Joe Sestak

Joe Sestak

Former representative, Pennsylvania

Joe Sestak has withdrawn his candidacy.

Joe Sestak served as a member of Congress from Pennsylvania from 2007 to 2011, and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2010. He served in the Navy from 1974 to 2005, achieving the rank of vice admiral and joining the National Security Council staff as director for defense policy under President Bill Clinton. In his 2020 campaign, Sestak stresses his national security background.

Born and raised in Pennsylvania, he holds a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Naval Academy and completed a master’s degree and a doctorate at Harvard University.


Sestak views China as one of the United States’ foremost foreign policy challenges, warning of its “totalitarianism,” its human rights abuses, its bid to control global telecommunications networks, and its military and geopolitical ambitions. 

  • Sestak says that China is the “greatest threat to American national security.” He cites China’s carbon emissions, its Belt and Road Initiative—which he saysis “enslaving” countries through predatory loans—the dependence of U.S. technology companies on Chinese supply chains, and China’s control of critical telecom infrastructure, most notably emerging 5G networks. 
  • He told CFR that the United States has retreated from global leadership, permitting China and other autocracies to “act with impunity” and spread their authoritarian influence. He warns that allies in Europe and elsewhere are being tempted to accept Chinese malfeasance in exchange for investment. 
  • He argues that, “in the absence of US global leadership, China will inevitably fill the vacuum,” and that U.S. disinterest in traditional allies in East Asia is strengthening Beijing. He says he will rejoin the Barack Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as a geopolitical response to China.
  • He promises to oppose China’s human rights abuses, pledging to “find points of leverage” to pressure Beijing on its treatment of minority groups, the autonomy of Hong Kong, and democracy in Taiwan.

Climate and Energy

Sestak warns that climate change is a threat to U.S. national security and that Washington must revive its international leadership on the issue in order to make the needed cuts to global greenhouse gas emissions. 

  • Sestak offers a climate plan that he says would deliver net-zero emissions by 2050. He would ban all offshore drilling, end fossil fuel subsidies, strengthen fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles, and seek to reform agricultural land use.
  • He backs a carbon tax that would begin at $15 per ton of carbon emissions and rise each year, with the proceeds being returned to Americans as a dividend and used to invest in clean energy research. 
  • He supports the expansion of nuclear energy, but says “we must do everything we can to make it safer.”
  • He cites the Defense Department’s warnings that climate change is threatening U.S. national security, worsening migration crises, and deepening conflict in places such as Syria.
  • He emphasizes that global cooperation is necessary to fight climate change, because more than 80 percent of emissions are produced by other countries. He told CFR that he would immediately rejoin the Paris Agreement, from which Trump withdrew. 
  • He promises to work with China and other countries to end the expansion of coal-burning plants and incentivize renewable energies. He says he would set a date to end U.S. coal exports. 


Sestak points to his personal experience working on counterterrorism in his several decades in the military. He has called for a more aggressive response to terrorist groups overseas while questioning many post-9/11 surveillance, interrogation, and detention policies.

  • Sestak criticizes what he characterizes as ill-considered military interventions for giving rise to terrorist groups, telling CFR that the 2003 Iraq War “created the more brutal terror of ISIS.” 
  • He has previously criticized the Obama administration’s response to the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, calling it too slow.
  • He also told CFR that Saudi Arabia has been a major supporter of “terrorism that has harmed us.”
  • He has argued that American citizens who join overseas terrorist groups “should not be off-limits” for drone strikes or other military actions.
  • Referring to the CIA’s interrogation methods, he says “torture is and must remain illegal.” He also calls the warrantless wiretapping of Americans’ communications illegal. 
  • He backs the closing of the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, arguing that detainees should be brought to the United States and tried rather than kept in a “purgatory away from our laws.” 
  • Sestak was working at the Pentagon when it was attacked by al-Qaeda on the morning of September 11, 2001. Soon after, he was named the first director of the Navy’s strategic antiterrorism unit, known as Deep Blue.

Cybersecurity and Digital Policy

Sestak argues that the United States must improve its cyber capabilities, both to defend itself from foreign attacks and to hone its offensive measures. He calls for more federal regulation of emerging technologies and large tech companies.

  • Sestak’s foreign policy plan emphasizes the importance of “dominating cyberspace,” including both defensive cybersecurity and offensive cyberwarfare.
  • He calls for investments in cybersecurity and more coordination between federal agencies to protect the U.S. electric grid, water supply, communications infrastructure, and personal privacy rights.
  • He warns that U.S. electoral systems are vulnerable to hacking and cyberattacks, citing intelligence agency reports on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. He advocates for mandating paper ballots and upgrading election systems.
  • He says that the upcoming transition to 5G telecom networks and other emerging technologies could serve as “Trojan horses” for China and other adversaries, and he calls for more federal regulation.
  • He supports net neutrality rules and backs provisions to define electronic data as the property of individuals, rather than corporations.


Sestak has been involved in defense policy for decades as a veteran, a policymaker, and a politician. He says war should be a last resort, and calls on the U.S. military to invest in next-generation cyberwarfare capabilities.

  • Sestak points to his long military service as preparing him to be commander in chief. He spent thirty-one years in the U.S. Navy, served as President Bill Clinton’s director of defense policy, and commanded an aircraft carrier battle group of thirty ships, one hundred aircraft, and more than fifteen thousand personnel. 
  • He has been a critic of what he sees as wasteful and ill-planned military missions, calling the 2003 invasion of Iraq a “tragic misadventure.” He says the U.S. military should only be used as a last resort, and never without the backing of allies.
  • He told CFR he supports the “full withdrawal” of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in his first term, but says there must be a plan to ensure postwar stability and the rights of women.
  • He argues that presidential war powers include the authority to initiate military action as long as Congress is consulted soon after. He opposes the “enemy combatant” label and says all enemies captured on foreign battlefields should be considered prisoners of war, with the legal protections that involves. 
  • He says the U.S. military must be “modernized” to focus on new threats and emerging technologies rather than traditional measures of size. He has backed cutting spending on existing forces and directing more investment toward “smarter cyberspace warfare.”
  • He warns that sexual assault and suicide are both on the rise in the military and argues that senior leadership must be held accountable.
  • His veterans’ policy includes more job training for returning service members, housing assistance for homeless veterans, and expanded coverage for mental health. He opposes proposals to privatize the Veterans Affairs health system. 
  • He opposes the Trump administration’s ban on transgender personnel in the military, saying all who want to serve should be welcomed. 

Diplomacy and Foreign Aid

Sestak champions U.S. leadership in a “rules-based international order” and charges that Trump’s alienation of allies has undermined U.S. security. He promises active diplomacy to address climate change and contain adversaries.

  • Sestak told CFR he would champion “U.S. leadership within a rules-based liberal world order.” He argues that Trump’s America First philosophy is a dangerous retreat from the world. 
  • He calls the creation of such an order based on “freedom and human rights, open and fair markets, and fair and just governments” the United States’ greatest foreign policy achievement.
  • He believes the United States’ greatest power is its “power to convene,” pointing to Washington’s role in creating the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
  • He says his diplomatic strategy would focus on two objectives: addressing climate change and bringing together U.S. allies to counter the rise of an “illiberal world order” led by China and Russia. 
  • He pledges to return to many international agreements rejected by Trump, including the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate accord. 
  • He told CFR he would prioritize diplomatic relations with African governments; otherwise, he says, the United States will lose influence to China and other authoritarian governments.
  • He argues that humanitarian aid must be restructured to increase programs that work, such as microlending, and end those that have fueled corruption.

Economic Policy

Sestak calls for strategic investments in infrastructure, education, and clean energy to reinvigorate struggling communities, create jobs, and help the United States compete in an increasingly globalized world.

  • Sestak proposes investing $1 trillion over a decade to rebuild critical infrastructure, including roads and bridges, ports, and broadband internet. He pledges to create a national infrastructure bank to finance such projects.
  • He argues that the wealthy and corporations must pay more in taxes, and proposes rolling back “at least half” of the 2017 tax cuts, which lowered rates for individuals and corporations. He says those cuts are “ballooning the federal deficit.”
  • He wants to create jobs and revive U.S. manufacturing by investing in clean energy, including renewable-energy tax credits and more spending on research and development. 
  • He says the federal government must guarantee career-long workforce training to ensure workers can gain the skills they need to compete in rapidly changing industries. He backs more federal spending, the creation of apprenticeship programs, and interest-free student loans.
  • He promises to support small businesses by expanding tax credits for start-ups and offering subsidized loans for entrepreneurs.
  • He says he will “strengthen antitrust laws.”


The son of an immigrant, Sestak champions the role of immigration in American life. He says the current immigration system is “broken” and requires comprehensive reform. He argues that Trump’s “harsh” approach has made it worse.

  • Sestak’s calls for comprehensive immigration reform and blames Congress’s inaction for the current impasse. He backs a path to citizenship for the estimated eleven million undocumented residents in the United States, but says there must be “stringent requirements,” including payment of back taxes, proof of employment, and English skills.
  • He also says securing the border is a “legitimate national security concern,” arguing that enforcement should focus on stopping the trafficking of drugs, weapons, and people. 
  • He calls a wall across the entire border, which Trump has championed, “impractical” and he proposes better surveillance technologies and more border guards instead.
  • He says that more immigration is necessary to keep the U.S. economy growing, given falling birthrates and retiring baby boomers. He proposes updating the U.S. work visa system to allow more skilled immigrants.
  • He calls Trump’s response to the record number of asylum seekers at the U.S. southern border “misguided” and “disgraceful.” Sestak promises to end family separations, improve detention conditions, and uphold all asylum seekers’ right to an attorney and “timely due process.”
  • He argues that Washington should be giving more aid to Latin American countries to accelerate economic development, which he says will reduce the flow of asylum seekers from the region.

Middle East

A veteran of the Iraq War, Sestak has been critical of the U.S. invasion and skeptical of the ability of military force to address the region’s complex conflicts. He calls for renewed diplomacy with Iran and Israel and a tougher U.S. line on what he calls Saudi Arabia’s illiberal and autocratic policies.

  • Sestak calls Israel “our closest ally in the Middle East,” telling CFR that he has supported Israel for decades. He says Washington must push back against anti-Israel bias at the United Nations and make clear that Israel’s security is “sacrosanct.” 
  • He supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that the United States must improve trust with the Palestinians to regain its standing as an “honest broker.” He says he would reverse Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. 
  • He promises to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, from which Trump withdrew, and says he would not seek any changes to the original terms. He says that although the deal was not perfect, it restrained Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and that leaving it has undermined U.S. dealings with other nations.
  • He warns against military action to disrupt Tehran’s nuclear program, arguing that strikes would only delay Iran’s progress while resulting in “fractured alliances, economic disarray, more nuclear arms races, and loss of U.S. credibility.”
  • He is deeply critical of Saudi Arabia, citing its murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, its “horrible” conduct in the Yemen war, its “abhorrent” treatment of women and political dissidents, its unwillingness to grant the United States access to its military bases, and its support for extremist ideologies.
  • He says Washington should lead a “global concord” that would be able to compel Saudi Arabia to bring its behavior in line with the “rules-based world order.”
  • He calls the 2003 Iraq War the United States’ biggest foreign policy mistake and a “tragic misadventure.” He says the war embroiled the United States in unwinnable conflicts in Iraq and Syria, created “the more brutal terror of ISIS,” and demonstrated the limits of military power.

North Korea

Sestak favors talking with North Korea about its nuclear program but believes denuclearization will be difficult to achieve.

  • Sestak has praised Trump’s willingness to pursue direct talks with the North Korean regime, but he criticizes the poor preparation and lack of clear objectives.
  • He says that Trump making concessions, such as promising to pause some joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, without any corresponding action from Pyongyang has given North Korean leader Kim Jong-un legitimacy while the United States has nothing to show for it. 
  • He told CFR that his goal would be complete denuclearization, but that he would accept partial steps in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions as part of ongoing negotiations. 
  • He pledges to restart the Six Party Talks with North and South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia, as well as with the International Atomic Energy Agency, to bring together the countries with the most leverage over Pyongyang.


Sestak sees Russia as a growing threat to the democratic world order, and he criticizes Trump for weakening Washington’s ability to confront Moscow. He promises closer relationships with U.S. allies to isolate and pressure Russia, and he seeks stronger measures to protect U.S. elections from Russian interference.

  • Sestak frames his foreign policy as an effort to confront a growing “illiberal world order” led by Russia and other authoritarian countries. He calls Russia’s “territorial aggression” in Ukraine and elsewhere “a threat to global peace and security.”
  • He told CFR that the United States must pursue “more active deterrence measures” against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, including implementing tougher sanctions, limiting Russian participation in international organizations, and pursuing offensive cyber measures.
  • He opposes Trump’s suggestion that Russia could be readmitted to the Group of Eight industrialized nations, from which it was expelled in 2014 after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
  • He warns that U.S. electoral systems are vulnerable to cyberattacks, citing intelligence agency reports on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. He advocates for mandating paper ballots and investing in upgraded election systems.
  • He criticizes the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, which limited their nuclear missile stockpiles. He says the United States should instead work for nuclear arms control.


Sestak sees trade as an important source of stability, peace, and prosperity, and believes that the United States should take the lead in setting predictable rules and defending open markets. He has argued that some trade agreements should be improved to better protect consumers and the environment.

  • Sestak argues that the United States must pursue global free trade in order to compete with China and take advantage of the growing demand from expanding middle classes in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. 
  • He says Trump’s ongoing trade war with China is harming primarily farmers and consumers, and he opposes the use of tariffs “as a weapon in geopolitical disputes that have nothing to do with trade.”
  • He told CFR that Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP was a lost opportunity to shape the future of global trade and offer a geopolitical response to China. He pledges to rejoin the deal to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to Asia-Pacific allies.
  • He also says the TPP “wasn’t perfect” and promises improvements to end “monopoly protections” for corporations, add more data-privacy protections for consumers, and raise environmental standards.
  • He has said some technology companies are not only outsourcing jobs but also “outsourcing our national security” by locating their supply chains in adversarial countries such as China. 
  • As a member of Congress, Sestak voted for a 2007 free trade agreement with Peru, though he said he would not have voted for the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or the 2005 Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), had he been in office.

Venezuela and Latin America

Sestak calls the humanitarian, economic, and political crisis in Venezuela “tragic” and warns that a worsening of the situation could “destabilize the hemisphere.” He opposes the regime of Nicolas Maduro but calls for a negotiated solution and rules out the use of military force.

  • Sestak told CFR he supports convening the Organization of American States (OAS) and “other international organizations as appropriate” to pursue a political settlement in Venezuela and avoid civil war.
  • He opposes a U.S. military intervention but advocates for “disincentives” against the Maduro regime, including targeted financial sanctions and travel restrictions on those responsible for “looting their nation.”
  • He argues that Washington should be giving more aid to Latin American countries to accelerate economic development, which he says will reduce the flow of asylum seekers from the region.

This project was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.