Foreign Policy

Why Can't Americans Have an Honest Foreign Policy Discussion?

War and peace are the most important decisions a country can make. No politician wants to level with Americans about it.


President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump had a lot to say about America's place in the world at the debate last night. And very little of it was honest. Neither man wants to level with the public about the serious tradeoffs this country faces on the global stage.

Biden insisted that the United States can still dominate the entire world, fighting slow-burn proxy wars forever without any real cost to Americans. Trump offered the flip side of that vision, promising to end the wars on favorable terms without taking any risks or making any compromises with rival countries. Their attacks on each other were often incoherent and contradictory because neither one could offer a straightforward vision of foreign policy.

And when it came to a real achievement that both presidents had a hand in—pulling U.S. troops out of the Afghan war—neither one seemed to want the credit. Trump, who negotiated the agreement to withdraw, called the withdrawal "the most embarrassing moment in the history of our country." Biden, who had forcefully defended the case for withdrawing two years ago, shied away from Trump's attack, quickly noting that "we got over 100,000 Americans and others out of Afghanistan" and then moving on.

Instead, Biden staked his reputation on the war in Ukraine. He claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to take Kyiv in five days, but has lost "thousands and thousands of troops," thanks to U.S. military aid for Ukraine. "All that money we give," Biden bragged, goes right back to American weapons manufacturers.

"And by the way, I got fifty other nations around the world to support Ukraine, including Japan and South Korea, because they understand that this kind of dislocation is a serious threat to the whole world peace," Biden said. "No major war in Europe has ever been able to be contained just to Europe."

The Japanese and South Korean support was more a sign of desperation than success. The war in Ukraine has burned through American and European munitions stocks, and despite huge influxes of taxpayer money, weapons manufacturers have not been able to keep up with demand. Desperate for ammunition, the Biden administration began borrowing antiaircraft missiles from Japan and artillery shells from South Korea.

Trump, on the other hand, could not give a coherent answer on the war. He said that Putin's terms for peace are "not acceptable, but look, this is a war that never should have started," and promised to "get it settled" before even taking office. Trump claimed that, because he had convinced European countries to contribute more to NATO in a "very secret meeting," he could similarly get European funding for the war in Ukraine.

Although Trump is right that European countries should be spending more on their own defense, and are moving in that direction, he did not make it happen simply by waving his hands. Europe's defense spending began to increase in 2014, after the first Russian incursions into Ukraine, before Trump took office. And Trump himself was the first one to send lethal American weapons to Ukraine.

The same pattern went for the Middle Eastern portion of the debate. Biden bragged that "we saved Israel. We are the biggest producer of support for Israel in the entire world. Hamas cannot be allowed to continue." Biden sending U.S. forces to get directly involved in Iranian-Israeli combat last April was another point for him to brag about. "I'm the guy that organized the world against Iran," he said.

Four years ago, Biden had criticized Trump for being too aggressive against Iran. In January 2020, when Trump assassinated an Iranian general and Iran retaliated by bombarding an American airbase, Biden criticized Trump for putting the countries on "a collision course" and argued that the "only way out of this crisis is diplomacy."

But on the debate stage last night, Biden complained that Trump wasn't willing to continue risking war. Trump "did nothing" about the Iranian bombardment in January 2020, he argued.

Biden also falsely claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had accepted his Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire proposal. (In fact, Netanyahu has publicly rejected the proposal.) "The only one that wants the war to continue is Hamas," Biden argued.

"Actually, Israel is the one and you should let them go and let them finish the job. He doesn't want to do it," Trump said. "He's become like a Palestinian. But they don't like him because he's a very bad Palestinian. He's a weak one."

Again, Trump avoided saying how he would actually end the war. Asked point blank whether he would support an independent Palestine—which was, in theory, part of Trump's own 2018 peace plan—he dodged the question and started talking about trade. As with the Ukrainian war, Trump claimed that the Hamas attacks on Israel simply never could have happened on his watch.

"You know why? Because Iran was broke with me. I wouldn't let anybody do business with them," Trump said. "They ran out of money. They were broke. They had no money for Hamas. They had no money for anything. No money for terror. That's why you had no terror at all during my administration."

Trump, like Biden, is selling a bill of goods. The world suffered more than 400 terrorist attacks every single month of the Trump administration. Many of the militants in the region, including Hamas, don't take direct orders from Tehran. And many of America's enemies are Iran's enemies, too.

Even if there were a magic button that stopped Iran from funding militants—which Trump's economic pressure on Iran did not achieve—it wouldn't end all the violence in the Middle East.

The United States cannot have its cake and eat it too. There will be costs and risks no matter which path the country takes. Doubling down on global U.S. dominance means spending more resources on foreign wars, and ultimately putting American lives in danger. Getting out of those wars means compromising with rivals and accepting that there are things in the world that Washington cannot control.

None of these things are popular to say. But the longer politicians avoid admitting to the existence of foreign policy tradeoffs, the more painful those tradeoffs will become. (China's claim to Taiwan, which promises to be an even more volatile issue than the Russian-Ukrainian and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, was notably absent from the debate.) The longer these conflicts fester, the higher the odds that America will have to choose between fighting an unwinnable war or making unacceptable concessions to an enemy.

Americans are not mentally prepared for that outcome. And neither, it seems, are their elected representatives. "We are the United States of America," Biden said on stage. "Nothing is beyond our capacity."