Buttigieg appeared to have taken inspiration from the best of center-left foreign policy thinking and made it his own. The recent Center for American Progress report’s findings seemed to be incorporated throughout the speech: An emphasis on responsible leadership, but use of force only as a last resort; a commitment to alliances that make us stronger; a connection between American values and prosperity; and our role in the world. He structured his speech around the three key components of his foreign policy thinking — our values, our interests and our alliances.
He is no left-wing isolationist. He said quite plainly that “the world needs America more than ever,” and while declaring the country in need of a new foreign policy, he showed he has smartly sifted through past experience and extracted lessons both good and bad. He condemned the Iraq War but stated forcefully this should not to discredit acting with force. Rather the United States should set a high bar — “exceedingly” high when we act alone — and to have a plan for post-fighting. He provided tight restraints on the use of force: Our our core interests must be at stake and there must be no alternative. He called this the difference between “Normandy and Saigon.” However, the hard work, as he surely knows, comes in dozens of situations in between.
Buttigieg outlined a number of key concepts: “End” long wars (how, he did not say), combat the rise of authoritarianism, treat climate change as an existential threat, update international institutions and bring ordinary citizens into the debate.
He briefly (sometimes with humor) and harshly criticized President Trump’s foreign policy but indirectly warned his Democratic competitors, “It’s not enough to say you won’t conduct foreign policy by tweet.”
His best passages came in his call for Congress to step up to the plate, no longer relying on the authorization for use of military force approved after 9/11, but to make decisions and exercise oversight; in an explanation of the connection between our values and our national interests; and in a clear description of how our conduct at home (functional government, support for a free press, a robust economy) gives us credibility and strength abroad.
On nuclear nonproliferation, Buttigieg promised to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal (though under what conditions he didn’t say), advised he wouldn’t be “sending love letters with a brutal dictator,” and suggested something less than North Korea’s complete denuclearization — perhaps a step-by-step process — could be in order. (For now, he stressed that sanctions should remain in place.)
Buttigieg sneered at Trump’s Russia policy, saying it is not a “real estate deal.” He promised diplomatic, economic and cyber responses to interference with our elections and gave full-throated support to NATO.
He also stressed the need to expand, not cut, aid to unstable areas (e.g., Central America), and to develop a China policy that allows cooperation on some issues, but staunch defense of our interests without a “tit-for-tat” trade war.
He raised domestic terrorism to a high priority, noting that more Americans had been killed by right-wing extremists than by Islamist terrorists over the last decade. (He also sneaked in praise for the 38-year-old prime minister of New Zealand, who responded so effectively to the mass shootings at two Christchurch mosques in March).
As one might expect, Buttigieg spent considerable time on climate change, urging that we not only rejoin the Paris agreement, but also step up efforts at home and internationally to address the issue, which has real consequences at home in the form of extreme weather.
He was restrained but critical on Israel. He reaffirmed our support for the Jewish state as an “essential tenet” of U.S. foreign policy, but maintained that one can be a good friend of Israel yet disagree with the positions of its “right-wing government,” as he described it. He forcefully reaffirmed a two-state solution and warned (vaguely) that if Israel annexed the West Bank, U.S. taxpayers “won’t foot the bill."
On defense spending, he adopted a different approach from those on the left counseling for cuts in national security. Instead, he spoke of the need to reorient defense dollars for contemporary challenges such as cyberwarfare.
It is perhaps unfair to nitpick a serious, long and reasoned speech on foreign policy when so many other candidates have refused to provide more than an applause line. Sure, it was not without problems. Some topics — such as doing away with the electoral college — did not need to be thrown into a foreign policy speech. “Ending long wars” is easier said than done. However, this is a mature, informed and clear-eyed candidate who is not swept away by left-wing isolationism.
A candidate who can identify, not to mention analyze, the rise of illiberal regimes as a threat to our interests and can find Sudan and Algeria on the map, let alone speak intelligently about them, deserves praise. A candidate willing to explain that immigration is a national security issue because we want and need the talent of those seeking to come here to help innovate and contribute to the economy should get credit. A Democrat forcefully defending the good that the United States does in the world deserves encouragement. He set a high bar for other candidates. Let’s see how they match up.