As we’ve noted, most of the Democratic presidential contenders seem allergic to foreign policy issues. They rarely bring them up, and when they do get a rare question on foreign policy, they are prone to give a superficial answer (e.g., I won’t negotiate by tweet). When a Democrat handles foreign policy adeptly, it’s worth taking notice.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee appeared at a CNN town hall Wednesday night. Although he’s running primarily on climate change, one of the best-kept secrets of the race is that other than former vice president Joe Biden, Inslee has more executive experience and more accomplishments (from minimum wage to green investment) than just about anyone in the race. (With Washington having sued President Trump over the Muslim ban, he also knows something about immigration.)

When he was asked about how he’d restore America’s image in the world, he first gave a cogent critique of Trump’s failings. "He has a worldview … of thinking that for him to win, somebody else has to lose,” Inslee said. “And I really believe he extends that to our international policies.” Inslee continued, “So the only way he believes America can succeed is if another country somehow is subjugated or loses some treaty right. … That’s a dangerous policy. It has damaged us in our international relations.”

As examples he pointed to Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal and from the Paris accord. He noted that Trump wants China and India to do more in combating climate change, However, China and India aren’t going to do more, Inslee argued, if “we do less.”

He also made an important point about the effects of climate change. He said he had talked to military leaders who are alarmed that climate change will increase mass migrations and act as a destabilizing factor. He’s right about that. The Trump administration’s Fourth National Climate Assessment explained:

The risks climate change may hold for national security more broadly are connected to the relationships between climate-related stresses on societies and conflict. Direct linkages between climate-related stress and conflict are unclear, but climate variability has been shown to affect conflict through intermediate processes, including resource competition, commodity price shocks, and food insecurity. The potential for conflict increases where there is a history of civil violence, conflict elsewhere in the region, low GDP or economic growth, economic shocks, weak governance, and lack of access to basic needs. For example, droughts around the world in 2010 contributed to a doubling of global wheat prices in 2011 and a tripling of bread prices in Egypt. This and other factors, including national trade policy and poverty, contributed to the civil unrest that ultimately resulted in the 2011 Egyptian revolution. While the 2010 droughts were not the sole cause of the revolution, they contributed to destabilization of an already unstable region. …
Human migration is another potential national security issue. Extreme weather events can in some cases result in population displacement. For example, in 1999 the United States granted Temporary Protected Status to 57,000 Honduran and 2,550 Nicaraguan nationals in response to Hurricane Mitch. In 2013, more than 4 million people were internally displaced by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and the United States committed 13,400 military personnel to the relief effort. Six months after Typhoon Haiyan, more than 200,000 people remained without adequate shelter. While neither Hurricane Mitch nor Typhoon Haiyan was solely attributable to climate change, tropical cyclones are projected to increase in intensity, which would increase the risk of forced migration. Slower changes, including sea level rise and reduced agricultural productivity related to changes in temperature and precipitation patterns, could also affect migration patterns.

The irony — or tragedy — is great: Trump, who is obsessed with keeping foreigners out or throwing those here out, won’t even recognize an underlying cause of migration, climate change, that will increase unless we take concerted action. If we don’t, future chaotic mass migrations may make today’s border situation look orderly.

Inslee did a solid job then of responding to a foreign policy inquiry. Other presidential contenders should extract three basic points from his performance.

First, Trump is making us weaker because he doesn’t understand how the world operates and is in denial about major threats. Sure, he’s a rotten human being, but the real problem with his defective personality and inability to learn is that he is rendered unfit to do his job. Chaos, calamity and conflict result.

Second, Trump’s actions may prompt enemies to lash out in provocative ways. By the same token, Trump’s zero-sum game means he is prone to alienate our closest allies. They can’t win also, in Trump’s mind. He sees us as “losers” in the Western alliance rather than both the United States and NATO (or other treaty partners) as winners. That’s a recipe for more conflict and fewer friends.

Third, candidates have to connect foreign policy to voters’ ordinary lives. If they are concerned about border security, they better look for a president who can cooperate with others and also seek to address the underlying causes of mass migration. Trump doesn’t understand basic trade concepts, so he involves us in a trade war that harms farmers’ livelihood. The best argument for American leadership and involvement in the world is that it gives us a measure of control over our own destiny. We can be passive victims trying to hide from the world or we can shape events to our advantage.

In sum, serious thinking about the world is a requirement of the job. If candidates want to seem competent, prepared to stand up to Trump and provide reassurance to voters looking for a return to some normalcy, they’re going to have to become more proficient in foreign policy. They should start studying up before the first debate.

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