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U.S. presidential elections | Final debate could thrust foreign policy back into campaign

Combo photo shows U.S. President Donald Trump and the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.   | Photo Credit: AP

As Joe Biden hopscotched through Iowa and New Hampshire in late 2019, he also name-dropped his way across the globe.

China’s Xi Jinping. German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Vladimir Putin of Russia.

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“I’ve met every major world leader for the last 40 years,” the former Vice President and eventual Democratic presidential nominee said.

Behind the braggadocio was something Mr. Biden saw as a chief selling point for his third White House bid: His decades as a leading senator and two-term Vice President make him ready on day one to restore a world order he believes President Donald Trump has destabilized.

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Mr. Biden’s foreign policy credentials have largely been overshadowed by questions about how he would lead the U.S. through the worst pandemic in a century. But the issue could re-emerge on Thursday as Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden take the stage for a final debate, with a topic list including national security.

Competing approaches

Both campaigns believe their competing approaches — Mr. Trump’s America First doctrine that he says ended an era of other nations taking advantage of the United States; Mr. Biden’s pledge to reinvigorate a network of Western democracies — can sway voters.

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The 800-pound gorilla that will be making its presence felt on January 21 is still going to be COVID-19, said Tony Blinken, Mr. Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, describing the pandemic as the first big national security challenge that would require Mr. Biden to make good on his promise of better coordination among the U.S. and its allies.

A member of the production crew stands at a podium near glass barriers to prevent the spread of coronavirus on stage ahead of the final presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden in Nashville.

A member of the production crew stands at a podium near glass barriers to prevent the spread of coronavirus on stage ahead of the final presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden in Nashville.   | Photo Credit: AP

But, Mr. Blinken said, “The world doesn’t stop just because we have this COVID crisis. We would have to walk and chew a lot of gum at the same time.”

Also read: In split-screen town halls, Donald Trump and Joe Biden squabble over coronavirus response

On immigration policies

Mr. Biden blisters Mr. Trump on everything from his hard-line immigration policies and dismissing the climate crisis to criticizing NATO allies and embracing Putin and North Korea’s authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un.

In an ABC News town hall last week, Mr. Biden credited Mr. Trump for recently cementing diplomatic ties between Israel and two Arab neighbours: Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. But, Mr. Biden said, the President still has no coherent plan for foreign policy beyond America alone.

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Mr. Trump counters that America First is more than sloganeering. He won a rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement, curtailed legal immigration, wielded tariff powers and insists he’s staring down Beijing’s Xi on trade — efforts he frames as benefiting American workers.

Foreign policy pitch

Yet heading into the final debate, Mr. Trump’s loudest foreign policy pitch isn’t about his record. It’s casting Mr. Biden as corrupt because of his son Hunter’s business associations in Ukraine and China.

The President has promoted an unconfirmed New York Post report published last week that cites an email in which an official from Ukrainian gas company Burisma thanked Hunter Biden, who served on the company’s board, for arranging for him to meet Joe Biden during a 2015 visit to Washington.

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The Biden campaign has rejected Trump’s assertion of wrongdoing and noted that Mr. Biden’s schedule did not show a meeting with the Burisma official.

Once the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Biden hails from the bipartisan establishment that shaped U.S. international policy from World War II’s end until Trump’s election.

Mr. Biden sees the international order established over that span — NATO, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization — as anchoring global stability, with the U.S. leading as the world’s democratic superpower, rivaled only by one-party China.

Mr. Trump eschews those institutions and their multilateral efforts. He’s withdrawn the U.S. from the World Health Organization, the Paris accords to reduce carbon pollution worldwide and a multinational deal that limited Iran’s nuclear program. He’s pledged to withdraw thousands of troops from Germany, a notable retreat from the post-WWII framework.

To Mr. Biden, those moves invite Russian aggression in Europe and an unchecked Beijing.

Mr. Trump undoubtedly has been an international force. His NAFTA overhaul drew bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. The latest Middle East deal is a historic step, though it doesn’t address the region’s biggest unresolved matters: the Syrian civil war, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the land dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr. Biden has promised immediate changes.

  • He’d recommit to the Paris accords while rejoining WHO and restoring its U.S. financial support. He’s pledged to reverse Trump’s executive actions limiting travel from certain Muslim nations and curtailing the U.S. asylum program for refugees.
  • He’d restore foreign aid programs to other Western Hemisphere nations, especially in Central America, where economic and political instability drive migration patterns to the U.S. Aides said Biden would likely halt troop reductions in Europe, believing those postings are fundamental to the U.S. commitment to NATO and containment of Russian ambitions on the continent.

Mr. Biden also promises to confront Putin, whom he describes as a thug, over interference in U.S. elections via social media and other means. Trump has publicly rejected U.S. intelligence findings that Russia interfered in 2016 and is doing so again in 2020 in ways intended to help Mr. Trump.

Some key questions heading into the debate:

CAN TRUMP CHANGE THE TRAJECTORY OF THE RACE?: Mr. Trump cannot afford a status quo debate. National polls show him losing to Biden, and while some battleground state polls are tighter, even some of Trump’s own allies are worrying aloud about the prospect of a serious defeat. This debate represents his best, and perhaps last, opportunity to change the contours of the race while tens of millions of Americans are watching.

The President fumbled his chance in the opening debate last month, when his attack-all-the-time approach backfired. Trump missed another opportunity when he refused to participate in the second debate after organizers decided the candidates would face each other virtually because of concerns about the president’s coronavirus infection.

Mr. Trump needs to find a way to focus the debate — and the election more broadly — on Mr. Biden and his liabilities. But to do that, he needs to avoid making himself the centre of attention, something that doesn’t come naturally to the president.

WILL THE MUTE BUTTON KEEP THINGS CIVIL?: The mute button has gotten a lot of attention leading up to the debate, but its impact may be overstated.

Given Mr. Trump’s unrelenting interruptions in the first debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates added a new rule for Thursday’s affair that will keep each candidate muted while the other delivers his two-minute remarks at the outset of each of the six debate topics. The remainder of each 15-minute block will be open discussion, without any muting, the commission says.

The change will ensure the candidates have at least some time to answer questions without interference. Ultimately, however, the mute button can only be used for a combined total of 24 minutes of the 90-minute debate. That’s plenty of time for the candidates to mix it up.

DOES TRUMP HAVE A BETTER ANSWER FOR THE PANDEMIC?: Whether he wants to or not, the President will have to talk about the coronavirus at length. And he has to come up with a better answer than he did during the first debate to convince persuadable voters that he has the situation under control.

It won’t be easy.

Coronavirus infections are surging to their highest levels in months. More than 220,000 Americans are dead. And rather than working on a comprehensive plan to stop the spread based on science, Mr. Trump has spent recent days attacking the nation’s most respected infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, while undermining his own administration’s recommendation to wear masks.

In the first debate, Mr. Trump pointed to his months-old decision to institute a partial travel ban on China as evidence he was doing a good job. He’s also highlighted carefully selected statistics that downplayed the extent of the crisis. He’ll have to come with something better than that if he’s going to convince anyone but his most loyal base that he hasn’t completely surrendered to the deadliest U.S. health crisis in a century.

HOW WILL BIDEN HANDLE ATTACKS AGAINST HIS SON? Mr. Trump and his allies in the conservative media have ramped up their focus on alleged maleficence by Mr. Biden’s son Hunter in recent days. Mr. Biden’s team expects Mr. Trump to make those allegations a centerpiece of his debate strategy.

The President tried to make an issue in the first debate of Hunter Biden and his drug use, which the younger Biden has publicly acknowledged. But Trump’s attack may have backfired when Mr. Biden declared that he was proud of his son, who, like many Americans, had fought to overcome an addiction.

Mr. Trump believes he has more ammunition this time around, however, following the publication of a tabloid report offering a bizarre twist to familiar concerns about Hunter Biden’s work overseas. The report centres on data allegedly recovered from Hunter Biden’s laptop, though the data has not been verified and, if it is legitimate, does not tie candidate Mr. Biden to any corruption.

Mr. Biden’s team considers the issue a distraction from much more pressing concerns — namely, the pandemic — but Mr. Biden will certainly have to defend himself and his family again on Thursday night.

CAN BIDEN AVOID PLAYING INTO GOP NARRATIVE? Mr. Biden’s greatest foe Thursday night may be himself.

Mr. Trump has struggled to find an effective line of attack against the 77-year-old Democrat, but the lifetime politician has a well-established history of gaffes that has made him the butt of Republican jokes for years.

To that end, the 74-year-old Mr. Trump and his allies spent much of the year questioning Mr. Biden’s mental and physical health. While Mr. Biden quieted those questions with a solid performance in the first debate, they have not gone away. He needs to avoid any embarrassing missteps on stage that would play into the broader Republican narrative that he’s ill-equipped to lead the free world.

Mr. Biden will certainly be prepared. He spent four of the last five days with no public events so he could focus almost exclusively on debate prep.

Still, Mr. Biden’s history of self-imposed stumbles raises the distinct possibility that he could hurt his campaign, with or without Trump’s help. It doesn’t help Mr. Biden that expectations will be higher after Trump’s weak performance in the first debate.

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