from The Water's Edge

Foreign Policy Roundup: The Democratic Debate, Trade Policy, and the Iran Nuclear Deal

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (L), former Vice President Joe Biden, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (R) debate during the fourth Democratic presidential debate in Ohio on October 15.

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

October 18, 2019

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (L), former Vice President Joe Biden, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (R) debate during the fourth Democratic presidential debate in Ohio on October 15.
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Tuesday night’s debate allotted just twenty-two minutes to foreign policy. It’s doubtful the audience came away from that brief conversation with a deeper understanding of what the candidates hope to do abroad. They mostly repeated longstanding criticisms of President Donald Trump, this time in the context of his decision to abandon the Syrian Kurds. The candidates avoided sketching out their own foreign policy visions, and aside from a brief exchange between Tulsi Gabbard and Pete Buttigieg, avoided criticizing their rivals. And truth be told, many viewers may have wished that the foreign policy had gotten even less airtime. A Washington Post analysis found that the debate devoted more time to foreign policy than would be expected based on the topics that voters say they want to hear about.

While none of the candidates said anything significantly new about foreign policy this week, scholars and journalists had a lot to say. Kimberly Clausing, a professor of economics at Reed College, argued in the new issue of Foreign Affairs that progressive Democrats shouldn’t focus their ire on trade agreements. She acknowledges that “trade does deserve some of the blame” for lost jobs and stagnating wages, but that

technological change is a far more important factor than international trade in explaining the disappointing outcomes in American labor markets. Across all industries, the returns to education have increased, as less educated workers are disproportionately displaced by automation and computerization. And although manufacturing output continues to rise, manufacturing employment has fallen, as capital takes the place of labor and workers steadily move into the service industry. Yet in spite of all this evidence about the effects of technological change, politicians still point fingers at foreigners.

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The upshot of her analysis is that even if progressives could negotiate their ideal trade agreements, the results “would do little to address economic inequality and wage stagnation, because trade agreements themselves have little to do with those problems.” Clausing knows her economics. But smart economic analysis isn’t likely to influence a Democratic field in which even pro-trade candidates see trade skepticism as the smart political play.

Paul Shinkman summarized where each of the Democratic candidates stand on the Iran nuclear deal. Spoiler alert: Most of them would rejoin it. The problem is that by Inauguration Day 2021, some of the constraints the deal imposed on Iran will be just two years from expiring. That makes the pressing question what the candidates propose as a follow-on to the 2015 agreement and how they intend to make a new deal happen.

Jonathan Guyer reviewed the foreign policy visions of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. He contends that Warren leavens her foreign policy comments with a big dose of ambiguity and that doing so makes sense on both political and policy grounds. In terms of the former, “foreign policy does not typically win over voters.” In terms of the latter, “it’s hard to commit to grand strategies and theories of International Relations on the campaign trail, the types of hypotheticals that can lend themselves to illogical red lines and bad policies down the line.” Both points are undoubtedly true. On the other hand, candidates who don’t make their case on the campaign trail may find it hard to make it once in office.

James Traub argued that Tuesday’s debate kicked off the foreign-policy conversation the country needs. That assessment seems a bit generous and rests on the fact that Traub’s deep knowledge of foreign policy enables him to read a lot into a few brief exchanges. But he does a nice job of sketching out the questions that the candidates should be debating about America’s military operations.

Peter Beinart accused the Democratic presidential candidates of hypocrisy in their criticisms of Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds, arguing that most of them “want the U.S. to pull out of Afghanistan under the same conditions.”

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Tara Golshan and Alex Ward reviewed what they call Biden’s “checkered history” on Iraq. They argued that contrary to his claims that President George W. Bush misled him into supporting the invasion of Iraq, Biden was, in fact, “a senator bullish about the push to war who helped sell the Bush administration’s pitch to the American public—and … a vice president who left an unmistakable imprint on President Barack Obama’s backing of a dictator in Iraq.”

Vox sent the Democratic presidential candidate six questions on climate change—a topic, by the way, that didn’t come up at Tuesday night’s debate. One of the questions Vox asked was: “How should the US brace for global climate chaos? And what will you do to help other countries prepare for the impending disruption?” Vox posted the answers from nine of the candidates. 

Business Insider asked the Democratic candidates how they plan to handle trade with China. More than half declined to respond. Those who did mainly promised to “review” the current tariffs once in office and to decide then how to proceed.

There are 108 days left until the Iowa caucuses and 382 until Election Day.

Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.

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