The Democratic Presidential Candidates Have Foreign Policy Differences, We’re Just Not Hearing About Them

By Najum Mushtaq

A day after Paul Pillar expressed his concern on these pages about the Democratic presidential primary’s “unreal quality” of not focusing on a president’s power to enact foreign policy changes by fiat, the national frontrunner in the race, former Vice President Joe Biden, released a 30-second ad in Iowa highlighting his foreign policy credentials. In a bid to regain lost support among Democratic voters in the first-in-the-nation primary, Biden’s ad draws attention to President Trump’s admiration for “dictators and tyrants” like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. In his stump speeches in Iowa, Biden calls the two foreign leaders “thugs” and deems Kim to have “virtually no social redeeming value.” As the leading candidate in the primary, Biden’s long foreign policy record in other areas has also been under constant scrutiny by his rivals on the trail, especially his vote for the Iraq war and support for the North American Free Trade Agreement and permanent trade relations with China.

In fact, the diversity and depth of the 2020 Democratic primary field and unprecedented levels of mainstream and social media coverage have put on display a substantial body of evidence for voters to learn “what difference the various contenders would make in executing the powers of the presidency,” as Dr. Pillar puts it in his 11 November Lobelog piece.

Whilst issues like healthcare have indeed become preeminent in the primary since the 2016 election cycle, it has by no means been a single-issue primary. (Those who entered the field championing only one major cause have either dropped out—like Jay Inslee with his climate-focused campaign—or loiter far behind the pack, such as Tulsi Gabbard who almost exclusively focuses on ending regime-change wars and Syria.) All the top-tier contenders have either already have well-established and thought-out policy positions on pressing foreign policy issues or they espouse overarching policy principles that would guide their foreign policy.

Dr. Pillar has identified four foreign policy areas that would be in urgent need of repair under a Democratic president: the general loss of credibility due to Trump’s withdrawal from international agreements; the problem of reversing the Trump administration’s Israel-Palestine policy; the heavy damage to relations with European allies; and the strained Ukraine ties.

Leaving the curious case of Ukraine and impeachment aside, the top-tier Democratic presidential candidates offer stark and clear choices in terms of specific policy objectives, strategy and overall principles that would drive their foreign policy. In addition, the candidates’ record and current policy positions on the U.S. role in an unstable Latin America, the lingering conflict between two nuclear powers in South Asia, and on the question of deployment of U.S. military power abroad are also not hard to decipher from their pledges on the campaign trail and plans on their websites.

Here’s a brief summary of key differences in the proposals and political views of major Democratic presidential candidates on these foreign policy issues.

A three-way divergence

As Dr. Pillar notes, most candidates intend to restore the Iran deal. Whilst the same goes for the Paris Accord on climate change, the scope and intent of the climate legislations being proposed by the top three candidates vary widely. Biden’s plan, for instance, seeks “middle ground” and a more incremental approach to transferring to renewable energy. His approach contrasts with the sweeping $16.3 trillion climate plan being pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, which aims to reach the target of 100 percent renewable sources for energy and transportation by no later than 2030. Sen. Elizabeth Warren also backs the Green New Deal and her climate proposals are closer to those of Sen. Sanders than Biden’s. Her plan also has a specific provision for the Pentagon to go carbon-neutral by 2030. Unlike Mr. Biden and Sen. Warren, though, Sanders pledges to place climate change at the centre of his foreign policy and work with Russia, India and China to pursue the green agenda.

The notion of mending ties with European allies, however, is more intriguing, given the fluid and uncertain political landscape in the old continent as well as the looming shadow of Russia over U.S.-EU relations. The top Democratic candidates have vastly divergent approaches to repairing the damage inflicted by Trump. It is clear from Mr. Biden’s Iowa television ad and his approach to the Russia question that, as president, he would work to strengthen NATO and increase defense spending. “Given Russia’s aggression in Georgia and Ukraine,” Biden believes, “NATO must continue to forward-deploy troops and military capabilities to eastern Europe to deter and, if necessary, defeat a Russian attack against one of the alliance’s member states.” Sen. Warren holds a similar position on Russia and NATO, although, according to an October 17, 2019 Reuters analysis, “Up to now, Warren’s foreign policy proposals have tended to focus on securing better trade terms for American workers, rather than on national security matters.” Ultimately, though, instead of building military muscle only, Sen. Warren advances the idea of Ukraine and Russia negotiating a peace deal, even if details of her plan for post-Trump U.S.-Europe relations remain sketchy.

Both Sen. Sanders and Warren, however, have a less strident and less militaristic view of relations with Europe and Russia than Mr. Biden. For instance, after Trump announced withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, the two senators were among seven cosponsors of the Prevention of Arms Race Act of 2018, urging the U.S. to remain in the treaty and prohibiting funding for a U.S. ground-launched or ballistic missile until the administration provided a report meeting specific conditions.

Political upheavals in Europe, signified by, but not restricted to, the Brexit imbroglio, have given domestic American politics a new turn. On one hand, Trump has vitiated the atmosphere by openly supporting far-right European politicians and, more generally, alienating longtime allies. On the other hand, candidates like Bernie Sanders, who presents Scandinavia as a model for his Medicare for All and college education proposals, have found support and camaraderie from Democratic Socialists in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Between these two transatlantic political streams, candidates like Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren have yet to find a European niche of their own.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is another area where, though similar on paper, the three top-tier candidates have quite tangible and irreconcilable differences. All of them agree on a two-state solution—but the agreement ends there. Sen. Sanders wants part of the $3.8 billion U.S. military aid to Israel to go to Gaza as humanitarian aid and be used as leverage to make Israel stop and roll back settlements and start negotiations with Palestinians. Though not so unequivocal, Sen. Warren, too, says that if Israel “continues with steps to formally annex the West Bank, the United States should make it clear that none of our aid should be used to support annexation.” Joe Biden finds the very idea of setting any conditions for aid to Israel outrageous. The reaction from these candidates to last week’s Israeli attacks in Gaza and rocket attacks against Israel also illustrates their differences. Biden singled out Israel as the victim in his tweet on November 12; Both Senators Sanders and Warren were careful to take note of the situation in Gaza as well as rocket attacks against Israel. As the only Jewish candidate in the race, Bernie Sanders has also had to face criticism for his support for the Palestinian people and frequently defend his criticism of the Netanyahu government.

In addition to Biden’s renewed emphasis on foreign policy in his Iowa campaign, both of his top rivals have given major foreign-policy speeches in the run-up to the primary season. (All three of them have also responded to the Council of Foreign Affairs 11-point questionnaire to presidential candidates.) 

For instance, in October 2018 at John Hopkins University, Bernie Sanders spelled out his foreign policy vision to “effectively combat the forces of global oligarchy and authoritarianism” through an international movement that  addresses “the massive global inequality…not only in wealth but in political power.”

And at her foreign policy address at American University in November 2018 Sen. Warren, too, identified rightwing demagogues and authoritarian movements as the major threat to democracy worldwide. “We can start our defense of democracy by fixing what has gone wrong with our international economic policies,” said Warren. Unlike Sanders, though, she does not envision a global movement and fundamental restructuring of the economic system, but she proposes “serious reforms.” 

Despite this fact that the three top candidates have laid down their vision of foreign policy problems and how they want to fix them, one reason why observers may feel compelled to urge democratic candidates to be more vocal on foreign policy is perhaps the unquestioning manner in which the media, almost habitually, covers military and diplomatic developments. Dissent from the official “patriotic” policy line is either ignored and underplayed or roundly rejected. As noted above, both Senators Sanders and Warren enunciate foreign policy positions that, among other things, question past and present military and economic policies of the United States and its role in fostering authoritarianism in several countries around the world. In almost every stump speech, whether in Iowa or New York, Sen. Sanders rails at length against the military industrial complex and endless wars and describes climate change, rather than Russia, as the biggest national security threat. Yet, his daily foreign policy pronouncements of this kind seldom appear in media headlines.

The format and substance of the debates thus far also clearly illustrates this tendency of the media. As an analyst had noted after the first round of debate in June this year, foreign policy is the “obvious loser” in this media setting:

“Of course, this is not entirely the candidates’ fault. Twenty hopefuls appeared on stage over two days, with limited time to talk. All were very much at the mercy of moderators who were far more focused on domestic issues like health care, immigration, and the economy than foreign affairs.” 

Going forward

Similar strands of diverging views can be found in these candidates’ attitude and responses to political developments in Latin America and South Asia as well as to militarism in American foreign policy. And, indeed, there is a great deal of change a Democratic president can affect without having to go through the cumbersome process of Congressional approval.

But, these three candidates and— with slight variations—the rest of the field, represent a sharpening debate within the Democratic Party not only about healthcare, the economy and immigration, but also how the United States should relate to the world. It might be plausible to argue that the ideologies and the political forces shaping their competing domestic policy narratives are also reflected in the foreign policy outlook of these candidates. Dr. Pillar is right to plead that the candidates should spend more time talking about a president’s foreign policy powers that can bring immediate results, but it might not be fair to conclude that these issues do not resonate with voters in Iowa or that there are no clear choices or sets of options to pick from the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates.

Najum Mushtaq has worked as a journalist, humanitarian aid worker and policy analyst in Pakistan, Kenya, Somalia and Sweden.

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  1. Right now, Democratic foreign policy is just anything against Trump. That has given an opening to the already powerful hawks among Democrats, typified for the last election by Team Hillary.

    Dissent from that hawkish hard line could look too much like support for Trump, as his position wanders around among various ideas. So they can’t talk about it. They must bash Trump, no matter what may be the idea of the moment from him.

    The one consistently Never Trump idea is the purest hawk idea. That suggests how a guy like Trump could ever get elected.

  2. A good analysis, but I think Democratic Contenders may enunciate their Foreign Policy stances more clearly after having connected with the periphery of Trump’s base, and may be by end Feb, early March 2020. US Foreign Policy is lower interest area for majority of US voters at this stage, in my view.

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