Do the Democrats Have a Foreign Policy?

Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg at the Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines, January 2020
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg at the Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines, January 2020

A paradox of American presidential elections—especially during the primaries—is that unless a war is looming or underway, voters pay little attention to the arena in which a president has the greatest power to affect their lives. On taxes, education, health care, and all the other domestic issues for which candidates put forward detailed plans, what a president wants will have to be exhaustively negotiated with Congress. On foreign policy, his or her freedom of action is vastly greater. Foreign policy, too, unlike domestic issues, frequently entails surprises—the collapse of the Soviet Union, say—that demand a swift response in unexpected conditions. In their own interest, then, voters ought to want to know what a candidate’s instincts about foreign policy are—what she or he makes of recent history, of global trends, of the threats the US faces, and of what its responsibilities in the world should be.

Candidates should care as well, since history suggests that foreign policy is likely to have a significant effect on their legacy if elected. Of Trump’s nine predecessors over the past half-century, the Vietnam War shaped the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. The Iran hostage crisis ended Jimmy Carter’s presidency after one term. The Iran-contra scandal dominated Ronald Reagan’s second term, eventually producing convictions of eleven administration officials. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush’s declaration of a “global war on terror,” the war in Afghanistan, and the tragically misconceived invasion of Iraq determined the course of Bush’s presidency and created many of the issues facing his successors.

Donald Trump’s international decisions—they do not amount to a coherent policy—are a further reminder of what is at stake. In just three years he has scrambled allies and adversaries, thrown away international agreements, crippled institutions demonstrably serving US interests, and created opportunity after opportunity for China and Russia to exploit. Nonetheless, until the US killed Qassim Suleimani on January 3, foreign policy was once again nearly invisible in the 2020 campaign. In the Democratic candidates’ first six televised debates, 10–15 percent of the time was spent on foreign policy.

But that proportion reflects what national reporters think is important. Voters hold different views. The Des Moines Register tracked every question asked of all the Democratic candidates at public events in Iowa during three weeks in October and November. Of the 321 questions, fourteen—4.4 percent—were about foreign policy. (Questions about climate change were counted separately.) Elizabeth Warren’s campaign kept a tally of questions asked at her events across the country that counted twenty-seven about foreign policy out of more than six hundred—4.5 percent. Those questions have…


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