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U.S. leadership in the world was on the mind of several presidential challengers this week. Joe Biden released his plan to restore the United States’ global position. Titled “Why America Must Lead Again,” the plan stresses three priorities: “renewing democracy at home”; equipping Americans “to succeed in the global economy”; and returning Washington to the head of the diplomatic table so it’s “in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilize collective action on global threats.” In all, Biden concluded that “it falls to the United States to lead the way. No other country has that capacity. No other nation is built on that idea.”
Andrew Yang provided a concrete example of where he thinks U.S. leadership can make a difference in an interview he gave to the Washington Post Editorial Board. Asked if he would do anything to oppose China’s oppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang beyond joining other countries in criticizing Beijing, Yang sketched out why it matters whether the United States can build coalitions:
What we have to do is regenerate our global leadership role through investing in our historic partnerships and alliances. If we want to improve China’s treatment of its ethnic minorities, which is reprehensible, to me, you could go it alone or you could try and build an international consensus around it. I would go for path No. 2. … And if the Chinese feel like they need to conform to certain standards in order to achieve their economic goals, then they’ll be much more likely to actually feel pressure to pull back in some of their abuses. So I don’t want to relinquish American global leadership. I want to rebuild American global leadership by actually strengthening our alliances and partnerships.
But just how eager are U.S. allies, friends, and partners to fall in behind new leadership in Washington? That’s not a question that Biden answered in his essay or that Yang tackled in his interview. It is the question Pete Buttigieg got in his conversation with the LA Times' editorial board. When asked just “how difficult do you believe it’s going to be to repair relations with America’s closest allies that have been damaged during the Trump era?” the former mayor of South Bend answered:
Realistically, this will be the work of more than one presidency. But what we know is that it’s not too late for the reason I mentioned earlier, which is that it’s not just affection but interest that, I think, binds us to our allies. Interest in stability and, to the extent we’re ready to uphold this authentically, interest in certain human values that are also American values, around democracy, around freedom, around self-determination.
The suggestion that repairing relations with allies, friends, and partners could be “the work of more than one presidency” is sobering. But it’s likely realistic. It’s not just that during the Trump presidency many allies, friends, and partners are growing accustomed to working without—or finding ways to go around—Washington, and as a result, may not immediately rally around a new president. It’s also that today many of them openly question whether they in fact share the common values with the United States that Buttigieg mentioned.
The fundamental importance of those shared values—and the advantage they give the United States compared to China and Russia—is a point that Tom Steyer stressed when he spoke with Vox's Alex Ward about why killing Qasem Soleimani has made the United States less safe:
The thing that makes us safest is a sense of people around the world of who the United States is, which is we’re the good guys. We’re the people who believe in democracy. We’re the people who believe in freedom. We’re the people that believe in equality.
The challenge, of course, is not just to talk the talk but walk the walk, as the saying goes. While most Americans are convinced of the inherent goodness of the United States, a predisposition I share, many people around the world have their doubts. It’s easy to see why. The number of people who witnessed the United States defeat Nazi Germany and stare down the Soviet Union, and hence are willing to give Washington the benefit of the doubt even when its policies go badly, is shrinking. Instead, more and more people know the United States as the country that invaded Iraq, upended the Iran nuclear deal, and walked out of a global compact to combat climate change. Countering those facts will take some doing.
Candidates in Their Own Words
Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor and late entrant into the presidential race, spoke at CFR’s New York office on Tuesday evening. He shared three lessons from his international experience: "relationships matter," "the importance of building and working in coalition," and "the importance of preparation."
Michael Bloomberg became the latest candidate to submit his answers to CFR’s twelve-question survey on foreign policy. In response to the question about what he considered to be the greatest U.S. foreign policy success since World War II, the former mayor of New York took the opportunity to praise Harry Truman. Bloomberg noted that “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.” That is an impressive set of accomplishments, and they set the standard for U.S. leadership in the world.
At a candidates forum in Iowa, Elizabeth Warren pressed her case for not giving ambassadorships to major donors. "Ambassadorships should not be for sale,” the Massachusetts senator said. “It’s Washington corruption at its worst.” Amy Klobuchar, however, declined to rule out awarding ambassadorships to major donors even as she said she would model her ambassadorial picks on people like career diplomat Marie Yovanovitch. The longstanding, bipartisan U.S. practice of handing out ambassadorships as rewards to donors is unique in the world. Opponents of the practice have no problem finding examples, and not just in the Trump administration, where it has produced ambassadors ill-suited to the job. That said, defenders of the practice can note that some of the best U.S. representation overseas has come from donors turned ambassadors.
What the Pundits Are Saying
The New York Times Editorial Board endorsed both Warren and Klobuchar for president. The board likes that Warren "speaks fluently about foreign policy, including how to improve NATO relations, something that will be badly needed after Mr. Trump leaves office," while Klobuchar "promises a foreign policy based on leading by example, instead of by threat-via-tweet.”
Historians David Milne and Christopher McKnight Nichols wrote that when it comes to the use of military force, Sanders and Warren aren’t proposing policies much different than what candidate Barack Obama proposed. As a result, “if Warren or Sanders is elected president, she or he will face similar dilemmas to those that confronted Obama regarding the use of force. Previous form suggests that they may well respond in similar ways. The burdens of office have a way of sullying the purest-sounding pre-presidential intentions.”
Akshai Vikram, a fellow at the Ploughshares Fund, assessed how much the Democratic presidential candidates know about nuclear policy. His conclusion is that “for the existential sake of the country, the candidates need to get up to speed on nuclear weapons policy. Fast.”
Here’s something you may not know. Voting in 2020 Democratic primaries has already begun. True, the first official nominating event, the Iowa caucuses, don’t convene until February 3. But if you live in the great state of Minnesota, you’ve had the opportunity to cast an in-person early vote for a week now. California will mail ballots to more than twelve million voters the day of the Iowa caucuses, and more than a week before New Hampshire holds the nation’s first presidential primary. States like Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas will begin early voting at various points in February. One of the challenges for experts trying to handicap the Democratic presidential race is figuring out how many voters will cast their primary ballots before actual voting results are posted.
The Iowa caucuses are just ten days away. It is 284 days until Election Day.
Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.