Candidates Answer CFR's Questions

Joe Sestak

July 30, 2019

Jeff Fusco/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?

Human rights in China should absolutely play a role in broader U.S. policy toward China. When we look the other way on fundamental issues of human rights, we are also responsible. I want to restore U.S. leadership within a rules-based liberal world order that collectively holds nations accountable for their illiberal behavior, whether in foreign or domestic spheres. Importantly, we must not do this alone. Rather, we must regain our leadership of the values-based world order from which we have retreated. Our absence has permitted China, Russia and emerging autocrats to act with impunity, with no concerns about consequences. In fact, it has even encouraged former allies and friends to provide support for China’s illiberal behavior. For example, Greece ceded its political voice to China — vetoing a European Union condemnation of China’s human-rights record — in exchange for Chinese investment in the port of Piraeus.

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Collectively, we must find points of leverage in order to convince China to improve their treatment of Uighurs, Tibetans, and other minority groups, to ensure the autonomy of Hong Kong, and to continue to protect democracy in Taiwan, among other issues. At the same time, we must improve our own human rights record — such as our treatment of migrants and refugees at the border, and our support for the war in Yemen — so that we have credibility to take on other countries for their human rights record. Ultimately, we need to restore our standing in the world and renew our commitment to multilateral action and the international institutions we built in the 20th century to establish and enforce global human rights standards. 

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?

I would move to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) as soon as possible upon my swearing in. We never should have left it in the first place. We broke our word, so we should not be demanding changes to the agreement, but rather recognize the value of the nuclear accord as is. Certainly, the JCPOA was not a perfect agreement. It did not deal with the threat from Iranian missiles, or their support for violent extremism. And it contains a “sunset clause,” meaning it  expires after a decade. But it was accomplishing the one goal it set out to achieve: stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons. On that metric alone, it was a success. International disarmament agreements are complicated, and it’s normal for them to sunset after a given period of time. In this case, the deal was good enough to be supported by all of our European allies, along with Russia and China, and of course Iran itself. Iran was abiding by its terms. If the deal had been given the chance to hold for the full decade, it would have created a reservoir of goodwill between Iran and the world that would be the basis for the next agreement. After decades of animosity between Iran and the United States, it takes time to build trust. The JCPOA was doing that. Our leaving the agreement not only destroyed a carefully crafted international agreement, it also sapped our credibility in negotiations with other countries, like North Korea. 

What’s worse, our Iran policy now seems to dismiss the principle that “militaries can stop a problem, but militaries cannot fix a problem.” Our diplomacy had convened the world and reached agreement on economic sanctions, including with new bedfellows such as Russia and China. Now our military is poised to “stop” a problem we had already “fixed” by diplomacy. Even if this were to occur, such as with strikes to destroy their nuclear infrastructure, at most, such strikes would result in delaying Iran’s timetable for creating a nuclear weapon by only four years. The results would also include fractured alliances, economic disarray, more nuclear arms races, and a loss of U.S. credibility and leadership within our rules-based world order – requiring fixing.

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?

With respect to North Korea, I believe we must maintain the goal of complete denuclearization until it has been achieved. But that does not mean I think we will be able to quickly reach an agreement that achieves that goal. Our first step should be re-initiate six-party talks involving the two Koreas, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), because each of the other countries in the region will play critical roles in any negotiations — Russia and China, in particular, have leverage over North Korea as their main economic partners — and the IAEA will need to be involved in any inspections regime ultimately agreed upon. Negotiations will likely lead to some sort of preliminary agreement involving partial sanctions relief in exchange for some dismantling of the North’s nuclear weapons program. The eventual success of that initial deal should lay the groundwork for total denuclearization, along with some improvements to North Korea’s human rights standards. As with Iran, we need to build trust between North Korea and the rest of the world – and we know that will take time. We also need to live by President Reagan’s adage: “Trust, but verify” (as we did with the Iranian accord). Diplomacy like this is a slow process, but the peace and stability it leads too will be well worth the wait. 

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

The territorial aggression of Russia and other bad actors on the world stage must not be allowed to continue. It is a threat to global peace and security, and it is an affront to the values we hold dear. Ukraine, from the perspective of Russia, is merely a domino that may lead to further “near abroad” gains. If it fails in one of several ways — from internal dissention that shatters its frail democracy to incursions by “insurgents” supported by clandestine Russian support —Russia will feel empowered to assess where it may find further success in neighboring nations once part of its orbit. This is a prime example of why US leadership of a rules-based global order is so important that also recognizes the value and need of allies for their equal contributions in different ways. We need new leadership here at home in order to re-establish that the United States is committed to democracy’s values, and that we will not turn our backs on democratic countries under threat from autocrats like Vladimir Putin. Putting Russia on notice will require demonstrating that we are serious. We can accomplish that through expanding sanctions, through curtailing Russia’s participation in international organizations and efforts, and even through more active deterrence measures, including cyber activity.

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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 commit to the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of my first term but with a plan — and milestones to measure progress — to actually achieve the goal of stability and good governance that is so needed. We must recognize the corrupt and unskilled leadership that has prevented this from happening, and work around it — or else our efforts will continue to be wasted. The security forces need competence, not just greater numbers; the same goes for their police; and finally — most importantly — our developmental and other non-military aid must be restructured. There are programs that work (e.g., microloans for women) but far too many have served to bankroll corruption (even among our own contracted companies). The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reports are a good guide for correcting this.

We must continue taking the fight to the Taliban in order to compel a final peace settlement with them and with the Afghan government that brings not just stability, but a chance for real human rights standards -- particularly for Afghan women -- to take firm root. We started the war in Afghanistan to stop al-Qaeda because it had attacked us on September 11th. The tragic misadventure in Iraq took our focus and resources away from fixing Afghanistan — which I believe could have been achieved by the other non-military elements of our (and our collective allies) power:  namely economic development and diplomatic engagement. We must now double-down on such efforts, as endless war is unacceptable.

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?

We recently watched President Putin give a “high-five” to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, who felt empowered enough to murder an American resident in his embassy because -— as populist autocrats from Hungary to the Philippines, and Turkey to Venezuela have all demonstrated — there is no longer reason to be concerned about consequences from a rules-based world order.  This is unacceptable, as is Saudi Arabia’s and its conduct in Yemen’s civil war.

For decades the United States considered Saudi Arabia our closest ally in the Arab world, even though this meant turning a blind eye to their egregious human rights record, including abhorrent treatment of women. The American people accepted this situation because we were told Saudi Arabia was such a critical exporter of oil that it would cripple the world economy if we interrupted the status quo — even though they did not hesitate to turn off the spigot when it is in its interest to do so; fail to give us military bases when we needed them; or continue to support terrorism that harmed us. Especially after the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and the horrible war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has made clear that its incoming leader will fail to have the values necessary to change the nation’s illiberal behavior. We must, again, work within and in leadership of a global concord to compel behavior by the Saudis that moves it toward collective interests of a rules-based world order. So much is at stake: oversight of the nuclear power plants it is building; sleight-of-hand support for terrorism; human rights within Saudi Arabia; the chance to have a moderate regime in the center of the Arab world; the ongoing war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen; changes needed to address climate change; and of course the possibility of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia exploding into conflict. America can help solve these problems, but only if we restore our leadership and build up the rules-based world order.

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 support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are no easy solutions to this decades-long conflict, but we must begin by affirmatively re-engaging in the region. We must maintain our steadfast allied support of Israel, but we must also work much harder to be an honest broker and deal fairly with the Palestinians as we lead the brokerage of peace between them. While Israel is our closest ally in the Middle East — and I have worked hard with and on behalf of Israel for decades, both during my time in the Navy and as a Congressman — we must also work to ensure the Palestinian people know that we are committed to a just solution to the conflict. This means returning our embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, because it has always been accepted that this would be part of a two state solution, not a unilateral decision.  It also means restoring humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians. But at the same time we must deal with the bias against Israel in key United Nations organizations and make clear that our support for Israel as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people is sacrosanct. While Israel may be safe today, it will not be permanently secure without a peace agreement that includes a two state solution, and that is only possible if outcomes are not decided unilaterally beforehand. Otherwise, the cycle of violence will only continue. The United States is the one indispensable nation that can work with both sides to reach a just peace deal., and only the full weight of the Presidency will be able to bring it about. Our own interests demand it as challenges elsewhere increase – but we must secure Israel’s permanent security to do so, and can only do that with a fair, honestly brokered process.

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

The situation in Venezuela is tragic. President Maduro has led his nation’s economy to ruin and corruption, and created a disastrous humanitarian situation. We must convene the regional Organization of American States (OAS) — and other international organizations as appropriate — to compel changes in Venezuela that will bring about a political settlement that avoids a civil war while bringing about just governance.  This is not about military force at all. Rather, we must recognize that individual and human rights and a fair and just government, the values the liberal world order once stood for, can only flourish in Venezuela if the world comes together and provides the incentives and disincentives required to bring Venezuela back.. Disincentives should include appropriate financial sanctions against those in government who are looting their nation — often in conjunction with drug traffickers -- and travel sanctions against the same. We must do our part to ensure that injustice does not prevail in Venezuela, and prevent a civil implosion that destabilizes the hemisphere.

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?

Not only will Africa account for 25 percent of the world’s population, but with the world’s fastest-growing middle class, by 2050 Africa will be much more of an economic powerhouse. With most of the continent still just decades removed from colonialism, and many countries still in the grip of post-colonial dictatorships and civil wars, firmly establishing democracy across Africa is still a major challenge. We must not turn our backs on civilian populations at risk of oppression by corrupt and violent forces, as we did in Rwanda and Darfur. We should also prioritize our diplomatic engagement with African governments, because for too long we have ignored them, and primarily engaged with African countries through our military (across Africa military attaches and personnel in embassies outnumber those in our diplomatic corps). And because engagement is the best way to identify and work with centers of excellence and enhance our relationships, our efforts in Africa are severely lacking due to the dearth of economic, development, and diplomatic personnel. Africa will be a powerhouse one day soon, and Africans will remember who was there for them. We must double down on meeting the continent’s needs – from addressing poverty and infrastructure to developmental aid and education – or we risk losing influence in Africa to China and other countries that are not aligned with our values. 

Critically, we must also offer much more economic, financial and diplomatic support to the developing economies of Africa, and incentivize US companies to get engaged in fair, just ways because in our absence China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” is building roads and bridges and other infrastructure, buying up African farmland, and settling Chinese workers across the continent. The result is almost a “neo-colonial” relationship as nations accept loans and investment from China, in exchange for their own sovereignty — such as when Djibouti gave China its first overseas naval base because Chinese debt has enslaved its economy and government budget. We cannot allow China to build an illiberal world order by turning African countries, and others elsewhere in the developing world, into vassal states.   

We also must recognize that Africa is a region ripe for increased violence and strife as the climate changes, and that African advancement also threatens to further drive climate change. Take note, for instance, that only 8% of the tropics has air conditioning right now — but a majority soon will in the decades to come. That is why I strongly support ratifying the Kigali Agreement, which regulates the use of the potent greenhouse gases known as HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons). We must move the world toward greater energy efficiency. If African countries and other tropical countries were to broadly adopt air conditioning without using the most energy efficient types (which use one third of the energy of the average air conditioning unit), it would spell more disaster for the climate; but if it did adopt with our leadership the most efficient of today’s standards, it would be equivalent to reforesting two-thirds of the Amazon.

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?

I believe we lost an important opportunity to shape the future of global trade when we withdrew our involvement from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. While that trade agreement was far from perfect, it gave us the chance to set the rules of engagement across a critically important region, home to some of the world’s most dynamic, influential, and rapidly changing countries – and within a framework that does not include China. We need to set the standards of fair trade in the region where China has none, and our withdrawal sent a worrying signal to our regional friends and allies that we are not interested in continuing our strong traditional relationship, nor in expanding our political engagement with them. In the absence of US global leadership, China will inevitably fill the vacuum. We should have addressed some issues in the CPTPP – such as the expanded monopoly protections for the pharmaceutical industry that were in it, against the interests of consumers. As President, I will seek to reaffirm our commitment to the Asia Pacific region by re-joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership while improving the agreement to ensure that it serves our people, not merely our corporations (including in arenas as intellectual property, data privacy protections, and environmental standards). I will make certain that all future trade agreements and trade policy decisions are made principally for the benefit of the American people. This is not just a trade issue: it is a serious geo-political issue. We need to commit ourselves to positive engagement with the countries of the Asia Pacific region, which is the most strategically important area in the 21st century for America.

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

As President, I will immediately move to re-join the Paris Climate Accord, and not only work to compel nations to meet their commitments but to increase them. It is absolutely imperative that we restore US global leadership in this critical multilateral effort so that we can collectively disarm the catastrophic threat of climate change. We simply cannot do it alone: the United States can only achieve 15% of the required reduction of greenhouse gas emissions on our own before that time bomb explodes on us.

On the issue of coal-plants, we must deal with the problem where it is. That means working directly with China, which is set to build over 1600 coal plants in the next decade, including those to be dismantled in China and rebuilt in other countries as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.  We must help developing countries access the renewable technologies being pioneered here in the United States and in other countries, so they need not rely on Chinese coal plants, or their own. With the appropriate financial incentives from us — and, importantly, from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — we can confront this global threat. We must also, as mentioned above, ensure that as majorities in developing nations move into the middle class, we help them adopt the best technologies in renewable energy and in the most energy efficient appliances.

Global warming is a global problem that will be devastating to us no matter what we do alone — so we must bring the world along with us as we strive to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. On the particular issue of coal, we can work to establish a date certain after which coal exports will be banned.  We currently export 12% of all U.S. coal production, so we are perpetuating the use of this major source of pollution and carbon emissions. However, this must be done in conjunction with the training for fossil fuel workers required to transition to the replacement manufacturing green energy jobs.

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

After America defeated the horrors of fascism and imperialism in World War II, the “Greatest Generation” promised that the world would not slip into the oblivion of total war a third time They kept their promise by building the liberal world order based upon the rules of individual freedom and human rights, open and fair markets, and fair and just governments. It was an order that embraced the world’s collective good. We convened the world by the power of these ideals. By bringing together those who shared these values in multilateral organizations and agreements, we all became stronger, safer, healthier and more prosperous. And that is what really makes “America First.” That is American exceptionalism. That is why America’s retreat from the world today is so dangerous and damaging to our American Dream. Wise people who came before us, out of the ashes of war, lit a flame of justice as part of a  global concord, and then we kept that flame burning brightly through Presidents both Democrat and Republican — from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Reagan to Clinton — who understood that it was this world compact, wisely led by us, that would in turn provide for our peace, our prosperity, and our freedoms in our American Dream.

Our biggest foreign policy mistake was Iraq. It was justified as a preventive war by our leaders at the time, then it embroiled us in an expanding conflict throughout the Middle East, into Africa and beyond, as it created the more brutal terror of ISIS. Politicians of both parties who cast their vote for such a reckless war did not understand either the complexities of the world, or the limitations of military power:  while militaries can stop a problem, they can never fix a problem.

That tragic mistake left two decades of unaccountable consequences in the Middle East for the United States and the world, leaving America and the region with an enormous, and still untold, human and economic toll and leaving Americans with a crisis of faith in U.S. leadership, and unfortunately, also our engagement in the world.

This is why our country desperately needs a President with a depth of global experience and an understanding of all the elements of our nation’s power, from our economy and our diplomacy, to the power of our ideals and our military, including its limitations, so that when faced with the decision of whether or not to use our military, our Commander-in-Chief will know how it will end before deciding if it is wise to begin. I will be that President.

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