from The Water's Edge

Campaign Foreign Policy Roundup: The Seventh Democratic Debate

The top six Democratic presidential challengers take the stage at the January 14 debate in Des Moines, Iowa.
The top six Democratic presidential challengers take the stage at the January 14 debate in Des Moines, Iowa. Breanna Norman/Reuters

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential challengers are saying about foreign policy. This week: the Democrats debate in Des Moines, the New York Times interviews the candidates, and two new polls ask about foreign policy.

January 17, 2020

The top six Democratic presidential challengers take the stage at the January 14 debate in Des Moines, Iowa.
The top six Democratic presidential challengers take the stage at the January 14 debate in Des Moines, Iowa. Breanna Norman/Reuters
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Foreign policy took center stage at Tuesday night’s Democratic debate. The first forty-two minutes were devoted to the topic. However, if you have watched any of the previous debates, you likely didn’t learn much new. Even though this time around just six candidates appeared on the stage, the conversation covered mostly familiar ground. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders once again relitigated the Iraq war vote. Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg revisited their past exchanges about the value of experience versus judgment, this time with Tom Steyer and Elizabeth Warren adding their two cents. And most of the conversation looked backward at policy decisions we can’t change rather than forward at the challenges the country faces and what to do about them.

That isn’t to say that there weren’t opportunities to learn something new. When Warren repeated her long-standing commitment to withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan, she might have been asked whether and how she would prevent the Taliban from returning to power, or if it even mattered to the United States if it did. When Buttigieg repeated his view that the country should replace the Afghanistan and Iraq war authorizations, he might have been asked what he would replace them with. When Sanders argued for trade agreements that are less generous to multinational corporations, he might have been asked what that would mean for the millions of Americans who work for those companies. And all of the candidates could have been asked how important changes to trade deals are when compared to, say, technological innovation in terms of saving U.S. jobs. But none of those follow-up questions were asked.

Candidates in Their Own Words

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The New York Times plans to endorse one of the Democratic presidential candidates this Sunday on an episode of its television show, The Weekly. To figure out who to get behind, the Times’ editorial board interviewed nine of the candidates. The Times has now released the transcripts of those conversations. Michael Bloomberg and Tulsi Gabbard both declined to sit for an interview, but Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Deval Patrick, Sanders, Steyer, Warren, and Andrew Yang all said yes.

The interviews were conducted last December, so there’s no discussion of recent events such as the Soleimani killing or the start of President Trump’s impeachment trial. The Times did, however, ask questions on a range of foreign policy issues, including Afghanistan, allies, tariffs, Turkey, and Xi Jinping. These conversations provide more insight into how the candidates see the world than the Democratic debates have thus far.

Michael Bennet spent a half hour on the New Hampshire Public Radio show, The Exchange. Among other topics, he discussed cybersecurity in the context of concerns that Iran might launch cyberattacks against the United States. He said:

We're not prepared well enough. Fortunately, because of the men and women who are working diligently in our intelligence agencies we are better protected today than we were when Russia attacked us in 2016 even though Donald Trump won't even admit that the Russians attacked our democracy or are continuing to attack our democracy. We need to get much better prepared for the kind of cyberattacks that we're going to face, not just from Russia, but as you mentioned, from Iran, from China as well and from North Korea.

Warren discussed her vision for the military with Task & Purpose. When asked if she agreed with the National Security Strategy, which argues that the U.S. military must be prepared to defeat China and Russia in war, she answered: 

Both China and Russia have invested heavily in their militaries and other tools of national power. Both hope to shape spheres of influence in their own image and ultimately remake the global order to suit their own priorities. But confronting this challenge is not solely or even primarily a question of military competition. China uses its economic might to bludgeon its way on the world stage, for instance, while Russia has prioritized opportunistic harassment and covert attacks. And beyond China and Russia, we face challenges, such as cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation that require much more than a strong military to combat. Others challenges, like climate change, cannot be solved through military action at all.

Addressing these challenges requires prioritization. That starts with cutting our bloated defense budget—identifying which programs actually benefit American security and which merely line the pockets of defense contractors. It also requires us to reinvest in diplomacy and other tools of national power—because funding a muscular military without robust diplomacy, economic statecraft, support for civil society, and development assistance only hamstrings American national power and undercuts any military gains.

Warren is undoubtedly right that China and Russia present the United States with multidimensional challenges that require a whole-of-government response. And getting the Pentagon to spend more efficiently is a laudable goal that everyone shares, even if both Democratic and Republican administrations have found it hard to do. But in this answer, and elsewhere, Warren skirts the question of what she thinks the Pentagon should be preparing to defend against. And it’s decisions about the Pentagon’s roles and missions that fundamentally drive the size of the defense budget. 

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Bloomberg appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. One of the questions the former New York mayor got was why he is the most qualified to be commander-in-chief. He answered:

Because I have experience in running the largest city in America, which is very international, has an enormous police department equivalent to a small army. And nobody goes into the office with the experience of running four million employees, which is what the president has, but it’s not a job for—it’s not an entry-level job.

Steyer released his immigration plan. It includes creating pathways for climate refugees to enter the United States.

What the Pundits Are Saying

CFR held a panel discussion on Tuesday about the role foreign policy might play in the Democratic primaries. Margaret Warner, the former chief global affairs correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, moderated the conversation, and I joined Charles Cook, editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report, and Margaret Talev, the White House and politics editor for Axios as the panelists. None of us thought that foreign policy would ultimately play a significant role in determining who gets the Democratic nomination. But we had a lively conversation about why that is the case and how the campaign might evolve.

Numerous commentators tried to make sense of what the Democratic debate revealed about what the candidates on stage think about foreign affairs. Vox's Alex Ward concluded that the debate “allowed the six candidates onstage in Iowa to put some serious daylight between them on issues of war and trade.” The Atlantic's Uri Friedman decided that the debate highlighted the divide between members of two camps. The first are "restorationists” like Biden and Buttigieg who want to “restore the United States’ position in the world to what it was before the aberrant Trump era.” The second camp is "renovators" like Sanders and Warren. They want “to fully renovate America’s role in the world,” even though it’s unclear “what exactly a progressive will look like.” Daniel Drezner focused on the commonalities in what the candidates had to say and applauded them for having “largely avoided the trap of making specific policy promises that will not age well.”

Sean Sullivan of the Washington Post profiled Sanders's foreign policy views, concluding that “Trump has already upended the world order with an ‘America First’ approach that tests Western alliances, and Sanders would deliver another jolt.” That spurred New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz to counter that the Vermont senator’s foreign policy “outlook is both more evidence-based and more moderate—with its cautious approach to foreign intervention and allergy to unilateral assertions of American power—than the consensus he threatens to ‘upend.’” Levitz’s piece does a nice job of summarizing the many failures of U.S. foreign policy over the past several decades. But it also fails to weigh them against any successes, or more important, show that doing much less as Sanders proposes would on net make the country better off. It could conceivably create a new set of problems. Different doesn’t necessarily mean better. President Trump’s foreign policy is a case in point.

Jessica Mathews, the former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, asked, “Do the Democrats have a foreign policy?” She doesn’t appear convinced they do, writing that the candidates are right to say that “we badly need to repair the fractures in our democracy, but in the years—decades—that that will require, we will need an actual foreign policy as well. History won’t take a time-out while we work to restore what is broken at home.”

Two new polls came out this week that provide a sense of what’s on the minds of voters. A Gallup survey conducted last month, before the killing of Qasem Soleimani, found that 34 percent of adult Americans ranked national security/terrorism as "extremely important" to their vote for president. That was one percentage point lower than the highest-ranked issue, healthcare. Foreign affairs and trade were lower at 21 and 18 percent respectively. Polls like this are hard to interpret because they don’t ask respondents to weigh issues against one another, and the risk exists that voters feel compelled to say that all issues matter to them. On that score, eight of the fifteen topics Gallup offered were deemed by at least 70 percent of those surveyed as either “extremely important” or “important.”

A Morning Consult/Politico poll of likely Democratic primary voters conducted from January 10 to 12 found that 32 percent of Democrats trust Biden the most to handle foreign relations, followed by Sanders at 20 percent, and Warren at 11 percent. Morning Consult/Politico doesn’t look to have asked the question before, and without a trend it’s hard to know what to make of the result.

Campaign Update

Cory Booker exited the race on Monday. The New Jersey senator closed out his campaign by saying: "2020 is the most important election of our lifetimes—we have to beat Donald Trump…but beating Trump is the floor, not the ceiling.” With Booker’s departure, there are now just twelve Democrats running. That number is actually smaller than the number of Democrats who have quit the race, which is sixteen.

Iowans go to their caucus sites in just 17 days. Election Day is 291 days away.

Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.

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