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2024 US Presidential Elections: A fork in the road for the future of American foreign policy?

Article by Dr Andrew Gawthorpe

November 6, 2023

2024 US Presidential Elections: A fork in the road for the future of American foreign policy?

Barring some unforeseen event, or unexpected late addition to the race, the next US presidential election is shaping up to be a contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. With a year to go until the election, it’s far too early to say who will be the winner. But it’s not too early to think about what the consequences of a victory by either candidate might mean. Biden and Trump offer sharply divergent views on American foreign policy, the future of the international order, and the fate of global democracy. For the world outside of the United States, this means that the stakes of the coming election are unusually high.


Let’s start with Biden. After winning the 2020 election, Biden declared that “America is back”.[1] During the campaign he pledged to restore multilateralism and democracy to the heart of American foreign policy, and he has taken many initiatives in this direction. He re-joined the Paris Climate Accords and the World Health Organization and stopped treating the United Nations and European Union (EU) as enemy combatants. He has frequently framed American foreign policy as a contest between democracy and autocracy – one which will define the coming century and in which America must be firmly on the side of democracy.[2]


A Biden victory in 2024 would therefore deliver predictability and stability in American foreign policy. We could expect the administration to stay engaged with multilateral institutions, prioritise relations with America’s traditional allies, and keep attempting to construct coalitions to contain Russia and China. Biden’s experience and basic competence at both diplomacy and governing – two things sorely lacked by Trump – mean that America would continue to fill the leadership role that much of the world has come to expect of it. America would indeed be back.


On the other hand, it’s important not to get too carried away by Biden’s own rhetoric. The administration’s policy has also been marked by contradictions which make a simple story of multilateralism and democracy misleading.


In particular, Biden has been willing to bend his principles abroad if he deemed it necessary to protect American democracy at home. Early on, the administration promised to run a “foreign policy for the middle class” which would deflate the appeal of Trumpian populism by putting the economic interests of American citizens first.[3] This has sometimes come into conflict with the administration’s commitment to democracy and human rights abroad, for instance when Biden abruptly reversed his decision to isolate Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman in a quest for lower oil prices – despite the latter’s brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.[4]


More broadly, the administration has sought a quiet transformation of the international economy which would continue to reverberate into a second Biden term. Believing that globalisation has empowered populism, the Biden administration has refused to negotiate new multilateral free trade agreements or even increased market access with individual allies. New trade agreements are so politically toxic in the United States that there’s little reason to expect that this would change even in a second Biden term.


The administration has even declared the death of the “Washington consensus” of pro-market policies which has been central to the international economy for decades.[5] Worried about economic competition with China, the administration has sought to build a new system of managed trade and investment which concentrates the supply chains for key sectors in the United States. At the same time, the policy risks fragmenting the world into competing economic blocs and leaving many regions – from the EU to developing nations – behind.[6] In a second Biden term, other countries will continue having to scramble to adapt.

“…Biden offers: strong American leadership which places a priority on democracy and alliances but which also puts US interests first, even if they conflict with those other values.”

This, then, is what Biden offers: strong American leadership which places a priority on democracy and alliances but which also puts US interests first, even if they conflict with those other values. Compared to what’s on offer from Donald Trump, that’s not such a bad deal.


During his first term, Trump distinguished himself from every other modern president in the severity of his hostility to multilateralism, his disdain for democracy both at home and abroad, and his approval of foreign autocrats. He described the EU as a “foe” while speaking glowing words about Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.[7] He withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords, the Iranian nuclear deal, and even from the World Health Organization amid a deadly global pandemic. He started trade wars not just with China, but also with the EU and the United Kingdom. And he has hinted that in a second term, he would do all this again and more.[8]


Pinning down Trump’s precise foreign policy views is somewhat tricky. He is often described as an isolationist, but in his first term at least, this wasn’t really true – he proved willing to use American military force against Syria and Iran, and even his trade wars had the ostensible purpose of rebalancing international trade in the favour of the United States, not ending it entirely. It’s more fruitful to see Trump as part of an American tradition of unilateralism – the belief that the United States is powerful and righteous enough to do whatever it wants without the help of others, and that US allies are free riders looking for a handout rather than force multipliers who help Washington achieve its goals.

“It’s more fruitful to see Trump as part of an American tradition of unilateralism – the belief that the United States is powerful and righteous enough to do whatever it wants without the help of others.”


There are at least three reasons to think that this worldview would make Trump especially dangerous in a second term. Firstly, the world is confronting multiple serious crises that require American leadership of a bloc of nations rather than America acting alone. Some of these crises are global – such as climate change – whereas others afflict regions, such as Ukraine and the Middle East. Trump shows no appetite for leading on the former and on the latter, his instinct is to accommodate local strongmen. For instance, he has suggested that he would pressure Ukraine to settle its conflict on terms favourable to Russia, and it’s clear that his vision for the future of the Middle East involves no accommodation of Palestinian aspirations.[9]


Secondly, Trump’s second term is likely to be even more chaotic and unconstrained than his first. Not only is he now advancing more radical ideas – such as invading Mexico or placing a 10% tariff on all US imports – but he would also face far fewer institutional restraints.[10] Trump’s allies are developing plans to gut the civil service and place America Firsters in control of the foreign policy bureaucracy, and the “axis of adults” – experienced officials who helped contain Trump’s worst impulses in his first term – are unlikely to return.[11] If he returns to power having survived two impeachments and multiple criminal indictments, Trump is also likely to feel able to get away with almost anything.


But perhaps the most serious consequence of a Trump second term is what its very possibility says about the future of American democracy – and, by extension, democracy around the world. After losing the 2020 presidential election, Trump embarked on a campaign to overturn the result, culminating in the deadly insurrection on January 6th. If he were to overcome both the legal and political consequences of this and return to power regardless, the entire future of democracy in America would be in question.


This is especially the case because it seems likely that Trump would accelerate his attacks on democracy at home during any second term. He has said that he would seek to use his office to shield himself from accountability for his past actions while politicising law enforcement agencies and persecuting his political opponents.[12] Whilst, he would surely once again seek to interfere with the functioning of America’s electoral process, casting doubt on its outcomes and using the powers of his office to tilt the results in his favour.


This matters to the world not only because it would plunge America into political and constitutional chaos, making any stable foreign policy difficult to maintain, but also because of the precedent it would set for other countries. Political trends which begin in the United States rarely stay there, and a crisis of democracy at the heart of the Western alliance would likely weaken the commitment to democratic and legal norms throughout the rest of the world.

 “An America that could elect Donald Trump once might be redeemable  –  one which elects him twice, perhaps not.”

The result would be a far cry from Biden’s vision of a global struggle between democracy and autocracy – if anything, what Trump is offering is more of a case of autocracy versus autocracy. Faced with such a world, America’s democratic allies would have to consider the possibility that American leadership and commitment to international rules, however merely aspirational the latter might sometimes be, is a thing of the past. An America that could elect Donald Trump once might be redeemable – one which elects him twice, perhaps not. In a world of rising challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad, such a future would look very bleak indeed.


Andrew Gawthorpe is an expert on US foreign policy and politics at Leiden University and the creator of America Explained, a podcast and newsletter. He was formerly a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, a teaching fellow at the UK Defence Academy, and a civil servant in the Cabinet Office.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.


Image by Emma Kaden under (CC).


[1] The White House, Remarks by President Biden on America’s Place in the World, February 2021,

[2] The White House, National Security Strategy of the United States, October 2022,

[3] Andrew Gawthorpe, Taking US Foreign Policy for the Middle Class Seriously, The Washington Quarterly, 45:1, 57-75, April 2022,

[4] MJ Lee and Kevin Liptak, ‘There Is Only So Much Patience One Can Have’: Biden Appears To Back Off Vow to Punish Saudi Arabia, CNN, February 2023,

[5] The White House, Remarks by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Renewing American Economic Leadership at the Brookings Institution, April 2023,

[6] Andrew Gawthorpe, Biden’s ‘New Washington Consensus’ is Weaponizing Trade, World Politics Review, May 2023,

[7] Andrew Roth, David Smith, et. al., Trump calls European Union a ‘foe’ – ahead of Russia and China, The Guardian, July 2018,

[8] Daniel W. Drezner, Bracing for Trump 2.0, Foreign Affairs, September 2023,; Joseph S. Ny, If Trump Returns, Project Syndicate, May 2023,

[9] Jack Forrest, Trump won’t Commit to Backing Ukraine in War with Russia, CNN, May 2023,; Aron Heller and Matthew Lee, Trump Peace Plan Delights Israelis, Enrages Palestinians, AP, January 2020,

[10] Asawin Suebsaeng and Adam Rawnsley, Trump Asks Advisers for ‘Battle Plans’ to ‘Attack Mexico’ if Reelected, Rolling Stone, March 2023,; Jeff Stein, Trump vows Massive new Tariffs if Elected, Risking Global Economic War, Washington Post, August 2023,

[11] Allan Smith, Trump Zeroes in on Key Target of his ‘Retribution’ Agenda: Government Workers, NBC News, April 2023,

[12] Maggie Haberman and Shane Goldmacher, Trump, Vowing ‘Retribution’, Foretells a Second Term of Spite, The New York Times, March 2023,

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