The US foreign policy landscape is evolving, with the Trump administration and the Biden administration demonstrating that the old world America made with Europe will not last. Europeans, who heavily depend on US security guarantees, are anxious about a potential Republican president in 2025. The prospect of Donald Trump returning to power often leads to increased strategic sovereignty for Europe. This has led to curiosity about the differences in foreign policy approaches between Republican presidential candidates.
Despite some continuity in US foreign policy, both parties remain divided along partisan lines on important issues such as energy, climate, and international institutions. Internal divisions also exist within the parties, with the Trumpian wing of the Republican party viewing the war in Ukraine differently from most Republican congressional leaders. Progressive lawmakers have been critical of the militarisation of foreign policy, which is widely supported by mainstream Democratic leaders.
This paper examines the similarities and differences between parties in key foreign policy areas influencing America’s relationship with Europe. It offers recommendations on what Europeans can do to protect their interests, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office in January 2025. The paper warns Europeans to take the United States’ foreign policy debate seriously and prepare for the profound changes it may bring.
A bipartisan consensus has emerged on foreign policy issues in the US, with Republicans and Democrats pushing in similar directions. This includes promoting US manufacturing jobs, building domestic production capacity, and rejecting overseas military interventions, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. Democrats have traditionally been more sceptical about free trade pacts, but are now converging on this issue due to the deepening US-China rivalry and fierce competition for working-class voters in swing states.
Republicans are leveraging Trump’s record, which disrupted the party’s traditional commitment to the free trade agenda in 2016. Trump imposed tariffs on enemies and allies, withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and renegotiated the US free trade deal with Canada and Mexico to create more incentives for car manufacturing relocation.
After the 2020 election, Republicans call for greater government intervention in markets to limit corporate power, revive domestic industries, and regain US independence in key strategic sectors. Josh Hawley warns that neoliberal policies have led to thousands of factories shuttered, millions of jobs shipped overseas, and America becoming dangerously dependent on China’s productive capacity.
The Biden administration has retained the Trump administration’s focus on reshoring and restoring America’s manufacturing capacity, with President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, lamenting the impact of America’s neoliberal ideology in the 1990s and 2000s.
The US needs to adopt a modern industrial strategy that focuses on targeted public investments in sectors essential for economic growth and national security. Under President Biden, tariffs on European Union imports were replaced with quotas and voluntary export restrictions, and the US did not rejoin the successor to the TPP or broker a free trade agreement with the EU. Instead, the Biden administration pursued a strategic industrial policy that subsidises domestic industries and reduces dependence on foreign sources, particularly China. This is evident in major legislation passed by the Biden administration, such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
Both parties are increasingly rejecting military intervention abroad, particularly for nation-building purposes. The Biden administration has deprioritized the Middle East and avoided getting dragged back into the region. The US National Security Strategy describes previous nation-building efforts as distracting from competing with China and constraining Russia.
Three US presidents, Obama, Trump, and Biden, have withdrawn US forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Afghanistan, believing the Middle East era is over. Both Trump and Biden have identified China as the main rival and top foreign and security policy priority, with the ambition to prevail in the US-China strategic rivalry driving America’s foreign policy regardless of the 2024 presidential election.
Both parties are focused on succeeding in the technological competition with China, with the Trump administration imposing tariffs amounting to $350 billion on Chinese imports and introducing restrictions on exports of advanced technologies to China. In 2018, Congress expanded the powers of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to review and block Chinese investments. The Biden administration has built on Trump-era policies and passed additional restrictions under the Foreign Direct Product Rule, which prevents companies from selling items to Huawei that contain US technology or software without previously obtaining a US license. Measures for strengthening US competitiveness in semiconductors and green technology are aimed at helping the US in its rivalry with China.
The US is largely bipartisan in its commitment to Taiwan’s security, despite growing internal debates about China’s security challenges, emphasizing the need to deter potential Chinese attacks. The bipartisan Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 was a comprehensive attempt to strengthen US diplomatic and military tools to deter potential Chinese aggression against Taiwan.
However, there remain important differences in how the parties see the role of allies in the US-China competition. A future Republican president would likely take a more unilateral approach towards China, penalizing European allies if they do not play along. Any future Republican administration will be more transactional in its relationship with the EU and make its trade policies vis-à-vis Europe dependent on the EU’s strategic industrial policy on China.
Since taking office in January 2021, the Biden administration has made significant strides in tackling the climate crisis, including rejoining the Paris climate agreement, appointing John Kerry as the first special presidential envoy for climate, hosting the leaders summit on climate, and adopting ambitious targets for reducing US greenhouse emissions and achieving a net-zero economy by 2050. The Biden administration also doubled down with its IRA, a $737 billion climate legislation that creates subsidies and tax credits for investment in clean energy technologies, such as electric vehicles, batteries, hydrogen, energy storage, and electricity transmission. If re-elected, Biden will push for allies and partners to follow America’s lead on the IRA and subsidize the energy transition in their own countries or regions, transforming their economic model in favor of renewable generation and energy efficiency.
However, no congressional Republicans voted for the IRA, even though it will direct billions in subsidies to many Republican congressional districts. Over the past decade, shale gas and offshore technologies have revolutionized the American energy sector, and Republicans believe that climate legislation kills jobs and erodes America’s competitiveness, particularly vis-à-vis China. There is a 56-point difference between the support among Democrats who believe climate change should be given top priority as a foreign policy goal (70%) and support among Republicans in favor of the same (14%).
An incoming Republican administration in 2025 is highly likely to take a different course, renewing Trump’s pro-fossil fuel policy, allying with fossil fuel producers and promoting fossil fuel exports with new partners in the global south and Europe. Biden’s first major foreign policy speech as president focused on “America is back, diplomacy is back,” linking America’s internal struggles to the larger ideological competition with authoritarian countries. However, increased competition with China and the war in Ukraine continue to erode multilateral frameworks of cooperation, and any future US administration will have to contend with the rapid transformation of the world order, which risks rendering international organizations ineffective or antagonistic to Western interests.
If re-elected, Biden would continue to shape the system, aiming to reform but ultimately conserve it. Democrats view international institutions as opportunities for leverage, so a Democratic president would have little incentive to cede influence to China. Republicans, on the other hand, would focus on negotiating new bilateral or regional agreements and maintaining their military advantage. Republicans are 30 percentage points more likely than Democrats to prioritize getting other countries to assume more of the costs of maintaining world order for US foreign policy. Democrats believe in international cooperation, with a large majority viewing global challenges and strengthening the United Nations as priorities for US foreign policy. Republicans, on the other hand, believe in increasing defense spending.
Biden believes in the value of allies and alliances in strengthening America’s position as a global leader. He has managed and invested in relationships with European, Canadian, and Asian allies that share his views on democracy, competition with China, and countering Russian aggression. However, his administration has sometimes failed to take foreign policy decisions collectively, such as the retreat from Afghanistan or the formation of the AUKUS alliance, which alienated France. America’s strategic investments in its high-end and green technology industry have caused friction with Europeans, who worry about the long-term consequences of the US gaining a competitive advantage and skewing global trade rules in its favor.
Trump’s foreign policy has been characterized by open vilification of traditional US alliances, support for EU member states leaving the EU, and betrayal of allies. He has also fostered an affinity with nationalist, conservative strongmen and authoritarian figures, such as Putin and Kim Jong-Un. Trump’s return would only embolden these groups, and his scepticism of allies as free-riders on American security has led to a consensus within the party base that NATO allies should pay for their defense. Germany, a favorite target of the Trump administration, would remain a target.
Republican leaders, like Vance and DeSantis, criticize allies for inadequate defense investment. They may use the Ukraine war’s imbalances to justify disinterest in the region and rebalance towards Asia. Both parties have a foreign policy of competing with China, limiting Middle East engagements, and focusing on industrial renewal.
Republicans push for energy dominance and breaking free of entangling multilateral institutions and alliances, while Democrats are united on climate action, building alliances, and leading international institutions. However, each camp experiences profound divisions on key aspects of foreign policy, with the internal tribes shaping the foreign policy of the next administration and constraining the choices of the next president.
Three main Republican foreign policy tribes are emerging and competing for the mind of the next Republican president: restrainers, prioritisers, and primacists. Three tribes adopt Trump-era domestic policy and international agenda, advocating for anti-‘wokeness’ agenda, more restrictive immigration, and belief in US economic and cultural suffering from globalization.
The US has three distinct tribes based on its role in the world, its attitude towards allies and alliances, and its commitment to European security and the war in Ukraine. The’restrainers’ advocate for strength at home and restraint in military force deployment abroad, while hardcore restrainers, like Rand Paul and Mike Lee, support fewer commitments abroad and disentanglement from alliances. Trump, a member of the restrainer camp, has shown fickle adherence to this tribe, implying he may be part of the restrainer camp.
Ron DeSantis, a prominent figure in the US foreign policy landscape, has emphasized the importance of avoiding further involvement in the territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia. He cited China as a significant threat to the US, stating that the Chinese Communist Party represents the most significant threat since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The ‘primacist’ camp, which includes establishment figures like Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, and Mike Pence, believes that the US must maintain global leadership and military presence. They argue that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine signaled American weakness and that the US must maintain a strong deterrent posture in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. They acknowledge that the US lacks the resources to maintain global leadership but acknowledge that it will require America’s allies to contribute more to global security challenges.
On the Democratic side, three tribes are emerging: leaders, realists, and progressives who will shape Biden’s foreign policy if he is re-elected. Democrats’ foreign policy divisions are less stark than those tearing apart the Republicans, partly due to their political imperative to support the president. They have rallied behind the president to support Ukraine, support his retreat from Afghanistan, and endorse the Biden administration’s “foreign policy for the middle class” through climate and industrial legislation. However, there are increasingly visible foreign policy divisions beneath the surface of this Democratic unity.
The Democratic party, a significant part of the Cold War internationalism tradition, believes in America’s role as a guarantor of world order. They support NATO and Asian alliances, including the Quad, AUKUS, US-Japan-ROK, and US-ASEAN. The leadership tribe, including Senator Bob Menendez, chair of the foreign relations committee, Senator Dick Durbin, and former intelligence officer Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, is focused on imposing a strategic defeat on Russia and China.
The war in Ukraine has sparked a shift in leadership, with a more’realist’ group emerging in think-tanks. They believe American power is limited, the international system is moving towards multipolarity, and the US should focus on vital interests. They are wary of military entanglements and view the Afghanistan withdrawal as necessary. They advocate for sunsetting military force authorizations after two years to check executive branch interventionism. They support sanctions, economic warfare, anti-corruption, and anti-kleptocracy legislation to undermine authoritarian powers. They believe in rules-based order and climate-friendly policies to build global consensus.
Progressives, influenced by the Congressional Black Caucus and trades union activism, believe that American power is too militaristic and supports oppressive regimes. They are pro-poor, pro-minorities, pro-immigrant, pro-LGBTQ, and pro-worker, advocating for climate-focused foreign policy to address poverty and migration in the global south. Some progressives advocate for the US to become a global manufacturing superpower. They are committed to the defense of Ukraine, viewing it as a victim of a war of aggression. They support economic assistance, but some oppose increased military aid. They worry about nuclear escalation and offensive weapons. They lament the over-militarization of foreign policy and believe the US is pushing towards a military build-up in Asia through AUKUS and other military agreements.
A small group of Congress members, the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus, is pushing for a reduction in the military budget, some of which is redirected towards social programs. European leaders should prepare for shifts in US foreign policy beyond Ukraine, such as abandoning international cooperation on climate action and renewable energy, disdain for international institutions and the liberal democratic order, lower tolerance for shortcomings in European military capabilities and strategy, greater affection for populist conservatives, and a more transactional approach towards traditional allies in Europe.
The continuation of the Biden administration would present challenges to US policy towards Europe, as foreign policy debates within the Democratic party will have less immediate effect on a second Biden term. The realist tribe will grow stronger if the war in Ukraine continues to take resources away from other pressing priorities, particularly a possible contingency in Taiwan.
The progressive tribe is gaining power in the Democratic party, with the next generation positioning themselves to take over from Biden. European states reliant on America will struggle to respond to these challenges, as the US has a greater capacity to divide the EU than Russia or China. US administrations will use divisions to protect policy preferences.
To counteract the growing tensions with America and China, European leaders should focus on building climate coalitions and leveraging European power in trade. The EU could impose costs on the US for non-cooperation on climate goals, using its carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) to incentivize cooperation. A “global climate club” could be formed, leveraging economic incentives and regulations to coerce the US into cooperation. The EU could also engage the US business community, industry associations, and state governments to build a coalition of climate supporters.
The EU needs to develop a more autonomous defense capability due to the Ukraine war, Middle East security challenges, and US disengagement from China. A militarily dependent Europe will be more susceptible to US pressure to align with America’s demands in other critical fields.
Europeans will need to manage US disengagement in the Middle East and North Africa, as the US risks leaving behind a region home to armed conflicts, political instability, failed states, and waves of refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe. This will require a more integrated and coordinated foreign policy, enhanced military capabilities, and a strategic approach to engaging with regional powers that are increasingly turning towards China and Russia.
Europeans can act as credible security partners there by focusing on peace and security, energy security, migration, and counterterrorism. A geo-economic NATO would allow transatlantic partners to jointly consider the geostrategic implications of economic issues, allowing them to decide jointly on foreign economic policy.
Building multilateral coalitions to address real world problems is crucial for the EU’s future. A Republican administration is likely to be hostile to international institutions important to the EU, such as the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank. A second Biden administration would take a less ideological approach but demand more effective action from international institutions as the price of its continued support. Given the EU’s investment in the multilateral system, the bloc needs to hedge against the worst and prepare to capitalize on the best by seeking new coalitions within international institutions that can address real world problems that matter to both Americans and Europeans. These policy interventions are not easy and require difficult internal European negotiations and painful compromises.