Year before U.S. presidential vote, discourse centers on America’s foreign policy direction

November 6, 2023

Less than a year before the U.S. presidential election, diplomatic and security discourse among South Korean policymakers is shifting to the potential implications that the election outcome may have for America’s alliances, diplomacy with North Korea and the Sino-U.S. rivalry.

The Nov. 5 election is largely expected to be a showdown between President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party standard-bearer, and former President Donald Trump, the Republican Party frontrunner, though uncertainty abounds due to Biden’s age, Trump’s legal woes and U.S. economic conditions to name a few.

Their approaches toward alliances, North Korea and international institutions are starkly different, while their stances on China are likely to converge in many respects amid their shared concerns over the Asian power’s increasing assertiveness.

If reelected, Biden may double down on his administration’s drive to strengthen a network of alliances and partnerships to address a range of current and future challenges, including North Korea’s evolving nuclear and missile threats and the “pacing” security challenge from China.

Having taken office in January 2021, the Biden administration has reinforced multilateral groups with its allies and partners, including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue consisting of the U.S., Australia, India and Japan, and the AUKUS platform involving the U.S., Britain and Australia.

It has also been striving to strengthen trilateral security cooperation with South Korea and Japan on the back of a thaw in relations between Seoul and Tokyo — an effort that culminated at the three countries’ first standalone summit at Camp David in August.

Casting America’s alliances as its “greatest strategic assets,” the Biden administration has been keen on leveraging “fit-for-purpose” mini-lateral groupings to tackle regional and global challenges, and such a policy stance is likely to continue under Biden’s leadership.

Given what commentators called his “transactional” approach to alliances under his “America-first” mantra, Trump, if elected, could shift America’s policy tiller.

During his first presidential term from 2017-2021, the Trump administration had sustained friction with its allies, as it pressured them to make more defense contributions in line with his campaign-trail remarks accusing allies of “free-riding” on America’s security capabilities.

In 2019, then President Trump demanded a hefty rise in South Korea’s share of the cost for the upkeep of the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea. He called for a fivefold increase to US$5 billion, leading to tensions between Seoul and Washington.

Unlike that of the Biden administration, the Trump administration’s foreign policy was seen as having taken on isolationist hues as seen in its decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change and curtail other overseas involvement.

When it comes to North Korean threats, the Biden administration is expected to continue ongoing efforts to beef up the U.S.’ extended deterrence — its stated commitment to using the full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear, to defend its ally.

Given North Korea’s lack of interest in returning to dialogue, the Biden administration may continue to signal its openness to diplomacy with the recalcitrant regime but could fall short of making a dramatic overture to directly engage with the North.

Under Biden’s leadership, his government is also expected to triple down on deepening trilateral cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo in an integrated deterrence scheme to curb North Korean provocations. But under Trump, the three-way security cooperation efforts could face adjustments.

“If Trump were elected, it does not bode well also for trilateral cooperation because we know that his attitudes about alliances,” Andrew Yeo, a senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation chair at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, said at a forum last month.

Yeo pointed to Trump’s view against “expensive” military exercises with U.S. allies.

While Biden’s approach for reengagement with the North was seen as a cautious, calibrated one, Trump could turn to his unorthodox diplomatic playbook and seek another round of leader-level engagement with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in pursuit of a “big” deal, analysts said.

But it remains to be seen whether Kim will return to diplomacy as his regime appears to have skepticism over engagement with a democracy in which a leader-level agreement has the potential to lose traction or be reversed after a change of government.

On China, approaches by Biden and Trump are likely to converge in many parts, though there may be differences in tone and style.

Through a series of semiconductor and other export controls, the Biden administration has been trying to ensure advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence, would not be used by China in a way that pose any security risk to the U.S.

Biden is expected to continue such export restrictions despite its policy efforts to “de-risk” — rather than “decouple” — the Sino-U.S. relationship and “responsibly” manage it to prevent potential conflict due to misperception.

Trade friction could continue under Trump given his past campaign to pressure Beijing on multiple economic fronts, including China’s state subsidies to its enterprises and intellectual property protection.

Meanwhile, a weekend poll from the New York Times and Siena College showed Biden losing in two-way contests with Trump in five key swing states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania, according to the newspaper.