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U.S. presidents and foreign policy


How America is viewed abroad is a key function of the presidency. Both President Biden and former President Trump have focused on foreign policy in their campaigns in this election, but foreign policy does not register as highly as other issues do with voters.

As we continue our series, We, The Voters, on election-year issues, we're exploring the big foreign policy differences between the two leading presidential candidates and how voters are feeling about them. NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is here with more. Hi, Domenico.


KELLY: OK. So if you've followed politics at all in these last few years, you know that Joe Biden and Donald Trump have different views on a lot of things. We have heard our colleagues alluding to their different worldviews this week. But pick up the thread. If you were laying out bullet points for how each man sees the U.S. on the world stage, where would you start?

MONTANARO: Well, I mean, first, let's start with Trump. I mean, he really upended decades of Republican foreign policy values by taking a more isolationist approach, which, of course, he calls America First. Like other Americans, he's pretty war-weary after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, though he authorized a push against ISIS and other one-off uses of the military at different times.

So it's not that Trump doesn't believe in being involved on the world stage. It's just an exceptionally transactional worldview that he has. You know, that approach has ruffled feathers with allies, and it meant him cozying up to some of the world's worst actors, like taking Vladimir Putin's word over the U.S. intelligence community, for example, about Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

KELLY: Now do President Biden and his very different approach.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, he absolutely has a very different approach, very different belief on what the U.S. should be on the world stage. He believes that the U.S. should be much more of a moral leader around the world and maintaining close ties with allies, especially NATO. And we saw this difference really play out between Trump and Biden during Biden's trip to France recently for the 80th anniversary of D-Day and the invasion of Normandy during World War II. Here's Biden during a speech, warning against the threat of creeping isolationism.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: What the Allies did together 80 years ago far surpassed anything we could have done on our own. It was a powerful illustration of how alliances, real alliances, make us stronger - a lesson that I pray we Americans never forget.

MONTANARO: He doesn't mention Trump there, obviously, explicitly, but comes against the backdrop of the current war in Europe, the war in Ukraine, which many on the right in this country don't want to keep funding. Trump has said the war would be over when he took office. But it's really left a lot of people wondering just how much territory Trump would encourage Ukraine to give up to make that happen. Biden, of course, would see that as a moral failure.

KELLY: OK, so those are some of the differences between these two men. Is there any overlap in how they approach the world?

MONTANARO: I think of China as one place. I mean, you know, there's really an effort to bring back manufacturing jobs. Both Trump and Biden have kind of advocated for increased tariffs on Chinese-made products. But they've taken different strategic approaches to Asia in general and to how to sort of encircle China. You know, Biden, like former Presidents Obama and George W. Bush - more so interested in counterbalancing China by strengthening alliances with other Asian nations, something that Trump has really been far less interested in.

KELLY: Now then, to the question of how all this is playing on the campaign trail. Domenico, one, who do Americans trust more on foreign policy? And two, how important is it to how they're going to vote?

MONTANARO: Yeah, it generally ranks pretty low on voters' lists of priorities. And when it comes to Trump versus Biden, foreign policy has kind of emerged as a liability for Biden, which is ironic for someone who's built his career and political identity on really handling foreign policy and, you know, touting his personal relationships with leaders around the world.

Surveys have really found that Trump has double-digit advantages on a host of international issues. And given that chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan years ago, that's really what started Biden's decline in approval ratings, and he hasn't really been able to recover since.

KELLY: Thank you, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. And tomorrow, we'll hear about more differences, this time between different generations of antiwar protesters, as our series, We, The Voters, continues.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINUTEMEN'S "COHESION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.