Julian Castro
Candidates Answer CFR's Questions

Julian Castro

November 20, 2019 10:18 am (EST)

Ethan Miller/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?

More From Our Experts

The strongest foundation for our security is our moral leadership. We need to ensure that America leads the world when it comes to advancing universal values and defending human rights. While there are areas we can work with China, such as climate change and nuclear nonproliferation, our commitment to freedom and human rights must never be abandoned in pursuit of other interests. As the Chinese government seeks to raise its profile on the international stage, I will make clear that any support for the Chinese government’s ambitions to have a greater role in multilateral and international institutions will be determined by how it treats people under its rule, including the people of Hong Kong and the Uighurs in Xinjiang. 

More on:

Elections and Voting

The challenge the Chinese government’s actions pose to the United States are broad and include economic practices such as forced technology transfer, subsidies for state-owned enterprises, intellectual property theft. They also include efforts to undermine U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, and threats to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. I will address these challenges without abandoning our nation’s commitment to human rights.

Specific actions I am willing to take regarding these human rights violations include sanctions on officials responsible for the mass internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, penalizing companies that violate U.S. laws in utilizing forced labor in Xinjiang or supplying the Chinese government with surveillance technology, including by tech companies. I believe the United States must stand by the people of Hong Kong who march for their rights and freedoms, including by enforcing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, to apply pressure on the Chinese and Hong Kong governments to respect the rights of the citizens of Hong Kong. 

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?

The Iran nuclear deal is the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and prevent conflict in the Middle East. President Trump’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA not only isolated us from our closest allies, it needlessly escalated tensions with Iran and has increased the risk of conflict. I would rejoin the JCPOA, provided that Iran is verifiably in compliance with the deal that President Obama and our European allies negotiated. 

More From Our Experts

With the JCPOA firmly in place and Iran restrained from developing nuclear weapons, I will work with our allies to address other troubling aspects of Iranian behavior, including Iran’s ballistic missile program, its human rights record, and its destabilizing actions in the region.

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 goal in any negotiations with North Korea’s government must be to end the country’s nuclear and WMD program. Kim Jong Un’s provocative rhetoric and destabilizing actions threaten the security of the United States and our allies in South Korea and Japan. A credible strategy to achieve this end will require interim steps. Together with our Japanese and South Korean allies, we will negotiate with North Korea to establish a credible arms control process. 

More on:

Elections and Voting

This process would include a freeze on any further missile or nuclear weapon testing, stockpile and inventory transparency, constraints on any further fissile material enrichment, and restrictions to their nuclear, chemical, and ballistic missile programs, in addition to other WMDs. I would consider partial sanctions relief, in addition to other arrangements, to secure North Korea’s compliance, alongside snapback provisions for any sanctions should the North Korean government prove unwilling to hold up it’s end of a deal.

I will not repeat the current administration’s dangerous mistake of being distracted by ceremonial diplomacy while lacking verifiable progress. Furthermore, any engagement with North Korea cannot come at the cost of undermining our alliance with South Korea, whose security is a vital and non-negotiable U.S. interest. The United States will also not abandon its longstanding opposition to the North Korean government’s abysmal human rights record. Even as we engage diplomatically, any meetings between top officials must also seek to improve conditions for the North Korean people themselves.

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

The Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine and its illegal occupation of the Crimean Peninsula are against American interests and I am committed to standing by Ukraine and our European allies in supporting Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity. The Russian military’s continuing role in violence in Eastern Ukraine is an unacceptable violation of the sovereignty of a neighboring state that threatens European security. Russia’s actions in Ukraine also undermine their commitments under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, under which Ukraine surrendered its nuclear weapons in return for security assurances. If the United States fails to confront this blatant violation of territorial sovereignty, it would establish a dangerous precedent around the world, both in enabling further territorial claims and in combating nuclear nonproliferation.

As president, I will ensure Ukraine has the tools it needs to deter any further Russian aggression, including through security assistance. I will not play political games with the security of Ukraine and of our European partners, including NATO allies that are at risk due to Russian aggressive actions. I would maintain sanctions on Russia placed by President Obama following the 2014 invasion of Crimea and work with Ukraine and countries around the world to return the Crimean Peninsula to the Ukrainian government, ensure free flow of shipping into the Sea of Azov, and end Russian support of violence in Eastern Ukraine.

With our European allies, we will pair this support for Ukraine against Russian aggression with efforts to sustain a free, democratic, and prosperous Ukraine that takes corruption seriously and establishes an inclusive society for ethnic and linguistic minorities. I will support further efforts by the Ukranian people to develop their relationship with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, including in security cooperation and consideration of observer status within NATO, and contribute to the stability of Europe as a whole.

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?

After nearly two decades of war, with troops deployed today who were toddlers on 9/11, it is clear that there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. A continued U.S. military effort will not change this fact. I will end the United States’ general combat role in Afghanistan by the end of my first term.

I will also prioritize peace in Afghanistan, which means ending the conflict, not just our part in it. To accomplish this, we need to strengthen the Afghan government and ensure it has the capacity and legitimacy to protect the rights of all Afghans. This will require continued multilateral diplomatic efforts to secure a peaceful resolution. Negotiations with the Taliban must include the Afghan government. Our goal in these negotiations should be an end to the fighting, guarantees for the rights of women and ethnic and religious minorities, and a commitment from all parties to combat and root out international terror groups.

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?

The status quo of our relationship with Saudi Arabia is in opposition with our values and does not serve our long-term interests. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the continuing Saudi-led war in Yemen, and human rights abuses within Saudi Arabia, make clear it is long past time to reassess our relationship with the Saudi government and its ruling monarchy.

That will start with an immediate end to arms sales, military and intelligence support of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, an end to all exports of nuclear technology, equipment, or materials to Saudi Arabia, the imposition of Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on the individuals responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi, and the withdrawal of any U.S. forces President Trump plans on deploying in the country. I will also order a full investigation into the full extent of the relationship between President Trump, his family, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and ensure the United States addresses Saudi human rights violations, including its treatment of women, the Shia minority in the country’s East, and the condition of guest workers from India, Bangladesh, and other countries. 

While the United States will continue to have limited areas of cooperation with Saudi Arabia, as we would with any country, it is clear that the Saudi government and its leaders have taken advantage of the United States’ willful ignorance under the Trump administration. Going forward, I believe such cooperation must be significantly constrained until significant reforms are made.

Lastly, I believe that every aspect of U.S. foreign policy should address climate change, our greatest long term national security threat. Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is a result of the global economy’s reliance on fossil fuels. Indeed, there is arguably no greater U.S. government subsidy for fossil fuels than our decades-long defense and support of Saudi Arabia. I will work to transition to a clean energy economy, with the added benefit of freeing the United States from any dependence on Saudi oil.

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 is the only acceptable outcome of a peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. I believe that only a two-state solution can serve as the foundation of a long-term peace while protecting the dignity, security, and freedom of both the Israeli and Palestinian people. In a global context of rising anti-Semitism, ensuring the Jewish people have a safe and democratic home is more important than ever. I will continue the United States’ policy to defend Israel’s security and its right to exist, which I believe can only be secured through a two-state solution.

President Trump’s failed policies have created serious impediments to achieving the two-state solution. As president, I will resuscitate the peace process that the shortsighted actions of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Trump Administration have derailed. I believe these actions, including President Trump’s willful disregard for the rights of the Palestinians, are neither in the interests of the United States nor productive in achieving a long-term peace in the region. To lead, the United States will need to regain the confidence of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples so that we can serve as a fair arbiter.

This means we must urge Israel to cease settlement construction in Palestinian territory and make clear that we will not recognize any unilateral Israeli annexation of the West Bank. As president, I would re-establish the U.S. mission in East Jerusalem, which will serve as a precursor to an embassy to a future Palestinian state, and invite the Palestinian people to re-establish their diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C. I will also resume bilateral and multilateral development assistance to the Palestinian people, programs that were terminated by the Trump administration. 

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

Nicolas Maduro is a dictator. He bears the primary responsibility for the humanitarian catastrophe that has consumed Venezuela and has gutted Venezuela’s democracy by illegally dismissing the elected representatives of the Venezualan people. His actions have led to the most severe refugee crisis in the Western Hemisphere in recent history.

President Trump’s Venezuela policy has made this bad situation worse, inflicting harm on ordinary Venezuelans and ultimately legitimizing Maduro’s hold on power by raising the spectre of past U.S. policy towards Latin America and threatening military intervention. Let’s be clear, there is no U.S. military solution in Venezuela. The Trump administration’s broader Latin America policy has also left the United States more isolated in the region and unable to lead an effective multilateral diplomatic effort to foster a much-needed transition of power in Venezuela.

We need a new approach. Our policy in Venezuela must be multilateral, diplomatic, and focused on securing democratic elections and economic recovery. As president, the United States will prioritize Latin America with a new policy of respect and engagement. I will leverage this increased engagement with the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean to impose targeted sanctions on Nicolas Maduro and Venezuelan leaders who enable and support him. I will then create a diplomatic process, with the participation of countries such as Mexico, Uruguay, Cuba, Norway, and the Vatican, to create the conditions for a peaceful transition of power and free elections, with the United States ready to support Venezuela’s road to economic recovery.

Additionally, I will focus immediately on alleviating the suffering of the Venezeulan people, including Venezuelan refugees living in Colombia and elsewhere in South America. I will grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelans living in the United States and increase our efforts to resettle Venezuelan refugees in the United States.

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?

Given the rapid growth in many countries on the African continent, African governments, and their people have a unique opportunity to address the most pressing challenges of the 21st century such as climate change and migration. For the United States, this means we must begin a long overdue shift in putting greater emphasis in engaging with our partners on the African continent as part of our foreign policy. Expanding American engagement, including supporting strong multilateral and national institutions and deepening trade, migration, and cultural ties, is in our national security interest and reflects our nation’s values.

As president, I will prioritize relations with African governments looking to create closer partnerships with the United States, particularly with influential countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa. State visits by African leaders to Washington will be treated with as much fanfare and equal protocol as those of European heads of state, while expertise in African languages, history, and politics will be as valued as expertise in Russian or Arabic for our diplomats. I will defend and expand successful initiatives such as President Bush’s President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and President Obama’s Power Africa programs while deepening American engagement with the diverse people and nations throughout the African continent. We must also repair the damage caused by President Trump’s disrespect towards African nations. His comments are not only ignorant, they are a lasting setback to the United States’ global influence.

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 must lead in writing the rules for global trade for American workers and American businesses to be the biggest winners. Trump’s erratic trade wars, with no end in sight, has cost American families up to $1000 this year in taxes and increased consumer costs across the board. I am not summarily opposed to trade deals, but we must learn from the lessons of agreements that have been signed.

Trade deals have too often centered the interests of corporations over workers and profits over people. I believe any new trade deal must empower working people, the poor, and other historically marginalized groups not just in the United States but also in partner countries to improve livelihoods. That includes standards for independent organized labor, technical assistance for workers to unionize, and robust monitoring to ensure equally enforceable agreements. I would only negotiate trade agreements that have enforceable labor standards that raise wages and promote organized labor in our partner countries. These agreements must have meaningful and extensive input from the labor unions in the United States from the beginning through initiation, negotiation, implementation, and sustainment of an agreement. 

Trade agreements will also be a powerful tool to use the allure of the United States market to further our climate goals. My first official action as President will be to recommit the United States to the Paris Climate agreement. I believe trade agreements should require a commitment to meeting goals  nder the Paris Climate agreement and follow-up agreements that the United States needs to negotiate to reach net-zero globally by 2050.

This approach uses our economic leverage to ensure binding labor and climate commitments while advancing America’s workers and improving the lives of millions of working families across the world.

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

The United States will lead by example on climate. On Day One, I will recommit the United States to the Paris climate accords negotiated by President Obama, and place addressing the climate crisis at the center of our foreign policy. Doing so is not just necessary to reduce carbon emissions, but is also an extraordinary opportunity to unleash a clean energy economy to create good paying jobs.

Developing countries are working hard to provide their people a decent standard of living as they seek to catch up with the richer nations which often directly exploited, colonized, or otherwise held back the development of much of the world. It is wrong to pit the legitimate aspirations of these countries against the moral and scientific imperative of protecting our climate. The U.S. will instead invest in developing countries, sharing the resources, tools, and capacity necessary for nations to power their economies with affordable and clean energy. Not only will this approach help address the climate crisis, it will also allow us to build the relationships necessary to continue leading in the 21st Century. Additionally, we would be creating new markets for U.S. clean energy and green technology exports, further facilitating our own transition to a zero-emission economy. 

We can achieve these goals by prohibiting U.S. financing of coal projects through the Export-Import Bank, United States International Development Finance Corporation, and United States Trade and Development Agency, in addition to any foreign assistance programs, and implementing a ‘climate test’ for any financing of energy projects abroad. I also would invest an additional $10 billion a year across these agencies to support exports of U.S. manufactured goods and technology and to assist partner countries with their energy transitions. Effectively moving off coal and other fossil fuels will also require U.S. leadership in international scientific cooperation for research and development and the use of trade agreements to support climate change goals.

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

Our greatest foreign policy accomplishment has been preventing another world war and leading an unprecedented proliferation of democratic governments around the world. Every decision that led to this peaceful triumph of freedom, from President Kennedy’s navigating of the Cuban Missile Crisis to President H.W. Bush’s skillful handling of the 1989 revolutions contributed to the world today where billions enjoy the freedoms that democracy allows. Successive American presidents have supported multilateralism, from the United Nations to the European Union, Organization of American States, and the Association of South East Asian Nations, each supporting U.S. interests and supporting democratic governance and norms. I believe we must continue supporting multilateralism and enact reforms to make them more representative for the 21st century. We must defend that legacy of democracy and remain vigilant from backsliding in the face of rising authoritarianism.

Our greatest mistake has been the use of American power in support of our own narrow interests at the expense of universal values. Tragically misguided military interventions, such as in Iraq and Vietnam, have caused irrevocable harm to millions of people and tainted nation’s own moral leadership. We must honestly examine the role of our policies in perpetuating injustice around the world and truly act on behalf of values recognized by the international community and celebrated as our nation’s founding virtues.

As president, I do not intend to either rest on our laurels or apologize for the past. I intend to implement the lessons learned from both our successes and failures in charting a new course forward for the United States into the 21st century. Our nation is uniquely positioned to lead a democratic, free, and diverse world. We must do this by embracing our values, standing up firmly for the rights of all, and working with others in addressing our common global challenges.

Creative Commons
Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.
This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.
View License Detail

Top Stories on CFR


A year into the civil war in Sudan, more than eight million people have been displaced, exacerbating an already devastating humanitarian crisis.


The unprecedented Iranian attack on Israel presents U.S. officials with mounting challenges in trying to contain the conflict and maintain a deterrence against Iran and its allies.


The highlights from Kishida Fumio's busy week in Washington.