There were two exceptions to this consensus:
- Four candidates (former congressman of Maryland John Delaney, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former HUD secretary Julián Castro, and Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio) called China one of the US’s greatest geopolitical threats, while two candidates (former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and entrepreneur Andrew Yang) argued for a new relationship with China built on cooperation.
- Ryan argued for maintaining US engagement in Afghanistan, while Hawai’i Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and former vice president Joe Biden called, without reservations, for withdrawal.
Very little in these debates shed light on the differences among these candidates in how they would approach foreign policy if elected. However, given the great range of foreign policy issues raised, one can hope that the candidates will engage in a more robust conversation on foreign policy as the field winnows—including talking about many issues that have thus far been left out.
Here were some of the foreign policy issues the candidates discussed:
These debates marked a major shift in the extent to which presidential candidates have addressed climate change, with two candidates (California Senator Kamala Harris and Washington Governor Jay Inslee) referring to a “climate crisis.”
In fact, the 15 minutes of discussion dedicated to climate change, across the two debates, were greater than all the time spent on climate change during the nine Democratic primary debates in 2016.
Four candidates (Castro, Harris, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Biden) mentioned rejoining the Paris Agreement — and Castro said his first act as president would be to recommit to it. (According to The Washington Post’s issues tracker, all 20 qualifying candidates have committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement.)
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts argued that federally funded research in green technologies should be made available to any companies that use it to manufacture products in the United States. Warren, Ryan, and Biden suggested that exporting green products should be a major part of US trade strategy going forward.
Four candidates called climate change either the single greatest “geopolitical threat” to the US, or among the greatest threats: former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Warren, Inslee, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Castro. Inslee made it clear that combating the climate crisis would be his first priority as president.
In the first debate, when candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would support reentering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or “Iran deal”), only Booker did not raise his hand. Although he acknowledged it was a “mistake to pull out of that deal,” he insisted he would try to “leverage a better deal.” (He did not elaborate.)
Klobuchar insisted that any military action against Iran should go before the Congress for approval. She also blamed Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA for “giv[ing] unlimited leverage to China and Russia.”
Gabbard, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand made clear their total opposition to a war in Iran, with Gabbard and Sanders insisting such a war would be far worse than the war in Iraq, leading to a regional disaster with much greater loss of life.
Gabbard, Sanders, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke all blamed Trump’s policies for making a war with Iran more likely, with Gabbard criticizing Trump’s “chickenhawk cabinet” — and specifically calling out Mike Pompeo and John Bolton.
When asked what she considered the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States, Klobuchar’s answer included “what’s going [on] in the Mideast with Iran.” When Gillibrand was asked which country she would most like to “reset” the US relationship with, she said it should be Iran, in order “to stabilize the Middle East and make sure we do not start an unwanted, never-ending war.”
Mexico and Central America
Both Ryan and Warren mentioned the flight of American jobs to Mexico and the need for an “industrial policy” focused on domestic manufacturing.
Castro was the only candidate to explicitly call for an end to Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy, which requires asylum-seekers whose port of entry is on the US-Mexico border to remain in Mexico as their asylum claims are processed.
Given the humanitarian crisis at the border, engineered in part by Trump’s own actions, numerous candidates discussed factors pushing people to leave Central American countries. Four candidates (Castro, Booker, O’Rourke, and Biden) called for investing in the Central American countries most asylum-seekers come from. Castro called for a “Marshall Plan for Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador,” and Biden called for a “surge immediately [of] billions of dollars’ worth of help to the region.” Both Booker and Castro criticized Trump’s decision to cut aid to Central American countries.
Only author Marianne Williamson talked about “American foreign policy in Latin America and how we might have in the last few decades contributed” to the situation — although she ran out of time before she could elaborate.
Ryan, Warren, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, Yang, Buttigieg, and Hickenlooper mentioned China in connection to the outsourcing of jobs and the need to reform US trade policies. Yang cited Chinese “pirating” of US intellectual property as a major problem. Hickenlooper likewise criticized China’s “cheating and stealing.” Buttigieg and Yang both critiqued Trump’s tariffs against China as counterproductive.
Delaney, Klobuchar, Castro, and Ryan cited China as either the greatest, or one of the greatest, geopolitical threats the US faces. Hickenlooper and Yang said the US relationship with China was the most important to reset, so that the US and China can cooperate on global challenges like climate change, artificial intelligence, pandemics, and curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
O’Rourke accused Vladimir Putin of “attack[ing] and invad[ing] our democracy.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that Russia was the US’s top geopolitical threat, for the same reason. Bennet called Russia “the biggest threat to our national security...because of what they’ve done with our election.” Klobuchar also mentioned Russian electoral interference, as did Yang and Harris. California Congressman Eric Swalwell insisted the US must “brea[k] up with Russia and mak[e] up with NATO.”
O’Rourke, Harris, and Bennet all criticized Trump’s haphazard negotiations with North Korea, with Harris criticizing Trump for “embrac[ing] Kim Jong Un, a dictator, for the sake of a photo op.” Bennet called out Trump for failing to criticize North Korea and Russia while picking fights with US allies.
Yang called for cooperation with China to improve the situation with North Korea, the closest any Democratic candidate came to putting forward a strategy for peace and denuclearization in the Korean peninsula.
Two candidates called for pulling US troops out of Afghanistan: Gabbard and Biden. Gabbard and Ryan got in a heated exchange over this issue when Ryan insisted that the US should “have some presence” in Afghanistan in order to prevent “bigger, bolder terrorist acts.” Gabbard argued that there was no reason to think the US would ever be able to “squash” the Taliban, and so the only responsible thing to do — given the financial and human costs of the war — was to pull out. She took Ryan to task for his suggestion that the Taliban was responsible for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, reminding him that al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Saudi Arabia and Yemen
Two candidates mentioned Saudi Arabia: Gabbard, in connection with their alleged “protect[ion]” of al-Qaeda, and Sanders, in connection with his opposition to US support for “the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which is the most horrific humanitarian disaster on Earth.” Sanders was the only candidate to mention Yemen.
Europe, NATO, and Other Allies
When asked which relationship, as president, they would prioritize for a reset, Biden, Harris, and Swalwell all named NATO. Williamson said she most wanted a reset with “European leaders.” Bennet said he would prioritize a reset with “our European allies” — as well as Latin American countries, so that the US can work with them to alleviate the refugee crisis. Buttigieg argued that “our relationship with the entire world needs to change,” but specifically called for a reset with “our most important allies.”
Bennet argued that we must “restore the relationships that [Trump]’s destroyed with our allies, [and] not just in Europe” — specifically mentioning Germany and Japan. Klobuchar criticized Trump’s departure from the JCPOA as not “stand[ing] with our allies.” O’Rourke argued that any intervention to curb crimes against humanity should be “undertaken with allies and partners and friends.” Biden argued that we should never conduct an antiterrorism campaign “alone,” but in cooperation with “our alliances.”
War Powers Act
De Blasio and Sanders were the only candidates to mention the War Powers Act. De Blasio argued that, even in cases of crimes against humanity, the US military should not intervene in the absence of congressional authorization under the War Powers Act. Sanders mentioned that he “helped lead the effort for the first time to utilize the War Powers Act,” in order to end US backing for Saudi atrocities in Yemen.
Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)
Biden said he would eliminate “the AUMF,” but also said he would “make sure that it could only be used for what its intent was, and that is to go after terrorists.” Since both the 2001 AUMF authorizing the “War on Terror” and the 2002 AUMF authorizing the invasion of Iraq remain operative, he may be implying that we should repeal only the Iraq AUMF and leave the War on Terror AUMF in place, while curtailing its overuse. However, his meaning was not clear. It is also surprising that, as the only person on stage who voted for both authorizations, he would also be the only one to propose repeal (of at least one).
When asked what was the most important global relationship for the US to reset, Sanders said it was the US relationship with the United Nations, so that “we can solve conflicts without war, but with diplomacy.” He was the only candidate to mention any intergovernmental organization besides NATO.
Terrorism was hardly mentioned in the debates — a far cry from the degree of emphasis on this issue in the last two decades of US politics. Ryan mentioned the threat of terrorism during his exchange with Gabbard on Afghanistan, with Gabbard mentioning Saudi Arabia’s alleged support for al-Qaeda. Gillibrand argued that Trump’s funding for private detention centers had diverted funds from fighting “cross-border terrorism,” and Biden insisted his experience best prepared him for building the kind of cooperation that the United States needs to combat international terrorism.
What Was Left Out
Economic sanctions were not mentioned in the debates, nor was there mention of Cuba, where Trump has rolled back the Obama administration’s easing of restrictions. Brazil was not discussed, where Trump has embraced the far-right President Bolsonaro; nor Venezuela, where Trump has backed regime change by recognizing a parallel government and imposing sanctions that have led to the deaths of up to 40,000 people.
There was no mention of Egypt, where Trump has praised the extraordinarily brutal Sisi dictatorship; nor Libya, where Trump has supported the warlord Khalifa Haftar in that country’s ongoing civil war; nor Syria, where Trump has engaged in an illegal bombing campaign; nor Israel/Palestine, where Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, cut off humanitarian aid to Palestinians, supported the annexation of the Golan Heights, and proposed a “peace deal” that seems to dial back the US’s longstanding commitment to a two-state solution.
Although there was a question on “crimes against humanity” and whether the US has a “responsibility to protect” (as it is known in foreign policy circles), the debate sidestepped mention of most countries ― including various US allies such as Colombia and the Philippines ― where such atrocities are happening, not in some hypothetical future, but in the present.
Despite a strong focus on immigration, no candidate mentioned the threatened tariffs against Mexico — designed, in an unprecedented fashion, as retaliation for Mexico’s (supposed) failure to stop asylum-seekers from reaching the US-Mexico border. Similarly, despite Trump’s heavy emphasis on trade in his 2016 campaign, no candidate said whether they would support the new NAFTA (the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA).
Jen Kirby at Vox argues that foreign policy was the “loser” of the Democratic debates. Kirby is right to say that many candidates’ answers “lacked substance.” However, it appears that the Trump administration’s unconventional approach to international relations means that foreign policy is very much up for discussion in 2020.
Given that foreign policy is an area where US presidents have great, unencumbered executive power, it is important that presidential candidates address a much wider range of foreign policy issues facing the country — and that they are pressed for specifics — so that voters can better understand where the real differences among them lie.
If voters are to make an informed choice for their next commander in chief, they need a real foreign policy debate.