January 14, 2021 | Press Release


January 14, 2021 | Press Release


New Foundation for Defense of Democracies Report Pulls No Punches in Assessing Trump’s Successes and Failures, Offers Menu of Policy Ideas for Incoming Biden Administration

WASHINGTON, DC, January 14, 2021 – A new Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) report released today takes a comprehensive, issue-by-issue look at the national security policy successes and failures of the Trump presidency. Each of the assessment’s 25 chapters provides a systematic analysis of the administration’s policies toward one key country or issue, including China, Iran, Russia, cyber security, and human rights. Though the report’s substantive chapters were all completed before January 6, 2021, the foreword condemns the storming of the U.S. Capitol as a “national disgrace” that will forever tarnish Trump’s legacy.

From Trump to Biden: The Way Forward for U.S. National Security” is a clear-eyed assessment that reviews Trump’s “America First” policy, details which of the outgoing administration’s achievements President-elect Joe Biden should preserve, and provides the Biden team and the new Congress clear recommendations for addressing the most critical issues confronting U.S. foreign policy. The foreword notes there are significant foreign policy lessons to be gleaned from the outgoing administration, even if the events of January 6 ultimately define Trump’s presidency. “Whether challenging the Chinese Communist Party after years of accommodation and even obsequiousness, applying maximum pressure on the regime in Iran, or forging peace between Israel and no fewer than four Arab states, there are important wins to process. And even where Trump stumbled, such as by insulting NATO allies; flattering dictators such as Kim Jong Un, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin; pressuring Ukraine to advance his own re-election; attempting to help Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan avoid accountability for a massive sanctions-busting scheme; making a bad “peace” deal with the Taliban; or suddenly withdrawing troops from Syria, there are lessons to be learned. We cannot simply dismiss four years of policymaking because Trump’s legacy is now indelibly stained.”

The foreword continues, “America must learn from these last four years. Given the political climate and the toxic ideologies and divisions that will persist long after Trump is gone, that will not be easy.” But, it says, “FDD remains committed to playing a role in the foreign policy and national security debates that are sure to come. Our hope is that those debates remain substantive and respectful and ultimately serve to defend America’s democracy.”

Each chapter in the assessment follows the same three-part structure: 1) a factual description of the Trump administration’s policy in a given area; 2) an assessment of that policy’s successes and shortcomings; and 3) a series of recommendations for the new administration and Congress.

The editors highlight three key themes:

  • Traditions Upended: “As Trump’s presidency ends, his shortcomings as the leader of the world’s most powerful liberal democracy are starker than ever. The insults flung at longstanding democratic allies. The flattery of tyrants. The questioning of solemn treaty commitments. An oftentimes shambolic decision-making process marked by confusion, flip flops, and deep contradictions between Trump and his top advisors. The list goes on.” Trump said his approach to the world reflected a single common-sense principle: “America First.” This uneasy blend of populism, nationalism, mercantilism, isolationism, and unilateralism helped to explain his transactional view of alliances, lack of attention to human rights, and skepticism of free-trade deals and foreign military commitments. It produced mixed results at best. NATO defense spending continued to rise, but Trump’s contempt for his European counterparts made it harder to mobilize influential democracies to meet common threats, particularly from China. He won Saudi Arabia’s backing for Arab-Israeli normalization but excused the crown prince’s worst human rights transgressions, triggering a congressional backlash. Trump accelerated the destruction of the Islamic State but ordered sudden troop withdrawals from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan that risked the group’s resurgence “while empowering a witches’ brew of other bad actors, including Iran, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda.” And Trump fed suspicions that his personal interests were paramount despite his commitment to “America First”: his “perfect” phone call with Ukraine’s new president in 2019 created the damaging perception that Trump was withholding U.S. assistance to a critical partner unless it acted to advance his re-election prospects.
  • Achievements to Preserve: The Trump administration was the first to diagnose properly the threat from Beijing, seized an historic opportunity to bridge the Arab-Israeli divide, and put unprecedented pressure on the regime in Tehran. The administration’s two foundational documents on national security affairs, its National Security Strategy and the corresponding National Defense Strategy, provide a powerful assessment of the primary challenges that confront the United States – in particular the return of great power competition – and the policies required to secure America’s wellbeing. The Trump team correctly identified Beijing to be America’s fiercest rival, and the Chinese Communist Party’s ambition for global primacy to be the greatest international threat we face. The administration did more than any of its predecessors to begin contesting and constraining Chinese power across all domains – diplomatic, economic, military, cyber, ideological, and technological. Biden should also embrace Trump’s most unambiguous diplomatic success – the historic peace deals that he helped broker between Israel and several Arab states. Trump defied longstanding conventional wisdom that held such deals to be impossible absent a final resolution of the Palestinian conflict. Finally, the achievement that may be hardest for Biden to accept is the exceptional leverage the United States now enjoys vis-à-vis Iran because of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Biden has pledged to return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran but also says he wants to address its shortcomings. To do so, he will have to exploit the strong hand left to him by the outgoing administration.
  • Return to Bipartisanship: After the tumult and division of the past four years, culminating in Trump’s inciting his supporters to launch an insurrection against the seat of American democracy, a visceral impulse to dismantle all of Trump’s policies will be understandable. But it should be resisted. “What is required at this moment of hyper-politicization is a clear-eyed assessment of the Trump record that, in as objective a manner as possible, cuts through the sound and fury of his presidency to identify both the mistakes that Biden should seek to correct as well as the successes that are worthy of building upon.” The incoming administration now faces the enormous challenge of “not only re-establishing a modicum of bipartisanship in America’s approach to the world, but also restoring a measure of national unity in defense of the democratic values, norms, and traditions that – no doubt to the great delight of our adversaries – have been sorely tested in recent years yet ultimately remain the nation’s greatest source of strength and success both at home and abroad.”

Among the authors are former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Amb. Eric S. Edelman (Europe, Russia); former advisor to Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Vice President Dick Cheney John Hannah (Iraq, Saudi Arabia); FDD CEO Mark Dubowitz and former National Security Council staff member Richard Goldberg (Iran); former Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor Juan Zarate (National Economic Security); Middle East scholar and former Treasury Department counterterrorism policy official Jonathan Schanzer (Israel); former Cyberspace Solarium Commission (CSC) member Samantha Ravich and CSC Director RADM (Ret.) Mark Montgomery (Cyber); and former top Senate aide on national security policy Bradley Bowman (Defense).

Additional policy areas include Afghanistan, Arms Control and Nonproliferation, China, Energy, Hezbollah’s Global Network, Human Rights, India, International Law, International Organizations, Latin America, Lebanon, North Korea, Sunni Jihadism, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen.

To contact FDD media relations, please email [email protected].


About the Foundation for Defense of Democracies:

FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Connect with FDD on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.