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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.
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.
Several presidents could lay claim to the greatest U.S. foreign policy accomplishment since World War II – John F. Kennedy resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis and providing the impetus for the Non-Proliferation Treaty; Richard Nixon launching his opening to China and détente with the Soviet Union; Jimmy Carter brokering the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty; and George H.W. Bush managing the end of the Cold War and the peaceful reunification of Germany.
But my choice would be Harry Truman. The 33rd president oversaw the democratic rebirth of Germany and Japan; the establishment of the United Nations; the Marshall Plan; the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) treaty; and the policy of containment of the Soviet Union. Together, these formed the pillars of an international system led by the United States that for 70 years helped maintain peace and build prosperity for much of the world, and avoided war between the major powers.
In hindsight, the biggest U.S. foreign policy mistake since World War II was the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That catastrophe led to the deaths of 4,400 Americans and the wounding and continued suffering of 32,000 more; caused the deaths of roughly 200,000 Iraqi civilians; destabilized much of the Middle East; contributed to the rise of a hegemonic Iran; produced Al Qaeda in Iraq and then ISIS; cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $2.4 trillion; and made us lose sight of our mission in Afghanistan. Perhaps most damaging of all, the war distracted Washington from the vital work of modernizing our economy, rebuilding our infrastructure, investing in clean energy, upgrading our education system and equipping American workers to compete with the rest of the world. America’s ability to maintain leadership abroad depends on our strength at home—a lesson we ignore at our peril.
Since World War II, the U.S. has supported the peaceful spread of democracy around the world, starting with the Marshall Plan to ease the suffering of a war-devastated continent, and through the end of the Cold War by empowering democratic governments in Eastern Europe. The U.S. is safer and the world more stable when there are more democracies and people have a voice in how they are governed.
At the same time, past leaders have also made mistakes. The consequences of the war in Iraq have been staggering--taking thousands of lives and costing trillions of dollars, all while making our country and the region less secure. And we cannot assess the full impact of the ill-fated decision without also considering the opportunity cost: the Iraq War has undoubtedly undermined our ability to effectively address many of the massive challenges of the 21st century--from climate change to technological advancement to inequality.
The greatest foreign policy accomplishment of the United States since World War II has been the construction of the post-war liberal world order through our establishment of a system of alliances and institutions. It was this U.S.-led order that facilitated a peaceful end to the Cold War and created an international economic system that has led to unprecedented flourishing.
This system has proven its resilience over the past 70 years and has been an indispensable tool for ensuring global peace and prosperity. As President, I will continue to invest in this system and work closely with our allies to further its legacy.
The greatest mistake of American foreign policy since the end of WWII has been the Iraq War. This conflict was started based on the naïve belief that the U.S. could overthrow a regime in the Middle East and democracy would naturally ensue. Rather than a stable democratic regime in Iraq, this war produced a massive amount of instability in an already volatile region. This conflict, which was initiated without all but one of our allies, was doomed from the start. The U.S. sacrificed over a trillion dollars and over 4,500 lives for virtually nothing in return. As President, I will ensure that we work closely with our allies and not take such drastic and unnecessary unilateral actions.
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.
Julian Castro Former secretary of housing and urban developmentWithdrawn
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.
Our steady and substantial support for and adherence to multilateralism has been our greatest foreign policy accomplishment since World War II. The United Nations and all its agencies, NATO, the IMF, the World Bank, The Asia Development Bank, the InterAmerican Development Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and other multilateral initiatives have all collectively and individually made enormous and crucial contributions to world peace, economic development and poverty alleviation since World War II. The continued financial and political support of the U.S., in particular the U.S. commitment to the economic model of free enterprise and international engagement, was the most important cornerstone of these multinational efforts.
The Iraq War was the most disastrous foreign policy action of the United States since World War II. The most sacred responsibility of the President of the United States, hopefully in concert with the Congress, is to send our young men and women into combat. That decision should only be made in defense of the citizens of the United States or in defense of our allies or in rare circumstances in favor of crucial humanitarian objectives. In the case of our invasion of Iraq in 2003 there was no clear case made that the United States was threatened in any way by the Republic of Iraq. No unequivocal evidence was presented to support such a threat and the Bush Administration relied on faulty and highly-suspicious reporting regarding weapons of mass destruction. They had no clear plan on what to do following the invasion and the resulting chaos in Iraq led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi citizens as well as the destabilization of Iraq and the region. U.S. credibility around the world was undermined by our decisions in Iraq. Looking forward, we must be judicious in when we deploy troops to avoid a similar a catastrophic action.
The United States has a number of remarkable achievements. We have helped to create an international arms control regime that has diminished the risk of nuclear war despite the proliferation of nuclear technology. We have helped to support development and respect for human rights and the rule of law in many emerging nations, as well as in older countries going through political change. And we have contributed to the research and development of medicines and agricultural innovations, ensuring that much more of the global community can survive the devastation of disease and famine. But none of these achievements would have been as successful — or even possible — without the strong alliances that the United States has nurtured. It is thanks to these alliances that we have arms control agreements, climate agreements, and institutions that support international security and development.
The United States has bravely faced its enemies, and has not shrunk when called to stand up to a common foe; but it has too often remained embroiled in battle beyond its time. It is time to end the endless wars that ultimately undermine our security. We have an obligation and a moral duty to extricate ourselves from unending battles that turn people against us and cost trillions of dollars, which could be invested in rebuilding America’s infrastructure and education system, guaranteeing Americans medical care, and creating the green jobs of tomorrow.
The greatest U.S. foreign policy accomplishment has been the post-war community of international institutions, laws, and democratic nations we helped to build. For generations, presidents from both parties established a network of stalwart partners. These countries have contributed to our prosperity and worked with us in war and peace to deal with some of the toughest international crises and to confront a number of generational challenges.
Our biggest mistake has been to jeopardize all that progress and accomplishment by engaging in failed wars that have cost lives, destabilized the regions in which they have been fought, and undermined our leadership in the international community. To make matters worse, the current president seems intent on inflicting further damage to U.S. credibility by disregarding diplomacy, withdrawing from international agreements and institutions, shunning our allies, siding with dictatorships over democracies, and elevating sheer incompetence in his decision-making processes.
The greatest American foreign policy accomplishment is the Marshall Plan, an initiative that rebuilt Europe after World War II, grew the global economy, and helped cement the United States as the leader of the free world.
The biggest mistake of American foreign policy was the war in Vietnam. I served four combat tours in Iraq, even helping lead the first company of Marines into Baghdad, and many of my friends risked or gave their lives there. I’m proud to have served the country, even in a war I spoke out against. But the war never should have happened, and it cost us trillions of dollars and thousands of lives. Vietnam cost us even more than that, and its legacy of political division for our country still pervades our politics today.
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.
The greatest achievement in U.S. foreign policy since World War II is the Marshall Plan. It is not just an achievement to be celebrated but a model for how we should conduct ourselves on the world stage—as a member of a global community with a stake in our neighbors’ needs and struggles as well as our own. What the Marshall plan did abroad, we can do at home—investments we can make today that will yield benefits in peace and prosperity for our children and grandchildren.
We must end our obsession with short-term gains and government by slogan. Our biggest mistakes abroad and at home tend to come from that. When we do things for short-term political gain — like prolong the war in Vietnam or start the one in Iraq, or cage child refugees in sub-human conditions at our southern border — we diminish our power and influence, and squander the heroism of our military men and women.
The greatest accomplishment was a world order that has led to the proliferation of democracy, democratic ideals and the raised standard of living for every human being alive today. It’s truly a miracle and it’s special-- never before have so many prospered or lived in relative peace and we must guard it vigilantly.
Our biggest mistakes were moves since 9/11 including the war in Iraq that undercut our moral standing in the world and allowed the relativistic worldview of men like Putin to proliferate.
For greatest accomplishments, I would name two. First, the extremely radical foreign policy initiative called the Marshall Plan. Historically, when countries won terrible wars, they exacted retribution on the vanquished. But in 1948, the United States government did something absolutely unprecedented. After losing hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the most brutal war in history to defeat the barbarity of Nazi Germany and Japanese imperialism, the government of the United States decided not to punish and humiliate the losers. Rather, we helped rebuild their economies, spending the equivalent of $130 billion just to reconstruct Western Europe after World War II. We also provided them support to reconstruct democratic societies. Despite centuries of hostility, there has not been a major European war since World War II. That is an extraordinary foreign policy success that we should be very proud of.
The second was supporting the creation of the United Nations, which former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt called “our greatest hope for future peace.” It is fashionable to bash the UN, which can be ineffective, bureaucratic, too slow or unwilling to act, even in the face of massive atrocities. But to see only its weaknesses is to overlook the enormously important work the UN does in promoting global health, aiding refugees, monitoring elections, and doing international peacekeeping missions, among other things. All of these activities contribute to reduced conflict, to wars that don’t have to be ended because they never start.
The biggest blunder is the war in Iraq, which I strongly opposed. The war in Iraq led to the deaths of some 4,400 U.S. troops and the wounding of tens of thousands of others—not to mention the pain inflicted on wives and children and parents. It led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands Iraqi civilians and the displacement of millions. It created a cascade of instability around the region that we will be dealing with for many years to come. It cost trillions of dollars, money that should have been spent on health care, education, infrastructure, and environmental protection, distracted us from pressing issues like climate change, and undermined our ability to work with allies to address other challenges.
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.
No nuclear weapon has been used in battle since World War II. That is a remarkable accomplishment. It rests on creative, visionary, pragmatic diplomacy, on facts and expertise in arms control and non-proliferation, and on the alliances and structure of collective security developed after the war and refreshed after the Cold War. In a world where nuclear proliferation remains a serious threat, we must redouble our efforts in this area to ensure that the world remains safe from nuclear conflict.
Our repeated mistake has been to ignore the relationship between a strong and vibrant America and our effectiveness at advancing our interests abroad. By treating foreign policy as separate from domestic policy, we have repeatedly misspent our strength overseas while leaving vital needs at home unattended. We have the world’s largest economy, but have failed to pursue foreign policies that prioritize American workers. We have the world’s strongest military, but we fight too many wars. We must recognize that our strength abroad is generated here at home, and policies that undermine working families in this country also erode our strength in the world.
The greatest foreign policy accomplishment was the peaceful and successful end of the Cold War. That was a world-historical achievement. The biggest mistake we have made since then was to behave as if other countries do not matter. As a result, we have wasted the opportunity to build a really inclusive, stable peace. And, of course, under Mr. Trump we have run up the national debt in an unconscionable fashion, and isolated ourselves from our close allies, friends, and partners to the advantage of those who wish our country ill.
Accomplishment: the Marshall Plan
Mistake: Nuclear weapons escalation
Global economic development has been our greatest foreign policy accomplishment. This success started with the Marshall Plan, providing billions in economic aid to rehabilitate European economies regardless of which side of the war the countries fought on. This initiative resulted in the promotion of free trade, modern technologies, the spread of democracy, and stronger allies to partner with the US in our global initiatives. We have continued to promote sustainable economic development across the globe by working closing with and empowering international development organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. When our global initiatives promote open markets, in turn, we promote freedom everywhere.
The biggest mistake was not investing in and becoming a global leader in renewable energy technology. Climate change is a destabilizing force in a world that could use more stability. A lot of our primary antagonists have economies based largely on oil exports, and the sale of oil has also been used to fund terrorism. Infrastructure programs focusing on energy generation have allowed other countries - especially China - to form relationships with countries, often by exporting dirty energy technology. If the United States had invested heavily in renewables over the past few decades and engaged in an aggressive policy of exporting it to the rest of the world, particularly developing nations, we could have slowed or reversed climate change, cut off a funding source for regimes that we’ve ended up fighting wars with, and made it much harder for terrorist organizations to fund themselves.
This project was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.