Candidates Answer CFR's Questions

Joe Biden

August 1, 2019

Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images

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?

The United States should push back on China’s deepening authoritarianism, even as we seek to cooperate on issues where our interests are aligned. It is inspiring to see the brave people of Hong Kong demonstrating peacefully for the civil liberties and autonomy promised by Beijing. The world is watching; we should all stand in support of democratic principles and freedom.

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The forced detention of over a million Uighur Muslims in western China is unconscionable. America should speak out against the internment camps in Xinjiang and hold to account the people and companies complicit in this appalling oppression, including through sanctions and applying the Magnitsky Act.

The challenge doesn’t stop at China’s borders. Freedom in the 21st century will be won and lost in cyberspace. The Free World should come together to compete with China’s efforts to proliferate its model of high-tech authoritarianism. The United States should lead in shaping the rules, norms, and institutions that will govern the use of new technologies, like Artificial Intelligence. Through diplomacy and development finance, we can work with democratic allies to provide countries with a digital alternative to China’s dystopian system of surveillance and censorship. These efforts could begin at the global Summit for Democracy that I will host my first year in office.

Most important is that we lead once again by the power of our example. America’s commitment to universal values sets us apart from China. I will reinvigorate and repair our democracy by eliminating the Trump administration’s Muslim ban, increasing our refugee admissions, and ending the indefensible practice of separating families at the border. That is how to project a model that others want to emulate, rather than following China’s authoritarian path.

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?

Iran is a destabilizing actor in the Middle East; it must never be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. President Trump abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—a deal that blocked Iran’s paths to nuclear weapons, as repeatedly verified by international inspectors—with no viable plan to produce a better one. His reckless actions have produced a deep crisis in transatlantic relations and pushed China and Russia closer to Iran. As a result, the United States, rather than Iran, has been isolated. Predictably, Iran has restarted its nuclear program and become more aggressive, moving the region closer to another disastrous war. In short, Trump’s decisions have left us much worse off.

What Iran is doing is dangerous, but still reversible. If Iran moves back into compliance with its nuclear obligations, I would re-enter the JCPOA as a starting point to work alongside our allies in Europe and other world powers to extend the deal’s nuclear constraints. Doing so would provide a critical down payment to re-establish U.S. credibility, signaling to the world that America’s word and international commitments once again mean something. I would also leverage renewed international consensus around America’s Iran policy—and a redoubled commitment to diplomacy—to more effectively push back against Tehran’s other malign behavior in the region.

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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? 

The next president will almost certainly inherit a North Korea nuclear challenge that is worse than when President Trump took office. After three made-for-TV summits, we still don't have a single concrete commitment from North Korea. Not one missile or nuclear weapon has been destroyed, not one inspector is on the ground. If anything, the situation has gotten worse. North Korea has more capability today than when Trump began his “love affair” with Kim Jong-un, a murderous tyrant who, thanks to Trump, is no longer an isolated pariah on the world stage.

Diplomacy is important, but diplomacy requires a strategy, a process, and competent leadership to deliver. That is why, as President, I would renew a commitment to arms control for a new era — including on North Korea. The historic Iran nuclear deal the Obama-Biden administration negotiated blocked Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and it provides a blueprint for an effective negotiation. As president, I will empower our negotiators and jumpstart a sustained, coordinated campaign with our allies and others – including China – to advance our shared objective of a denuclearized North Korea.

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

First, I would make Ukraine a U.S. foreign policy priority. On the military side, I would provide more U.S. security assistance — including weapons — to strengthen Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. I would also expand the successful training mission for the Ukrainian Armed Forces that was initiated by the Obama-Biden administration.

Economically, I would work to increase Western direct investment and support for Ukraine’s energy independence from Russia, particularly if the Nordstream II pipeline is built in the coming year, because this project would severely jeopardize Ukraine’s access to Russian gas.

I would also ensure that all U.S. assistance to Ukraine is strictly conditioned on anti-corruption reforms, including the appointment of genuinely independent anti-corruption prosecutors and courts.

Finally, I would support a much stronger diplomatic role for the United States, alongside France and Germany, in the negotiations with Russia. For diplomacy to work, however, we need stronger leverage over Moscow, and that means working more closely with our European partners and allies to ensure that Russia pays a heavier price for its ongoing war in Ukraine. Our strategic goal will be to support the evolution of a democratic, unified, sovereign Ukraine and to force the Kremlin to pay a price for its unrelenting attacks on the international order.

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?

I would bring American combat troops in Afghanistan home during my first term. Any residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would be focused only on counterterrorism operations. We need to be clear-eyed about our limited enduring security interests in the region: We cannot allow the remnants of Al Qa’ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan to reconstitute, and we must destroy the Islamic State presence in the region. Americans are rightly weary of our longest war; I am, too. But we must end the war responsibly, in a manner that ensures we both guard against threats to our Homeland and never have to go back.

I would initiate and resource a high-level diplomatic effort to end the war. The State Department has led such an effort over the past several months, but President Trump has systematically undercut his negotiators and under-invested in the process. The Afghan government and people must be empowered in any negotiations with the Taliban insurgency, and the rights of Afghan women and girls must be protected. It will also be important to engage diligently with Afghanistan’s near-neighbors, including Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and Russia – they are all important stakeholders in Afghanistan and must be encouraged to support a lasting peace settlement.

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?

I would end U.S. support for the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen and order a reassessment of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is past time to restore a sense of balance, perspective, and fidelity to our values in our relationships in the Middle East. President Trump has issued Saudi Arabia a dangerous blank check. Saudi Arabia has used it to extend a war in Yemen that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, pursue reckless foreign policy fights, and repress its own people. Among the most shameful moments of this presidency came after the brutal Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as Trump defended not the slain U.S. resident but his killers. America’s priorities in the Middle East should be set in Washington, not Riyadh.

President Trump’s first overseas trip was to Saudi Arabia. As President, I will rally the world’s democracies and our allies in the Free World. We will make clear that America will never again check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons. We should recognize the value of cooperation on counterterrorism and deterring Iran. But America needs to insist on responsible Saudi actions and impose consequences for reckless ones. I would want to hear how Saudi Arabia intends to change its approach to work with a more responsible U.S. administration.

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?

I believe a two-state solution is the only path to long-term security for Israel, while sustaining its identity as a Jewish and democratic state. It is also the only way to ensure Palestinian dignity and their legitimate interest in national self-determination. And it is a necessary condition to take full advantage of the opening that exists for greater cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

At present, neither the Israeli nor Palestinian leadership seems willing to take the political risks necessary to make progress through direct negotiations. This challenge has been made even more difficult by President Trump’s unilateralism, his moves to cut off assistance to the Palestinians, and his equivocation on the importance of a two-state solution.

I will restore credible engagement with both sides to the conflict. America must sustain its ironclad commitment to Israel’s security – including the unprecedented support provided by the Obama-Biden administration. It is also essential to resume assistance to the Palestinian Authority that supports Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, people-to-people programs, economic development, and humanitarian aid and health care for the Palestinian people.

My administration will urge both sides to take steps to keep the prospect of a two-state outcome alive. Palestinian leaders should end the incitement and glorification of violence, and they must begin to level with their people about the legitimacy and permanence of Israel as a Jewish state in the historic homeland of the Jewish people. Israeli leaders should stop the expansion of West Bank settlements and talk of annexation that would make two states impossible to achieve. They must recognize the legitimacy of Palestinians' aspirations for statehood. Both sides should work to provide more relief to the people of Gaza while working to weaken, and ultimately replace, Hamas. And Arab states should take more steps toward normalization with Israel and increase their financial and diplomatic support for building Palestinian institutions.

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

The overriding goal in Venezuela must be to hold free and fair elections so that the Venezuelan people may recover their democracy and rebuild their country. Nicolas Maduro is a tyrant, who has stolen elections, abused his authority, allowed his cronies to enrich themselves, and denied the delivery of food and medicine to the people he claims to lead. I was among the first Democratic foreign policy voices to recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader and to call for Maduro to resign.

Maduro rigged the May 2018 election, and today his regime is barely holding on through violent oppression and by dismantling the last vestiges of Venezuelan democracy. Yet, the Trump Administration appears more interested in using the Venezuelan crisis to rally domestic political support than in seeking practical ways to effect democratic change in Venezuela.

The U.S. should push for stronger multilateral sanctions so that supporters of the regime cannot live, study, shop, or hide their assets in the United States, Europe, or Latin America. We should grant Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans already in the United States and support countries like Colombia, which are caring for millions of Venezuelans who have fled their country in desperation. I would also marshal the international community to help Venezuelans rebuild their country after Maduro is gone. Finally, the U.S. should use this pressure and promise to achieve a peaceful and negotiated outcome that leads to the release of all political prisoners and credible new elections. Maduro has used dialogue in the past as a tactic to delay action and concentrate power, so the U.S. should maintain sanctions pressure until negotiations produce results.

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?

Helping Africa capitalize on the opportunities and manage the challenges of a burgeoning population is in our shared interest. Africa will have the most youthful population and workforce at a time when other countries will face aging populations and shrinking labor pools. This provides opportunities for American businesses to access new markets and consumers, including in Africa’s growing cities. Africa enjoys some of the fastest growing economies, but that growth needs to be inclusive and sustainable.

The United States should work with African partners today to:

● Prioritize economic growth by strengthening trading relationships and boosting Foreign Commercial Service posts to help drive economic ties and jobs - both American and African.

● Empower African women because we know that educated and empowered women are key to development, from economic growth to health.

● Start an urbanization initiative, including partnerships with U.S. cities, to help African cities plan for their growth in terms of critical sectors like energy access, climate change adaptation, transportation, and water management.

● Demonstrate the American model of democracy and economic development. The United States cannot afford to miss this moment to engage with African youth and to offer them a window into the American model of democracy.

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?

When it comes to trade, either we're going to write the rules of the road for the world or China is – and not in a way that advances our values. That's what happened when we backed out of TPP – we put China in the driver's seat. That's not good for our national security or for our workers. TPP wasn’t perfect but the idea behind it was a good one: to unite countries around high standards for workers, the environment, intellectual property, and transparency, and use our collective weight to curb China’s excesses. Going forward, my focus will be on rallying our friends in both Asia and Europe in setting the rules of the road for the 21st century and joining us to get tough on China and its trade and technology abuses. That’s much more effective than President Trump’s so-called America First approach that in practice is America Alone, alienating our allies and undermining the power of our collective leverage. My trade policy will also start at home, by investing in strengthening our greatest asset—our middle class. I would not sign any new trade deal until we have made major investments in our workers and infrastructure. Nor would I sign a deal that does not include representatives for labor and the environment at the negotiating table and strong protections for our workers.

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

In June, I released the Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice. It offered a comprehensive agenda for meeting the challenge of climate change both at home and around the world. As part of the Biden Plan, I announced that the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the Export-Import Bank, and the new U.S. International Development Finance Corporation would be prohibited from any financing for coal-fired power plants so that U.S. finance is no longer a dirtier alternative to the World Bank. To provide incentives for, and ease the burden on, developing countries, I further announced that the United States would both recommit to the Green Climate Fund and work with international financial institutions to pursue shared debt relief for countries that use those funds for climate-friendly development. The Biden Plan also envisions building on G20 efforts during the Obama-Biden administration to  secure a worldwide ban on fossil fuel subsidies. And it outlines a number of specific steps to  deter and dissuade China from subsidizing coal exports and outsourcing carbon pollution, including G20 commitments to end all export finance subsidies of high-carbon projects, offering  alternative sources of development financing for lower-carbon investments, and making future U.S.-China bilateral agreements on carbon mitigation contingent on China ending its export subsidies for coal.

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

The biggest mistake was President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. Climate change is an existential threat. If we don’t get this right, nothing else matters.

The greatest accomplishment since World War II was the work of the United States and our western allies to rebuild after a devastating global conflict. The investments we made in collective security and prosperity were returned to us many times over in new markets for our products, new partners to deal with complex global challenges and new allies to deter aggression. We didn’t always get it right, but we helped to build economic, political and military coalitions that prevented a third world war, faced down the threat of Soviet domination, lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and provided prosperity for millions of people living  in the United States.

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