World reduced to 'friends,' 'thugs' and 'filthy' countries in Trump-Biden foreign policy debate

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden debate relations with China and national security in Nashville. Check out more CNN debate coverage here.

Posted: Oct 23, 2020 11:31 PM
Updated: Oct 23, 2020 11:31 PM

"We had a good relationship with Hitler before he invaded the rest of Europe."

That was how Democratic candidate Joe Biden attempted to sum up President Donald Trump's approach to foreign policy in Thursday's debate, arguing that Trump cozies up to "thugs" in North Korea, China and Russia, while he "pokes his finger at all our allies."

It was a line that might play well among Biden's base, but, with its vague allusions to appeasement in the run up to World War II, it was indicative of a debate that had little genuine substance when it came to current foreign policy challenges, with both leaders choosing to use other countries as attack lines more than anything else.

An initial question about allegations of election interference quickly derailed into both candidates tossing accusations of corruption: Trump brought up Hunter Biden's alleged ties to Ukraine and China, while Biden pointed to the President having a Chinese bank account.

Biden did promise to "get China to play by international laws," an area where Beijing has arguably benefited from Trump's America First strategy and suspicion of multilateral organizations. However, he offered little insight into how he would actually go about doing that, especially as China is far stronger both internationally and domestically than it was the last time Biden was in office, beyond working with allies to try and rein Beijing in.

Unlike the vice presidential debate, no parts of Thursday's live broadcast were censored in China, presumably because the candidates' comments were not seen as harmful to Beijing.

A case in point was Biden's attempt to discuss the South China Sea, where Beijing has been building up islands and expanding its military footprint. Rather than outline the dangers posed by Beijing's expansionism, Biden skirted over the issue, merely saying that US planes would "fly through" Chinese identification zones, something that the US military has done at increased levels under Trump.

A section on North Korea was comparatively more substantive, but Biden often seemed stuck in the past, and refused to acknowledge long-standing criticisms of the Obama administration's failed approach to Pyongyang -- which expanded its nuclear arsenal during that period -- instead hitting Trump for supposedly appeasing leader Kim Jong Un.

"He's legitimized North Korea," Biden said, referring to a country that has existed since 1948 and has a seat at the United Nations. "He has talked about his good buddy, who is a thug, a thug."

While Trump took credit for a rapprochement with North Korea that many view as largely driven by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, he rightly pointed to the failure of previous administrations' posturing to actually rein in Pyongyang's weapons program.

"They left me a mess, North Korea was a mess," Trump said. "There was a very dangerous period in my first three months, before we worked things out a little bit."

Although North Korea is not the flashpoint that it appeared to be at the start of Trump's term, actual flashpoints for foreign conflict were largely ignored -- for all both candidates' tough talk on China, neither mentioned Beijing's posturing towards Taiwan, to which the Trump administration this week agreed to sell more weapons. Also unmentioned were ongoing human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the crackdown in Hong Kong, and growing calls to boycott the 2022 Olympics in China over such measures.

As it assumes its role as the world's second superpower, China is likely to be the major foreign policy challenge of the next decade for the US, and yet neither candidate really gave any insight into how they will react to Beijing's growing foreign clout and a new bipolar world. More often than not, China was referenced in relation to the global pandemic, with Trump blaming it for unleashing the coronavirus currently devastating the US.

The impact of the pandemic is such that it would have made sense for the debate to pivot back to this -- which it often did -- but too often foreign policy matters, and foreign countries, were used as cudgels for ad hominem attacks and wild accusations.

In a discussion about climate change, Trump sidestepped substantive issues -- and his woeful record on climate -- and instead said he wanted American water and air to be perfectly clear, unlike other countries: "Look at China, how filthy it is, look at Russia, look at India, it's filthy. The air is filthy!"

Trump's comment was quickly picked up by Indian media, and on Twitter, where there was outrage from some Indians, who pointed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's strong embrace of Trump, only to have his country maligned on a global stage.

"Did Modi's friend Trump just call India 'filthy'?" said Gaurav Pandhi, an activist with the opposition Congress Party. "Totally unacceptable. Is this why BJP organized 'Namaste Trump' so that he can go back & call our beautiful nation 'filthy'?"

In a mostly substance-free foreign policy debate, that throwaway line could end up being the most diplomatically costly of the night.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 307332

Reported Deaths: 7095
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto20757248
Hinds19869408
Harrison17475302
Rankin13307275
Jackson13095243
Madison9886210
Lee9854169
Jones8289160
Forrest7522146
Lauderdale7185237
Lowndes6261144
Lamar610284
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Washington5279132
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Oktibbeha455297
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Warren4277118
Marshall4267100
Pontotoc416472
Monroe4056132
Union403575
Neshoba3984176
Lincoln3869107
Hancock371985
Leflore3468124
Sunflower329389
Tate322681
Pike3177104
Scott310472
Yazoo304268
Alcorn297664
Itawamba296776
Copiah292965
Coahoma289677
Simpson287484
Tippah284668
Prentiss275659
Marion265679
Wayne261341
Leake260973
Grenada254882
Covington254380
Adams245882
Newton244859
George237647
Winston225981
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Jasper219748
Attala213273
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Holmes186471
Clay182354
Stone179131
Clarke176676
Tallahatchie175240
Calhoun163130
Yalobusha158636
Smith158534
Walthall130543
Greene129433
Lawrence126223
Noxubee125833
Montgomery125542
Perry125138
Carroll120826
Amite119941
Webster113432
Jefferson Davis105332
Tunica102525
Claiborne101330
Benton97225
Kemper95126
Humphreys94332
Franklin81723
Quitman78916
Choctaw72817
Jefferson64828
Wilkinson64727
Sharkey49617
Issaquena1686
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 518588

Reported Deaths: 10712
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson753351487
Mobile37698798
Madison33829494
Tuscaloosa25245443
Montgomery23942565
Shelby23094238
Baldwin20617300
Lee15510165
Calhoun14277311
Morgan14137268
Etowah13660345
Marshall11952219
Houston10379278
Elmore9988200
Limestone9806147
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St. Clair9422234
Lauderdale9208227
DeKalb8745181
Talladega8042171
Walker7087275
Jackson6753110
Autauga6715103
Blount6480135
Colbert6200130
Coffee5397112
Dale4766110
Russell428238
Franklin419882
Chilton4080109
Covington4053114
Tallapoosa3892146
Escambia387574
Dallas3526149
Chambers3499122
Clarke346360
Marion3065100
Pike305475
Lawrence295295
Winston272272
Bibb256258
Marengo248561
Geneva245875
Pickens232959
Barbour224755
Hale218675
Butler212266
Fayette208960
Henry187844
Cherokee182044
Randolph176741
Monroe171240
Washington163838
Macon154348
Clay149354
Crenshaw149257
Cleburne146041
Lamar139234
Lowndes136453
Wilcox124327
Bullock121340
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