South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has had an excellent 2019. Despite a political résumé that primarily consists of running a city with barely more than 100,000 people, he has caught the eye of Main Street and Wall Street alike. He has been quite good in the televised town hall format that has dominated the early stages of the 2020 presidential race. Along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, he has had some solid polling momentum in recent weeks. He’s been doing well enough to attract the ire of the hard left, which one could argue is a compliment of sorts. Even if he does not earn the nomination, Buttigieg has earned the attention of Democrats everywhere.
Buttigieg has one other thing in common with Warren (and Sen. Bernie Sanders): he takes foreign policy pretty seriously. He has assembled an impressive roster of young foreign policy advisers. He also gave a significant foreign policy speech last week at Indiana University. The speech has won plaudits from the expected quarters.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts admires anyone willing to ignore the fact that most voters do not care about foreign policy and show that they care about foreign policy. I graded Warren’s foreign policy vision when it came out, and it only seems fair to do the same to Buttigieg.
This is a good, meaty speech. You wisely open up with a gesture of bipartisanship by praising Richard Lugar. You also cleverly lower expectations by declaring, “I do not aspire to deliver a full Buttigieg Doctrine today.” On the whole, you and your team should be proud, you’ve put in some good work here. But there is a lot more work to do in the future.
Let’s focus on the strengths first. Your speech does two things exceptionally well. You correctly list President Trump’s foreign policy sins: “This administration has embraced and emboldened autocrats, while alienating democracies and allies around the globe. It has undermined America’s alliances, partnerships and treaties. It has employed tariffs as tantrums, provoked trade wars while disinvesting in the education, health care and infrastructure fundamental to our nation’s long-term strength.”
You also manage to pull off quite the feat by tying America’s values to its interests without suggesting greater intervention in world affairs. This is a phenomenally difficult tightrope to walk. Most foreign policy speeches that urge greater restraint than the status quo reference John Quincy Adams and “shining city on a hill” and then move on. But this speech does way more than that, taking care to distinguish the benefits from promoting democratic values from, you know, invading Iraq. It also explains precisely how promoting American values serves America’s long-term interests.
Props to your foreign policy team, because this is also a wonk speech. You discuss the need to update the AUMF, the necessity of prioritizing climate change and some fine-tuned distinctions on how to approach North Korea and Israel. Then there’s this paragraph, which will feel like an espresso shot to every aspiring foreign policy wonk
A foreign policy that serves our people in their daily lives can best be made by government officials who represent the full diversity of our people. For far too long, our national security establishment has not reflected this diversity. So we must work to upgrade our hiring practices to promote both diversity and excellence. And no matter where they come from, our finest minds should find it as attractive and compelling to serve in Foggy Bottom, or USAID or Langley as it is to work on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley. We should establish flexible career paths for civilians working in defense, diplomacy and intelligence, with benefits appropriate for a generation that will change professions more often than my parents’ generation changed job titles.
This will be sorely needed after four years of Donald Trump intentionally and unintentionally eviscerating the foreign policy machinery.
That said, I agree with Thomas Wright about the speech’s weaknesses. You talked a lot about “involving citizens across America in a meaningful conversation about how foreign policy and national security concern their communities.” You failed, however, to make the connection between the global economy and kitchen-table issues. This is curious, since it would seem to be an obvious connection, and one where you might have a different perspective than, say, Donald Trump or Elizabeth Warren.
Similarly, you identify China as a threat without giving much in the way of guidance about what you would do about it. You say we “will not be able to meet this challenge by sticking to a 20th-century strategy.” That sounds Obama-esque, and I don’t mean that in the good way, I mean you need to offer some more specifics about how to deal with that rising power.
This is some good, solid work. You will have to work harder, however, to earn a higher mark.