On border and beyond, is Biden agenda ‘America First’?

Go Nakamura/Reuters
Migrants seeking asylum cross the Rio Grande into the U.S. from Mexico, as Border Patrol agents on horseback patrol the bank near the International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas, Sept. 20, 2021.

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President Joe Biden aimed to define his foreign policy on his own terms on Tuesday, in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly. He called for global unity against threats such as the pandemic, cyberattacks, and the climate crisis. He defended the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan, saying the United States is shifting from “relentless war” to “relentless diplomacy.” 

But it’s one thing to have the aspirations of a high-minded internationalist, and another to accomplish difficult multinational goals. And many observers have been surprised to discover that, in several areas, the new U.S. president’s foreign policy looks a lot like a continuation of his predecessor’s.

Why We Wrote This

As a candidate, Joe Biden promised a pivot toward multilateral cooperation. But on foreign policy and the border, parallels with the Trump administration are striking.

Mr. Biden withdrew U.S. troops from Afghanistan, as former President Donald Trump tried to do. Many Trump-era tariffs remain in place. The ongoing forced deportation of Haitians from a crowded makeshift camp in Texas seems particularly reminiscent of aggressive Trump-era southern border controls.

“Some of the foreign policies that were put in place by the Trump administration are things that made all the sense in the world. And I think once you become president and deal with the reality, you have to keep them in place,” says GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

President Joe Biden is a very different national leader than his predecessor. But when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world, there are similarities: President Biden has kept in place some major Trump foreign policies that candidate Biden decried as ineffective or inhumane.

Exhibit A for this may be the forced deportation of Haitians from a crowded makeshift camp in Texas. Images of Border Patrol agents on horseback confronting migrants seemed painfully reminiscent of aggressive Trump-era southern border controls.

Mr. Biden also, of course, withdrew U.S. troops from Afghanistan, as former President Donald Trump tried to do. Many Trump-era tariffs remain in place, including those aimed at China.

Why We Wrote This

As a candidate, Joe Biden promised a pivot toward multilateral cooperation. But on foreign policy and the border, parallels with the Trump administration are striking.

Immigration, however, may today best illustrate how presidents can struggle to break with the past and steer the nation in a new direction. The problem, difficult to begin with, has worsened in recent months. Rolling back enforcement may be politically unpalatable.

“On paper, the Biden administration’s border policies are pretty similar to the Trump administration’s, particularly during the pandemic,” says Jessica Bolter, associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

At the U.N.

On Tuesday, Mr. Biden aimed to define his foreign policy on his own terms with his debut address as president to the annual gathering of world leaders at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.

He called for a new era of global unity against modern threats, such as the pandemic, cyberattacks and other emerging technologies, and the climate crisis.

The United States and its allies can compete with autocratic nations such as Russia and China on economics and ideology while cooperating with them on overarching world problems, Mr. Biden insisted. He defended the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan, saying the U.S. is shifting from “relentless war” to “relentless diplomacy,” and gave a ringing defense of democracy.

“Government by and for the people is still the best way to deliver for all of our people,” he told the U.N.

Aside from his speech, in meetings around the General Assembly’s opening Mr. Biden worked to mend fences with allies that felt slighted by the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. He also moved to try to mollify France, which remains annoyed by Australia’s announcement that it will purchase U.S. submarines rather than French ones. 

Overall, Mr. Biden’s U.N. appearance was far-reaching, and potentially transformative in terms of a foreign policy agenda, says Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department official.

“If anything, Biden was the un-Trump,” he says.

But it’s one thing to have the aspirations of a high-minded internationalist, and another to accomplish difficult multinational goals. At best, the president will be able to make incremental progress on such things as climate change and the global pandemic, says Mr. Miller.

Partly that’s because it’s hard to get nations to work together on tough problems. Partly that’s because voters at home will only let Mr. Biden move so far.

“The bandwidth that Biden [can use] for foreign policy is narrowed substantially by domestic constraints and the energy and resources required,” says Mr. Miller.

Continuing Trump policies, for now

Mr. Biden’s speech may have come at a critical time. Many foreign observers have been surprised to discover that in a number of areas the new U.S. president’s foreign policy is a continuation of his predecessor’s, writes international affairs commentator Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post.

Mr. Biden moved quickly to follow up Mr. Trump’s 2020 deal with the Taliban and withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The terms of the deal left him only two choices, Mr. Biden argued: withdrawal or substantial escalation.

Mr. Biden has left tariffs on China in place, while maintaining a phase one China-U.S. trade deal that China hasn’t lived up to, according to some economists.

On Cuba, Mr. Biden has maintained, even toughened, Trump-era sanctions. Under President Barack Obama and Vice President Biden, the U.S. had begun slowly thawing long-frozen U.S.-Cuban relations.

He has not yet rejoined the Iran pact, after arguing in the campaign that Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement, meant to curtail Iran’s nascent nuclear program, was a big mistake. The administration now says it wants to lengthen and strengthen the deal, which Iran has been loath to do.

“Some of the foreign policies that were put in place by the Trump administration are things that made all the sense in the world. And I think once you become president and deal with the reality, you have to keep them in place,” says GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

In some cases, Mr. Biden kept in place policies that he felt were politically difficult to reverse, as opposed to substantively sensible. He initially left the cap on refugee admissions at the record low of 15,000 set by the Trump administration, for instance, reportedly due to concern about the domestic political ramifications of raising the figure.

On Monday, the State Department confirmed that for the next fiscal year, the U.S. will admit 125,000 refugees, in line with the goal Mr. Biden set in his 2020 campaign. 

This week the Biden administration also announced the easing of travel restrictions on fully vaccinated foreign visitors, finally reversing a series of bans put in place by then-President Trump during the early stages of the pandemic. The bans were becoming a source of irritation to European nations, many of which have higher vaccination rates than the U.S.

Similarities at the southern border

But it is at the southern border of the U.S. that similarities between Biden and Trump policies are most apparent. 

To be sure, the Biden administration has reversed some of its predecessor’s toughest immigration policies. Construction of Mr. Trump’s signature border wall has stopped, for instance.

However, until recently the administration has held onto a Trump-era public health restriction that lies behind most of the recent mass deportations of Haitians who gathered near a bridge in Del Rio, Texas. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention invoked this restriction, known as Title 42, in March 2020, when much of the country went into pandemic-related lockdown. Under its authority the U.S. can send most immigrants immediately back to wherever they came from. The stated goal is to avoid the spread of COVID-19 in crowded U.S. detention centers.

The thousands of Haitians who have gathered in Del Rio in recent days for the most part did not come directly from Haiti. They’re mostly coming from Brazil and Chile, where they’ve migrated over the past five to 10 years, says Jessica Bolter of the Migration Policy Institute. 

But largely under the authority of Title 42, U.S. officials have loaded many of these migrants onto aircraft and sent them back to their native country.

“This is a particular challenge because many of these migrants, having lived in South American countries for years, are not familiar with Haiti and don’t necessarily have a network in Haiti,” says Ms. Bolter.

Biden officials had planned to end use of Title 42. But the rise of the delta variant, and the continued high numbers of migrants attempting to enter the U.S., delayed that move. With the midterm elections now looming in the distance, ending the deportations risked a big political backlash.

Last week, a federal judge ordered the administration to halt the use of Title 42 to deport families. That decision won’t take effect for several weeks, pending appeal. An updated rule changing border procedures is also at least several weeks away from being finalized.

In the meantime there’s no clear, uniform policy in place at the border, says Ms. Bolter.

“The patchwork of border policies that are in place right now are really confusing. ... This ends up encouraging migrants to continue trying,” she says. 

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed to this report from Washington.

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