Commentary / World

Democratic candidates aim to change U.S. foreign policy

With the Iowa caucuses of Feb. 3, the New Hampshire primary of Feb. 11 and the Nevada primary last Saturday behind us, the U.S. presidential election campaign now shifts its attention to the primary in South Carolina next Saturday, followed by Super Tuesday on March 3, when 14 states, Americans living abroad and America Samoa will vote.

Although foreign policy has not played a prominent role so far in the nine nationally televised debates among the Democratic candidates, it is almost certain to be an issue in the general election. This is especially so since the Trump administration’s “America First” policy has led to a fundamental shift away from the so-called liberal international order pursued by both Republican and Democratic administrations since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.

This America First policy includes: (1) a unilateral or bilateral, rather than multilateral, approach toward foreign countries; (2) an emphasis on “free, fair and reciprocal” economic relations; (3) a demonization of bilateral trade imbalances; (4) a proclivity to use trade-restrictive (e.g., tariffs) rather than trade-expansive (e.g., market-opening) measures; (5) a short-term transactional approach that emphasizes “deals” rather than long-term relationships; (6) de-emphasizing alliances; (7) minimizing human rights; (8) an explicit linking of national security and trade; (9) pressuring allies to pay more for their defense; and (10) a preference for the United States to be “unpredictable” in foreign affairs.

These changes are a direct reflection of Trump’s world view, which he holds with uncompromising confidence. In accepting the Republican presidential nomination in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 21, 2016, he averred, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”

And when asked on Fox News on Nov. 2, 2017, whether it was a problem to have so many vacancies in senior positions at the Department of State, Trump replied: “Let me tell you, the one that matters is me, I’m the only one that matters because when it comes to it that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that, you’ve seen it strongly.”

The Democratic candidates differ in their approaches to foreign policy. But one of them, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, in her speech excoriating Trump’s foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on Dec. 11, pledged that as president, she would (1) restore American leadership in the world; (2) repair America’s alliances; (3) rejoin international agreements and institutions; (4) respond effectively to threats and challenges; and (5) reassert American values.

These are broad enough to encompass the approach that many of the Democratic candidates would pursue in their foreign policy if they were elected president. But the six candidates who have a serious chance of winning the nomination of their party (former Vice President Joe Biden, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren) can broadly be categorized into three groups when it comes to their foreign policy.

The first group, Sanders and Warren, would likely focus most of their attention on domestic policy and not devote as much attention to foreign relations except when it directly impinges on the welfare of American workers. Even here, there are differences between the two: Warren supported the passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement in the Senate, whereas Sanders opposed it, arguing that its provisions do not adequately protect the rights of American workers. But it is clear that neither would seriously consider the U.S. joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The second group, Biden and Bloomberg, would likely attempt to restore America’s role in the world pre-2017. Biden’s experience as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president will pull him toward wanting to replicate what he sees as an essentially successful American role as leader of the liberal international order pre-Trump. Having built a successful global business empire, Bloomberg would also want to restore a business-friendly open international environment and, like Biden, would be much less hawkish than Sanders or Warren in his approach toward China. This second group may be receptive to the U.S. joining the TPP.

The third group, Klobuchar and Buttigieg, would likely be more internationalist than Sanders or Warren but more receptive to new ideas, approaches and institutions than the traditionalists such as Biden or Bloomberg. The third group would favor American engagement with the world but with a greater recognition of the limits of America’s power and the need to invest in domestic infrastructure — whether in education, housing, transportation, or high-tech research and development — to be globally competitive. They may consider joining the TPP, but only if the U.S. would derive clear benefits from it.

The Trump administration has obviously upended America’s traditional role in the postwar world. Democrats have no shortage of issues on which to criticize Trump for his handling of foreign policy — whether it is Russia, Ukraine, the Arab world, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, China, North Korea, Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, NATO, and the denigration and subversion of the State Department and professional diplomats. The question is to what extent Democrats can offer an alternative vision of America’s role in the world that resonates with American voters.

Ultimately, however, despite concerns by other countries about how the outcome of the presidential election may affect America’s role in the world, foreign affairs is not a top priority for most Americans. In a poll taken in September, FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos asked Democratic voters what issue was most important to them. Foreign affairs ranked 15th, behind such domestic concerns as health care, the economy, climate change, gun control, immigration, education, racism and the composition of the Supreme Court.

No wonder why so many foreigners would like to vote in the U.S. election — and some, realizing this is impossible, may be tempted to find other means to try to influence the outcome.

Glen S. Fukushima is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. He served as deputy assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Japan and China and as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

Coronavirus banner