Candidates Answer CFR's Questions

Seth Moulton

July 30, 2019

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/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 must be a key focus of our foreign policy, both with China and around the world. The United States should publicly condemn China’s human rights abuses and continually raise them at the highest levels in diplomatic dialogue. We should also pursue targeted sanctions on entities and individuals who are involved in repression, and make clear that we support Hong Kong’s autonomy. On China policy writ large, we need to take on China but do so in a smart way. That means working towards a trade deal that helps Americans and American workers; building a cyber wall to keep our intellectual property safe in the face of Chinese aggression; and establishing a Pacific version of NATO to counter the growing security threat China poses to the region. 

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?

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Yes. The best and most durable way to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state is to do so through a diplomatic agreement with verification and monitoring, which we had in place before President Trump unilaterally withdrew from it. Therefore, our first goal should be rejoining the Iran deal and strengthening it, focused on extending the timelines for the specific provisions that have sunset clauses. We should also work to conclude separate agreements addressing issues such as ballistic missiles. The secondary, longer-term goal should be to move Iran towards less belligerent behavior in the region, where Iran is not threatening our allies or our interests. Neither of these goals can be achieved by simply backing Iran into a corner with no escape. We need to use sanctions, open a direct dialogue with Iran, and give them a path forward that does not include outright war. 

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 need to move away from a situation where we are solely focused on achieving an overall, all-encompassing agreement—an incredibly difficult task to achieve—while North Korea uses the time we’re negotiating to continue advancing its program. Given that North Korea has an estimated 20 to 30 nuclear warheads, fissile material for 30 to 60 more, and a progressing nuclear program, we must work toward an interim agreement that halts North Korea’s program in exchange for limited sanctions relief. We don’t yet know whether the North Koreans would agree to any deal that dismantles their nuclear program in exchange for significant economic incentives. We need to test that proposition while halting Pyongyang’s progress, and an interim agreement would do just that.

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

The United States needs to hold Russia accountable for its ongoing aggression against Ukraine. We should do so by increasing sanctions to impose costs on the Russian government—ones that specifically impact Vladimir Putin and his close allies—and by continuing to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, a step the Obama administration should have taken. The actions we take against Russia must also be part of a broader strategy to counter Moscow’s malign behavior. That means strengthening NATO’s military capabilities and modernizing it to counter cyberattacks with the same resolve we’ve used to stop tanks from rolling into Europe. 

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? 

The goal is to bring our troops home from Afghanistan--the longest war in American history--but when we do, to bring them home for good. That means keeping enough troops there long enough to execute on a narrowly-defined, achievable counterterrorism mission that fits into a broader overall global CT strategy. We should do this by maintaining our counterterrorism capabilities, increasing our civilian support for the Afghan government through diplomacy and development, and staying engaged in the ongoing train and equip mission for the Afghan military as required. We also need to send a new counterterrorism AUMF to Congress with a clearly-defined strategy, because we shouldn’t be operating under an authorization written before some of the troops fighting in Afghanistan today were born.

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?

One of the biggest problems with American foreign policy today is that it’s defined by inertia, more a relic of the past than a plan for the future. Nowhere is that more evident than our ongoing relationship with Saudi Arabia. 

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Saudi leadership is playing a double game of implementing some limited societal and economic reforms while, at the same time, cracking down on dissidents — including Jamaal Khashoggi, the journalist living in the United States who the Saudis brutally murdered. In 2020 and beyond, we need to push the Saudis on human rights, stop giving them weapons to kill civilians in Yemen, and make the terms of our alliance conditional on their compliance.

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 unequivocally support a two-state solution. Israelis deserve to live in peace and security, and the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. 

Israel is our closest ally in the Middle East and will continue to be. But we cannot continue to support their current right-wing government’s policies that have made a two-state solution virtually impossible. There’s certainly a lot of blame to go around in this conflict, but the Israelis have failed to live up to the standards we demand from our allies, and that needs to change. 

Right now, the prospects for peace look slim. If elected, I will work to restart a real negotiating process in earnest.

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

The Trump administration’s approach to Venezuela is a throwback to the Cold War: intervene in support of a coup, blame Cuba for everything, and in the process, make America a foil for Maduro to use with his people as the reason his economy is faltering. 

Maduro is a dictator who is killing his own people, and he has lost the legitimacy to lead. But we have learned from experience that when the United States tries to dictate outcomes in other countries, we often end up provoking a backlash and uniting different factions against us as the outsider. Moving forward, we should continue to sanction Venezuelan leaders and encourage the opposition. But if my time in the Marines taught me anything, it’s that the United States is not the world’s policeman. Nor should we try to be. 

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? 

As we approach 2050, the United States should work to help build the next generation of leaders in Africa by partnering with governments, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders throughout the continent. President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) was a model for how to do that by sponsoring educational and professional development opportunities. 

The U.S government should also work directly with entrepreneurs overseas, especially in Africa’s developing countries, to provide access to technology, private sector relationships, and training that can help their businesses grow. This is particularly important for the growing number of women leaders in the region. 

Lastly, while extreme poverty has fallen worldwide, too many Africans still struggle to get by on less than $2 a day—conditions that are unlivable and drive people to extremism. So as these populations continue to grow, we must also help these countries grow their middle classes.

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? 

Under Trump, we’ve seen what happens when the United States doesn’t lead in these multilateral efforts: China steps in and tries to remake the world in their autocratic, illiberal image. For that reason and more, my administration would re-engage in the TPP negotiations, focusing on strengthening labor and environmental standards. The goal must be to conclude a strong, fair trade deal for the Pacific on our terms, not China’s.

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

We need to make clean energy more cost-effective than coal for developing countries. That means investing hundreds of billions of dollars in carbon capture and distributed power technologies, so the United States (not China) can either sell or give those technologies to developing nations. 

We should also rejoin the Paris Climate Accord immediately, and we must also go further. China accounts for a much larger percentage of global emissions than the United States, but even as they pollute the world, China is leading the charge towards a sustainable future. If we hope to not only save the planet but also remain the economic and diplomatic leaders of it, we need to make climate change a top priority in our investment, foreign policy, and national security decisions. And we must do so now before it’s too late.

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

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.

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