Candidates Answer CFR's Questions

Pete Buttigieg

July 30, 2019

Meg Kinnard/AP Photo

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 Chinese Communist Party’s repressive treatment of the Uighurs and other minorities, and growing pressure on Hong Kong, are symptomatic of a broader, and intensifying, “systems” competition. Beijing seems committed to consolidating and legitimizing authoritarian capitalism as an alternative to the democratic capitalism embraced by the United States and its closest allies and partners. 

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Where necessary and feasible, we should seek cooperation with Beijing, such as in addressing climate disruption, maintaining strategic stability, combatting terrorism, and managing conflict through international peacekeeping. But the United States must defend our fundamental values, core interests, and critical alliances, and accept that this will often entail friction with China.

For too long we have underestimated China’s ambitions, while overestimating our ability to shape them. We must instead focus on repairing our democracy and reinvesting in our economic and technological competitiveness; inoculating open societies from corrupt, coercive, or covert political interference; strengthening, rather than straining, our alliances in order to put collective pressure on China for unfair economic practices, human rights abuses, and intimidation of countries that stand up for their sovereignty; realigning defense and other national security investments to reflect China’s military modernization and full-spectrum statecraft; and reducing vulnerabilities from economic interdependence by disentangling the most sensitive sectors of our economies--in an orderly, not chaotic, fashion--and ensuring that American and allied resources and technologies do not underpin authoritarian oppression and surveillance. 

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 have been clear: walking away from the JCPOA was a strategic mistake. We didn’t develop the deal as a favor to Iran; we did it because it was in our national security interest. The deal represented a detailed and verifiable arrangement that permanently prohibited Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And the JCPOA was effective: Iran was upholding its commitments, as confirmed repeatedly by international inspectors and our own intelligence community, when President Trump withdrew from it. Walking away from the JCPOA also cost us credibility and the trust of our partners, hindering our ability to work with allies to solve difficult collective challenges. 

We should have no illusions about the reality that Iran poses challenges to U.S. interests beyond its nuclear program: its ballistic missile program, malign behavior in the region, threats to our ally Israel, and human rights abuses. But having the JCPOA in place created a foundation from which we could begin addressing those concerns, all of which will be even more intractable if we lack a mechanism to verifiably and permanently prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. 

If Iran resumes implementing its commitments, then I would rejoin. But I would take the agreement as a floor, not a ceiling. I would revive P5+1 diplomacy and direct US-Iran dialogue at the appropriate levels and would want to pursue follow-on agreements that extend the timeframe of certain nuclear restrictions, cover Iran’s missile program, and address its role in regional conflicts, all in return for targeted sanctions relief. 

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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?

We have to accept that denuclearization will not happen overnight and will require a sustained, step-by-step approach spanning a significant number of years. It is unrealistic to think that the North Koreans will get rid of their entire nuclear weapons stockpile at the outset. I believe the most realistic way to get there is a framework for complete, verifiable denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula that is comprehensive in scope, with steps on both fronts implemented step-by-step and in tandem. 

I would support an initial freeze agreement that would have North Korea cease production of fissile material and end nuclear and missile testing, all verified by international inspectors, in exchange for targeted sanctions relief, which could be reversed if the North Koreans did not uphold their end of the bargain. After this initial deal, we would need to proceed toward dismantling facilities and then the weapons themselves.  This could be accompanied with corresponding measures on sanctions relief, as well as substantive progress on building a lasting peace regime and normalizing relations. It has to be a two-way street. The only way to achieve complete denuclearization is to recognize that we have to address the core issues of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula in tandem, and that will require concrete steps on both sides. 

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

Russian aggression against Ukraine is an attack on the agreed principles and rules of European and global order that protect global citizens beyond Ukraine, including Americans.  Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is protected by the UN Charter and European security agreements, which the Russian Federation has signed and is obligated to respect.  The OSCE mission and Minsk agreement both obligate Russia to resolve the conflict peacefully with Ukraine. We must keep tough, targeted, and effective economic and financial sanctions on Russia as long as it continues to assault Ukrainian territory and citizens, and continues to illegally occupy Ukrainian territory in the Donbas and Crimea.

But countering Russian aggression  also means supporting Ukraine’s independence and ability to make and implement sovereign foreign policy decisions by supporting Ukraine’s political, economic, and defense capabilities. Although Ukraine is not a formal treaty ally, the U.S. should be willing to help Ukraine develop a modern and capable defense force to defend its citizens, including advice, education, training, and willingness to consider commercial sales of weapons appropriate to the situation.   While the US must not exacerbate instability or conflict, we should not shy from responsible defense assistance to a democracy in the heart of Europe that is under assault because its citizens have chosen a democratic European path.

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’ve seen first-hand the costs of our long conflict in Afghanistan. It’s time to end this endless war. The only question is do we do it well or poorly. 

Our objective has remained the same throughout this conflict: ensuring that Afghanistan never again becomes a base for terrorist attacks against the US or its allies.  A negotiated peace agreement in which we maintain a relevant special operations/intelligence presence but bring home our ground troops is the best way to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a base for terrorist attacks against the United States or its allies. Using our current presence to help lock in a peace agreement should be part of that strategy.  

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 United States must halt military support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. The brutal war has brought the country to the verge of famine and killed tens of thousands of civilians. As president, I would suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia that could be used in the Yemen war, but also cut off the spare parts and maintenance for equipment needed to prolong that war. Ending our own involvement in the war in Yemen is just a first step. We need to increase our diplomatic efforts and work with our allies to end the conflict itself, which has generated the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and helped to spread extremism. 

We must also reset our relationship with Saudi Arabia, so that our interests and values drive the relationship -- not the other way around. Our strongest alliances must be founded upon shared commitments to international law and human rights. We must be pragmatic about intelligence-sharing: totally stopping such cooperation could hinder our ability to detect and thwart threats emanating from Yemen, including from the regional al-Qaeda affiliate.   But the Saudi government should not get a pass on the state-sponsored murder of an American resident abroad, nor should they be able to buy our silence on human rights abuses -- including killing civilians in Yemen and supporting extremist ideology across the Muslim world -- through purchases of US weapons.

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?

Yes, I do support a two-state solution. The US alliance with Israel and support for Israel’s security have long been fundamental tenets of US national security policy, and they will remain so if I am elected President. But this is not a zero-sum game. The security of Israel and the aspirations of the Palestinian people are fundamentally interlinked. To visit the West Bank and Gaza is to understand the fundamental need for a two-state solution which addresses the economic, security and moral rights of both Israelis and of the Palestinians who live there.

I have clearly and strongly stated my support for the security of Israel, and I have also said that I disagree with policies being carried out by the current Israeli administration. This includes overreach in the West Bank and Gaza and short-sighted focus on military responses. The humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza has gone on far too long and provides a ripe environment for the very extremist violence that threatens Israel.

The United States needs to put its arm around the shoulder of its ally, Israel, and help it to develop policies that will work towards the economic and security benefit of both Israel and the Palestinians. Both Israeli and Palestinian citizens should be able to enjoy the freedom to go about their daily lives without fear of rocket attacks or other violence, and to work to achieve economic well-being for their families. A two-state solution that achieves legitimate Palestinian aspirations and meets Israel’s security needs remains the only viable way forward.

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

Maduro is responsible for the humanitarian crisis that has seen more than four million Venezuelans flee their country. Endemic corruption, pervasive criminality among top officials, and systematic human rights abuses all reinforce the fact that the Maduro regime has lost the legitimacy to govern, and I stand behind Juan Guaidó as the rightful interim president. Our end state in Venezuela is a peaceful transfer of power to an interim constitutional government followed by free and fair elections. Because the refugee situation and Venezuela's imploding economy are impacting the entire hemisphere, the U.S. government should respond in concert with our regional allies, who are shouldering the heavy burden of a large Venezuelan diaspora.  Together, we also need to address the Russian, Chinese and Cuban interference now complicating an effective transition.

In this vein, I support recent efforts to negotiate a settlement between the regime and Guaidó; such talks can be the best route to a managed transition.  I would also continue to apply targeted sanctions against regime officials -- but broad economic sanctions, such as those pursued by the Trump administration, run the risk of hurting innocent Venezuelans already face crippling food and medicine shortages and enabling the Maduro regime to promote the false narrative that the U.S. is responsible for the country's misery. I also would support extending Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans currently residing in the United States until the crisis is resolved. 

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?

Africa is not a country, it is a diverse and multifaceted continent of states with rich and proud histories, great successes, and significant and varied challenges.  On that continent, the winds of change are sweeping aside old regimes and certitudes. In Algeria, a new generation has risen up against a sclerotic government. In Sudan, women have led a revolt against a criminal one. And in Ethiopia, we have seen what can look like when hope triumphs over hostility.

By 2025, nearly one-fifth of the world’s population will live in the nations of a rising Africa--60 percent of whose people are now under the age of 25. Our priorities should include cooperation on helping our African partners manage that population growth: accountable governance, climate change mitigation and conflict prevention. 

We must also prioritize building shared prosperity that can assist new generations in having a viable and productive future.  That continent now boasts some of the fastest-growing economies in the world, which have lifted millions out of poverty and into the global marketplace.  Sub-Saharan Africa represents one of the biggest opportunities for new markets for US goods and investment. And as African peoples demand greater accountability and transparency from their leaders, the United States must stand ready to put our values into action, to promote empowerment alongside economic engagement.  

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 would not support the US joining the current CPTPP. It lacks critical trade provisions on labor, environment, and the digital economy, and does not align closely enough with the needs and interests of American workers. We must address failures in delivering on the social compact here at home. For too long, Washington sold trade deal after trade deal with the promise that a rising tide would lift all boats. It hasn’t — in part because it wasn’t accompanied by investment here at home — and Washington failed those left behind.

A lot of Americans just don’t trust the government to negotiate trade deals in their best interest. We need an honest national discussion about trade. Our work must begin at home. At the same time, we should not surrender the world’s fastest growing markets in Asia to other nations. It is where China wants to dominate and is buying influence through their Belt and Road initiative. China is negotiating broad new trade agreements with their neighbors that favor China’s economy and workers. These agreements also enshrine non-democratic principles at the expense of the US and free people. Sitting on the sidelines is a losing proposition for America.

We cannot just put up walls around our economy. We need to be setting the rules of the road for the future, so that strategic and economic competition with China happens on our terms.

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

The US needs to lead the way in the global exit of coal-fired power— a process already underway. First, as President, I will quadruple clean energy research and development in the US and enact additional policies to support the deployment of renewables, storage, carbon capture and energy efficiency in homes and building retrofits. Second, I would also convene local leaders from across the globe at a Pittsburgh Climate Summit to commit to decisive action within their communities and create local initiatives to deploy clean energy policy and technologies that will continue to drive down the price of clean energy and move on from coal. Third, the US will work through global institutions to reduce and end global fossil fuel subsidies, many of which have unfairly favored coal, starting at home. Finally, the US can leverage trade agreements to reduce the amount of coal funded through China's Belt and Road initiative.

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

After intense political debates in the years after WWII between isolationists and internationalists, I believe America’s greatest foreign policy accomplishment has been our leadership of global efforts to promote the values that animate our own and other great democracies, to the benefit of the security and freedom of our people. From the design, implementation and success of the Marshall Plan to the fall of the Soviet Union, our leadership – until recently – has been based not only on our power but also on the ideals of America and our allies. 

Our biggest mistake has been the failure to use our leadership more vigorously in key areas of international change: to bend the benefits of globalization more equitably to improving the everyday lives of poor and middle-class citizens, especially women and minorities, in our own and other nations; to combat climate change and nuclear proliferation; and to stand strong against the recent surge of anti-democratic forces around the world.  I often think of how the resources used for unnecessary, prolonged wars that were not in our interest could have been used in addressing these issues to the benefit of our own people and the entire world.

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