from The Water's Edge

Campaign Foreign Policy Roundup: NATO and the Future of Transatlantic Relations

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a town hall meeting at Iowa State University on December 4, 2019.
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a town hall meeting at Iowa State University on December 4, 2019. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential challengers are saying about foreign policy. 

December 6, 2019

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a town hall meeting at Iowa State University on December 4, 2019.
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a town hall meeting at Iowa State University on December 4, 2019. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
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The big foreign policy news of the week was the NATO leaders meeting in London. The event gave President Donald Trump’s challengers an opportunity to criticize his handling of America’s most important alliance. Several of them did just that, none more so than Joe Biden. He warned supporters at a Rhode Island fundraiser that NATO could be finished if Trump is reelected: “I truly believe that there will be no NATO. Our alliances will be completely fractured. They're already being hurt."

The former vice president didn’t stop there. His campaign released not one, but two commercials criticizing Trump on foreign policy. The first commercial included the footage that went viral this week of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and French President Emmanuel Macron laughing at Trump’s behavior in London. In a voiceover Biden says: “If we give Donald Trump four more years, we'll have a great deal of difficulty of ever being able to recover America's standing in the world, and our capacity to bring nations together."

The second commercial, titled "Commander in Chief," makes the case that Biden is uniquely qualified to be president because of his foreign policy experience. The video features a clip of Biden arguing that “the next president’s going to face enormous challenges of picking up the pieces of American foreign policy. We need a leader who can, on Day One, stand with our allies, know them by their first names, and have them know there will be no question about the word of the next president of the United States."

Biden’s pitch, like those of his Democratic rivals, rests heavily on the assumption that should a Democrat win next November, Europeans will be eager to re-set relations with the United States. That may prove the case. But that’s hardly certain. More than a few experts worry there has been a fundamental breach in transatlantic relations—one that won’t be repaired by personal ties or memories of past accomplishments. At a minimum, the United States and Europe have real differences both in terms of substance and priority on issues such as defense spending, trade, economic regulation, and China. So far none of the Democratic candidates has clearly addressed how they would bridge those differences. Indeed, some of their favored policies could aggravate transatlantic tensions.

Candidates in Their Own Words

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Julián Castro spoke about foreign policy at Stanford University, his alma mater. He sought to link foreign affairs to domestic policy, arguing that “we cannot credibly say we support fair elections in Ukraine or Venezuela, if we cannot guarantee them in the state of Georgia." He also waded into the growing debate over U.S. policy toward Israel:

I believe the United States has an interest in Israel’s continued security and prosperity, as we do in the rights of the Palestinian people to live without fear in a future they can choose for themselves. As Israeli leaders across the spectrum speak to ideas of unilaterally annexing parts of the West Bank, continuing to expand settlements, actions that make a two-state solution more distant, if not impossible, we must make clear that this stands against our values and interests.

Castro didn’t elaborate on how his presidency would make things clear to the Israelis. On a different note, he threw his support behind expanding the UN Security Council “to include the democratic voices of countries like Japan, Germany, and India so that they remain vested in the UN’s success." Besides the speech, Castro answered questions from Vox’s Alex Ward about his foreign policy vision.

Michael Bennet appeared on CBS News’ Intelligence Matters podcast, which is hosted by Michael Morrell, a former deputy director of the CIA (and twice its acting director). Among other topics they discussed was America’s role in the world. Bennet argued that “for most of the last 70 years we obviously have not been perfect. Iraq, Vietnam. But for most of the last 70 years we have been a force for stability in the world. We've been a force to sort of try to tamp down the storm. Now, in a way, we are the storm. And other people are taking serious advantage of that. Putin, China, North Korea, Iran. They have all benefited from having Donald Trump as our president."

Progressive Foreign Policy

Progressive foreign policy has become a hot topic, even if it isn’t always clear what exactly it entails or how different it really is. Politico writers Alex Thompson and Holly Otterbein have examined the progressive foreign policy vision Bernie Sanders is laying out. They think he is looking to gain an "edge” with progressive Democrats by trying “to articulate a foreign policy further afield of the establishment than [Elizabeth] Warren's.”

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The European University Institute’s David Adler and the Hudson Institute’s Ben Judah think Sanders and Warren are both onto something. They write that "traditional foreign policy" no longer exists and that Democrats should follow Sanders and Warren, who are creating a "foreign politics" of the "shared interests of a global 99 percent against those of a consolidated transnational oligarchy."

One element of a progressive foreign policy looks to be taking a tougher line in dealing with Israel, a position that Sanders in particular has pushed. That view has its critics. Stuart Eizenstat, one of President Jimmy Carter's top aides, argued that conditioning aid to Israel based on its treatment of the Palestinians is misguided:

As much as I think [annexation] would be disastrous for Israel’s future, that aid is not economic aid. It’s military aid, and the military aid is not used for tanks to go into the West Bank. It’s used to protect Israel against external enemies and that’s essential for Israeli security. We need to separate out Israel’s security needs from the political dimension with the Palestinians.

Eizenstat, it should be noted, says he is an informal adviser to the Biden campaign.

The willingness of Sanders, and possibly Warren and Pete Buttigieg, to condition aid for Israel on its treatment of the Palestinians has sparked talk that Mike Bloomberg now has an opportunity to win over Jewish voters. Perhaps. But there’s also considerable evidence that Israel doesn't rank highly in the list of concerns of most Jewish voters.

Colum Lynch wrote a lengthy piece making a simple point: “The Democrats’ leading candidates have all issued calls for restoring America’s standing in the world …. but enthusiasm for the U.S. role as the primary guarantor of peace and security from Europe to the Middle East and Asia is losing currency in Democratic quarters.” These twin observations are often presented as a contradiction. They aren’t. U.S leadership and military intervention aren’t the same thing. Indeed, the ability of the United States to mobilize like-minded countries to tackle matters of mutual concern likely would be greater today if Washington had been far more judicious in its resort to military power over the past two decades. The new risk is that a reasonable skepticism about the merits of military intervention will morph into failure to appreciate what U.S. diplomatic leadership can achieve.

Campaign Updates

And then there were fifteen Democratic presidential candidates. Joe Sestak dropped out of the race on December 1. Steve Bullock ended his campaign on December 2. Kamala Harris dropped out on December 3.

Tom Steyer qualified for the December 19 Democratic debate. He is the sixth candidate to make the cut, joining Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders, Warren, and Amy Klobuchar. The debate will be held on Thursday, December 19, at the Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. PBS will be the host. Candidates have until next Thursday, December 12, to qualify. That requires collecting contributions from 200,000 donors and hitting either 4 percent in four national polls or 6 percent in two early nominating states.

There are 59 days until the Iowa caucuses, and 333 days until Election Day.

Margaret Gach and Caroline Kantis helped in the preparation of this post.

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