Trump, Biden, and the Fight With Allies

11/24/20 11:08AM EST

Editor's Note: Below is a complimentary research note written by National Security analyst LTG Dan Christman. To access our Macro Policy research please email

Trump, Biden, and the Fight With Allies - 11 24 2020 11 06 11 AM

Late in World War II, Winston Churchill, reflecting on the core lessons of waging a global conflict, said, “The only thing worse than fighting with allies is fighting without them.” 

Fifty years later, former UK Ambassador to the U.S. Robin Renwick penned a book on the tumult of post-war U.S.-UK relations, the title of which was drawn directly from the Churchill quip: “Fighting with Allies.”

These two seasoned diplomats, and countless others in the decades following the end of WWII, all recognized the centrality of working on the global stage with key friends who share core values. Despite the frustrations of competing personalities and national histories that complicate any alliance relationship, successfully meeting global challenges is more difficult and more fleeting if those challenges are addressed alone.   

What does this have to do with the Trump-Biden transition? The foreign policy in-box for President-elect Biden will be overflowing come January 20th; dozens of areas cry out for prioritization from the outset.

However, despite the on-going domestic political noise over election lawsuits and recounts, it’s increasingly obvious that restoring relationships with key friends and allies will be - arguably already is – THE Joe Biden foreign policy priority; and it will be the springboard for his renewed policy of strategic engagement. 

For generations of U.S. Presidents since FDR, working with allies and fighting if necessary alongside them was a given; but President Trump’s “American First” doctrine stood this tradition on its head. Fueled by chief strategist Steve Bannon early in Trump’s tenure, the “America First” mantra took firm root as a foreign policy first principle; it meant shunning alliance relationships and partnerships in a belief that any association by the U.S. with such institutions entailed “loss of sovereignty” and creeping global governance.

But President-elect Biden has made it clear, throughout his career and his campaign, that he stands squarely with the post-war tradition of alliance-building.

As Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass summarized the priorities in a podcast last week, “the most essential prerequisite for the new president, next to COVID, is alliances!”  The Economist magazine put it even more succinctly: “Alliances are central to Mr. Biden’s vision.”

The rapidity and tone of initial congratulatory phone calls from foreign leaders - UK, Germany, Canada, France, Ireland, the president of the European Commission, amongst others – reflect the welcome receptivity from those who were put off by “American First.” The response from authoritarian leaders, with the exception of Turkey’s President Erdogan, was more delayed, and far more measured. 

Because so much of Biden’s attention, understandably, will be focused on COVID and the American economy, the team the president-elect chooses to execute on his foreign policy vision will have an outsized role, particularly early on.

Encouragingly, the names that have surfaced as speculation to head the key executive departments entrusted with foreign and security policy - Michelle Flournoy, Tony Blinken (likely to be named Secretary of State tomorrow), Jake Sullivan, Senator Chris Coons – all have extensive international experience; and each comes from the long U.S. tradition of working with friends and allies, not against them. 

Given allies’ euphoria at U.S. election results, however, it’s easy to overlook a long list of irritants in our international relationships, even with our closest friends, as Ambassador Renwick highlighted. Many of these irritants President Trump was right to call out – European defense burden sharing, for example, and China’s mercantilist trading behavior. Many more cloud the horizon, including agriculture trade; U.S. technology dominance; sanctions on steel and aluminum; BREXIT and the Irish border; and especially since last week, the U.S. and NATO troop presence in Afghanistan.

The push-back from China and Russia in each of these areas, to try to further divide us from our natural partners, will be intense. But again, as Haass reminded, allies are our great structural advantage; China and Russia have clients, we have friends and partners.     

Bottom Line: Repairing and rebuilding the traditional architecture of U.S. alliances will not be the most immediate and most worrisome security challenge over the near-term; China and Iran are.

But our European friends and NATO allies, together with Japan, South Korea and Australia in the Pacific region, are recognized as THE essential partners for addressing all other challenges; they are the force multipliers for everything else!

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LTG Dan Christman, USA, Ret. serves as Hedgeye Potomac Research’s Senior National Security Analyst, providing deep insight into international affairs and national security. Most recently, Dan provided strategic leadership on international issues affecting the business community for organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce. Dan’s long history of leadership includes his service as a United States Army lieutenant general and former Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. He served in highly visible and strategically important positions and four times was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the nation's highest peacetime service award.

He also served for two years as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during which time he traveled with and advised Secretary of State Warren Christopher. He was centrally involved during this period with negotiations between Israel and Syria as a member of the Secretary's Middle East Peace Team. Further, Christman represented the United States as a member of NATO's Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium.

Graduating first in his class from West Point, Christman also received MPA and MSE degrees in public affairs and civil engineering from Princeton University and graduated with honors from The George Washington University Law School. He is a decorated combat veteran of Southeast Asia, where he commanded a company in the 101st Airborne Division in 1969.

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