Beto O’Rourke
Candidates Answer CFR's Questions

Beto O’Rourke

August 11, 2019 10:16 am (EST)

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CFR invited the presidential candidates challenging President Trump in the 2020 election to articulate their positions on twelve critical foreign policy issues. Candidates’ answers are posted exactly as they are received. View all questions here.

1. How, if at all, should China’s treatment of the Uighurs and the situation in Hong Kong affect broader U.S. policy toward China?

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To address complex global challenges—climate change chief among them—we need smart, principled engagement with China. But we don’t do ourselves, or our relationship with China, any favors by not being forthright about our core values. Chinese oppression of the Uighur minority is a human rights disaster, and the United States should not only be condemning their detention and surveillance, but should be leading an international effort to pressure China to relent. Likewise, the people of Hong Kong should have no doubt about where we, as Americans, stand in their struggle to preserve democracy against increasing efforts by the Chinese government to undermine it. 

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These issues are not—and should not be seen as—separate from other strategic interests we pursue in the broader relationship with China. Our values are assets, not liabilities, in the global competitive environment. Indeed, we are more likely to achieve our other objectives with China when China upholds its human rights obligations, including its promises to respect Hong Kong’s independence. 

Navigating the wide range of trade, security, climate, and human rights interests we have with China requires skillful and patient diplomacy, something that is sorely lacking in the current administration. Like all nations, China will act in a way that it believes is consistent with its interests. As President, I will seek to engage China around mutual interests, like climate change, where our countries should be cooperating to build the global green economy.   

2. Would you rejoin the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)? What changes to the existing agreement, if any, would you require before agreeing to rejoin the accord?

Yes, as President, I will rejoin the JCPOA, conditioned on Iran’s compliance with its commitments under the agreement. President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA was short-sighted, reckless, and against the recommendations of both the U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities. The nuclear agreement was not perfect—no negotiated agreement can be—but it significantly advanced American interests and was succeeding in blocking Iran’s pathway to achieving nuclear capability. Moreover, our sudden withdrawal has made the United States and our allies less safe and weakened our credibility as a good-faith negotiator for subsequent dealings with Iran and other regimes. 

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As President, I will reverse these policies. I will restore US credibility, and use the agreement as a starting point for future negotiations, along with our allies, aimed at reigning in Iran’s most destabilizing behavior in the region, limiting Iran’s ballistic missile capability, and ensuring that Iran never becomes a nuclear weapon state. 

President Trump’s reckless and cavalier saber-rattling is moving us closer to a military confrontation with the Iranian regime. As President, I will put an end to this irresponsible approach. I will work with our allies in Europe and in the region to tackle the serious challenges posed by the Iranian regime and restore our commitment to the hard work of diplomacy.

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3. Would you sign an agreement with North Korea that entailed partial sanctions relief in exchange for some dismantling of its nuclear weapons program but not full denuclearization? 

Any nuclear negotiations process with North Korea should be judged by its ability to deliver verifiable progress toward eliminating the regime’s nuclear weapons program. By that metric, President Trump’s policy has been a complete failure. In return for providing Kim Jong Un with the propaganda and legitimacy that comes with multiple presidential summits, President Trump has gotten nothing for the United States. North Korea’s nuclear stockpile continues to grow. It continues to fire missiles into the Sea of Japan. Even the delivery of American Korean War veteran remains has come to a stop.

As President, I would be open to a deal that provided partial sanctions relief for a partial rollback of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But for such an agreement to be in America’s interest, North Korea would have to commit to a mutually agreeable definition of denuclearization, vigorous international inspections, and provide a full accounting of its nuclear program. Any sanctions relief would have to have strong “snap back” provisions. In all these efforts, I will place a high value on working with our allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, each of which shares our interest in a peaceful and denuclearized peninsula.

4. What, if any, steps would you take to counter Russian aggression against Ukraine?

Russia’s invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine violated the post-World War II international consensus that states cannot expand their territory through military force. In addition to Russia’s direct military aggression against Ukraine, Russia continues to try to destabilize Ukraine through disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, and threatening its energy supply. By cozying up to Putin and running down NATO, President Trump invites this kind of hostile behavior from Russia. 

As President, I will support Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself against Russian aggression. Key among those efforts is helping Ukraine build institutions that will stabilize its democracy. A free and prosperous Ukraine sitting on Russia’s doorstep would not only better deter Putin’s aggression, it would undermine the political narrative Putin relies on for power. The Ukrainian people and their newly-elected government have an opportunity now to adopt reforms that will strengthen the legal, economic, and political architecture supporting democratic progress—and root out corruption—for the long haul. As President, I will encourage these steps and will leverage American finance, particularly through the promotion of renewables, to help Ukraine become energy independent from Russia.

Finally, we now know that Putin has used Ukraine as a laboratory to test disinformation and cyber tactics that it later deploys elsewhere, including in the US. I will be prepared to sanction Russian officials who engage in activities aimed at undermining American democracy, and I will place a high priority on safeguarding our elections by investing in cybersecurity systems and risk-limiting audits for ballots.

5. Would you commit to the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of your first term, or would you require certain conditions be met before doing so?

Yes, I will commit to withdrawing all U.S. service members by the end of my first term. Seventeen years into America’s longest war, we are no closer to achieving our original objectives than we were in the beginning. Enemy-initiated attacks are on the rise, as are Afghan military and civilian casualties. Corruption and poppy production are stubbornly persistent. 

The status quo approach to Afghanistan—including our current deployment of 14,000 troops—is not serving America’s interests. It is time for a fundamental change. As President, I will be committed to a new approach to Afghanistan, one that responsibly ends our military operations there and shifts our priorities to bringing all parties to the table, putting the Afghan people in the driver’s seat to envision their own future. 

There is no question that withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan poses risks, and our plan—including the timing of when and how to bring Americans home—must be part of a broader risk management strategy. Working with our allies and partners, I will phase troop withdrawal to minimize known risks, while at the same time doing what we can to ensure a sustainable peace, including prioritizing participation by Afghan women in the peace process and reintegrating former fighters into the new Afghan society.

6. Given the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the civil war in Yemen, what changes, if any, would you make to U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia?

Trump’s failure to impose consequences for the murder of a U.S. resident, his refusal to comply with a congressionally-mandated review of Saudi behavior, and his veto of bipartisan legislation that would have blocked arms sales, have given the Saudis latitude to set a new normal in the bilateral relationship in which the range of American interests is reduced to maintaining the kingdom as a consumer of American weapons. 

This must change. Our relationship with Saudi Arabia should be grounded in a clear expression of American interests and values. Otherwise, the Saudis will continue to believe that our security relationship is a blank check for their destabilizing behavior—fueling war and a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, kidnapping the prime minister of a sovereign nation, assassinating an American resident. These abhorrent actions—not U.S. forthrightness about its values—weaken the bilateral relationship and threaten the international community. 

As President, I will call for an end to the repression of women’s rights activists, impose Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on those responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, respond to the clearly-articulated desire of the American people to end US involvement in the war in Yemen and halt arms sales to the kingdom until it commits to a cessation of hostilities and peace negotiations. A constructive US-Saudi relationship is worth preserving, but only if Riyadh is willing to engage in a significant course correction.

7. Do you support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, if so, how would you go about trying to achieve it?

A two-state solution that realizes the aspirations of the Palestinian people and addresses Israel’s legitimate security concerns is the only way to guarantee peace and the human rights and dignity of both Israelis and Palestinians. Our strong relationship with Israel is key to achieving that outcome, and as President, I will support and sustain it. 

Leaders on both sides continue to take steps that make negotiating a two-state solution more difficult, including Netanyahu’s embrace of the far-right in Israel and Abbas’ ineffectual leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Ultimately, peace will require bold and principled leadership from both parties. But the United States also has an indispensable role to play. Far from fulfilling that role, President Trump’s reckless and inflammatory actions have added fuel to the fire. As President, I will leverage the unique position of the United States in the region to cultivate a foundation on which negotiations can take place. That will include holding both sides accountable for unjustified acts of violence, whether it be rocket attacks from Gaza, or disproportionate use of force from Israel. Palestinians and Israelis have the right—and deserve the opportunity—to live lives free from violence and depredation. In my administration, I will prioritize rebuilding the foundation for the best way to achieve that outcome: a two-state solution. 

8. What, if any, additional steps should the United States take to remove Nicolás Maduro from power in Venezuela?

Venezuela has collapsed. The illegitimate regime of Nicolás Maduro has plunged the Venezuelan people into a nightmare of chaos and deprivation; more than four million of whom have fled because they cannot survive at home. As President, I will take urgent action to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and work with regional allies to support a lasting solution to Venezuela’s political and economic collapse. 

First, I will reverse the Trump administration’s politicization of humanitarian aid, which has prevented support from reaching Venezuelans who need it most, particularly women and children. By supporting the efforts of neutral humanitarian agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross to deliver life-saving food, medicine, and protection, we will ensure that aid reaches the most vulnerable. I will also immediately grant Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans already in the United States, something President Trump has refused to do.

Second, to foster a democratic transition away from the Maduro regime to Juan Guaido, the legitimate president under the Venezuelan constitution, I will support efforts by opposition and regime officials to negotiate a political settlement, while using targeted measures like asset seizure and supporting criminal indictments to increase pressure on regime officials. To reverse Venezuela’s economic collapse, I will lead an international effort to provide financial assistance to stabilize the post-Maduro Venezuelan economy and enable the Venezuelan people to rebuild their lives.   

9. By 2050, Africa will account for 25 percent of the world’s population according to projections by the United Nations. What are the implications of this demographic change for the United States, and how should we adjust our policies to anticipate them?

The implications of population growth in Africa and elsewhere will be shaped by the changes in climate that have already begun. These changes will have a profound impact on the continent. From rising sea levels, to the expansion of deserts like the Sahara, climate change is altering where and how populations can safely live. Africa’s young, growing population will be forced to confront the effects of climate change. When population centers become uninhabitable, we will witness significant migration and perhaps the biggest set of refugee crises the world has ever seen. Moreover, the wealth in these countries will become more limited and a host of other issues, including violent fights for resources, may arise. Population growth will only exacerbate these conflicts. We have already seen the consequences of violence and instability abroad impacting our southern border, and we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to mitigate future crises. As President, I will mobilize $5 trillion to combat climate change by investing in innovation, our infrastructure, and our communities. I will also take bold steps to cut pollution and reach the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. And working with the international community, I will re-enter the Paris Agreement and lead the negotiations for an even more ambitious global plan for 2030 and beyond.

10. Under what circumstances, if any, would you support the United States joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), formerly the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

The United States should only enter trade agreements that benefit American workers and consumers. As President, I will not support joining the CPTPP unless we are able to negotiate substantial improvements to protect workers, the environment, and human rights.  I will also demand that any agreement include effective enforcement mechanisms.

11. How would you discourage the proliferation of coal-fired power plants in developing countries?

 The best way for the United States to confront climate change is through an ambitious national project at home and by rejoining the Paris Climate Accords to spur a clean energy transition abroad. The United States should lead by example, showing other countries it is not only viable, but economically advantageous, to make transformative investments in green energy. That’s why I have proposed a comprehensive, $5 trillion plan to fight climate change through investment in infrastructure, innovation, and American workers and communities. We cannot credibly call upon developing nations to reduce climate emissions unless we do the same. 

But many countries need more than an example from the United States. They need technical and financial assistance to transition away from fossil fuels. While developing countries contribute the least to climate change, they have the least financial capacity to mitigate its catastrophic effects. Instead of leading the world in a green energy transition, President Trump has gutted U.S. funding for institutions like the Green Climate Fund and Global Environmental Facility - programs that are crucial to helping developing countries shift to sustainable energy. As President, I will restore assistance to these vital institutions and reestablish American leadership in the global fight against climate change.

12. What has been the greatest foreign policy accomplishment of the United States since World War II? What has been the biggest mistake?

The pinnacle of American leadership in foreign affairs was our role in shaping the global order following World War II. Having defeated the greatest threat to peace the world has ever known, our leadership in developing institutions to secure peace like the United Nations and the Bretton Woods system, our commitment to rebuilding Europe through the Marshall Plan, and the creation of NATO helped to ensure that the second half of the 20th century was among the most peaceful and economically beneficial periods in world history. As President, I will be committed to replicating the successes of our past by investing in aid to regions like Central America to promote peace and economic growth and reaffirming our commitment to NATO in the face of increased Russian aggression.

Our greatest foreign policy mistake was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The negative consequences of that war have been lasting and profound. The decision to topple Saddam Hussein and our occupation of Iraq damaged our alliances and cost nearly 4,500 American and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, all while making our country less safe. The vacuum created by toppling Hussein led to the spread of al-Qaeda, and later, ISIL over significant portions of the country, which left us further entangled in a quagmire of our own creation. As President, I will end our “forever wars,” repair our strained relationships with our traditional allies, and make the decision to put our service members in harm’s way only when absolutely necessary. 


This project was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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