Daniel Larison

The 2020 Democratic Candidates and Foreign Policy

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Capitol Hill speaking March 7 about the bill he has co-sponsored demanding vote on war in Yemen. (George O’Neill Jr.)

The New York Timessurveyed the Democratic presidential candidates on their foreign policy views, and the responses gave us a better idea of what most of these candidates would do if they were elected. The questions were narrowly focused on a handful of countries and a relatively limited range of issues, and that was also revealing about how foreign policy is discussed in presidential elections:

The eleven subjects that the survey covers leave out quite a lot of the world and they give short shrift to non-military policy options. Latin America receives no attention in the survey except when it concerns a policy of regime change in Venezuela, and Africa gets no mention in the questions at all. The candidates are asked about various scenarios regarding the use of force, but there is much less attention to everything else that the conduct of foreign policy involves. As Grossman-Cohen points out in a different tweet, this reinforces the idea that foreign policy is defined by militarized options and little else. Most of the candidates’ responses were predictable. Biden’s North Korea policy would be every bit as unrealistic as Trump’s, but he shows even less willingness to negotiate. Bloomberg’s positions were unsurprisingly the most hawkish of the bunch. If there was an option for using force, he was for it. All of the candidates were unfortunately in agreement with defining Russia as an enemy.

One of the weirder questions asked the candidates whether they would consider using force to “preempt” a nuclear or missile test by either Iran or North Korea. Only Yang and Warren said no. It isn’t clear how many of them were serious and how many were just making fun of the absurdity of the question, but it is disturbing that most of the candidates asked about this would entertain taking military action against another country because of a test. Maybe it doesn’t need to be said because it is so obvious, but using force to stop a nuclear or missile test is not “preemption” in any sense of the term. A test is not an attack to be preempted, and taking military action to prevent a test would be nothing less than an unprovoked, illegal act of aggression. To her credit, Warren recognizes how dangerous such an attack would be:

No. Using force against a nuclear power or high-risk adversary carries immense risk for broader conflict. Using force when not necessary can be dangerously counterproductive. Again, I will only use force if there is a vital national security interest at risk, a strategy with clear and achievable objectives, and an understanding and acceptance of the long-term costs.

In general, Warren’s answers were the most substantive and careful. She not only answered the questions that were put to her, but she gave some explanation of why she took that position and why it was the appropriate thing to do. She correctly rejected Trump’s regime change policy in Venezuela, and acknowledged that “Trump’s reckless actions have only further worsened the suffering of the Venezuelan people.” On North Korea, she remained open to continuing direct talks with Kim Jong-un, but qualified that by saying, “I would be willing to meet with Kim if it advances substantive negotiations, but not as a vanity project.” Her negotiating position was similarly reasonable: “A pragmatic approach to diplomacy requires give and take on both sides, not demands that one side unilaterally disarm first.” Both Warren and Sanders correctly criticized Trump for the illegal assassination of Soleimani, and they recognized that the president’s escalation had put Americans at greater risk. When asked about taking military action against Iran, Warren rejected the idea of a war with Iran and said the following:

I want to end America’s wars in the Middle East, not start a new one with Iran. The litmus test I will use for any military action against Iran is the same that I will use as I consider any military action anywhere in the world. I will not send our troops into harm’s way unless there is a vital national security interest at risk, a strategy with clear and achievable objectives, and an understanding and acceptance of the long-term costs. We will hold ourselves to this by recommitting to a simple idea: the constitutional requirement that Congress play a primary role in deciding to engage militarily.

The most revealing set of responses came from Pete Buttigieg in that he gave very few responses and had remarkably little to say about his plans. He failed to answer most of the questions he was asked. Of the 36 individual questions included in the 11 sections, he answered only 17 by my count, and many of those were recycled clips from previous speeches, interviews, and debate statements. Despite leaning heavily on his military service in Afghanistan in his campaigning, he failed to answer all of the questions asked about Afghanistan and the U.S. war there. Buttigieg’s failure to respond to most of these questions underscores the former mayor’s lack of foreign policy experience and knowledge, and it shows that after almost a year his campaign still doesn’t have their foreign policy worked out.

Sanders and Warren have set themselves apart from the field in having the most credible foreign policy visions and the strongest commitments to bringing our many unnecessary wars to an end. Biden remains wedded to too many outdated and unworkable policies, and just on foreign policy alone Bloomberg is running in the wrong party’s primary. Buttigieg is the least formally qualified top presidential candidate on the Democratic side, and his inability or unwillingness to answer most of these questions shows that. If the moderators bother to ask them about foreign policy, the candidates will have another opportunity to address these issues in the debate tonight, and Buttigieg won’t be able to get away with saying nothing.

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