking ball to our hemispheric ties,” pointing to his immigration policies and also to what Biden sees as a haphazard approach to the regional crisis in Venezuela, which has created more than three million refugees.