The striking thing about the 2020 Democrats to date is the degree to which their foreign policy visions are rooted in their domestic policy visions. Both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders believe that the system is broken and that foreign policy should flow from a vision of remaking America’s domestic compacts in political economy. That leads to arguments about scaling back military spending and trying to make trade policy more fair. Whether this works is another question entirely, but it’s consistent.
Similarly, Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden are running on more restorationist platforms. Although both have plans for change, they tend to stress the need for America to heal after the Trump years. Unsurprisingly, their foreign policies look a lot like returning to the pre-Trump status quo — a status quo that has become even more popular during the Age of Trump, by the way!
This time is different, however, because in the run-up to this debate, President Trump’s moves against Iran put foreign policy front and center. Everyone knew that the candidates would be asked specific questions about Iran, terrorism and other foreign policy issues.
So how did they do? Well, on the one hand, here is Kyle Kondik’s assessment:
A striking part of this extended foreign policy/trade discussion is that the actual differences between Trump and the Democrats are more on style than substance. Skepticism of overseas interventions and of free trade.— Kyle Kondik (@kkondik) January 15, 2020
That was partially true. On trade, when Sanders talked about using the power of the federal government to force firms not to engage in outsourcing, he sounded an awful lot like Trump, and an awful lot out of date on the question of outsourcing. And when Warren talked about generals claiming that they’ve turned the corner in Afghanistan so many times, “we’re going in circles,” it was a pithier version of Trump.
That said, there were some commonalities in the Democratic answers that were mildly reassuring. It was interesting to hear Biden and Sanders say that they made mistakes in their votes for Iraq and Afghanistan. Leaders acknowledging mistakes is a good thing! It’s much better than ludicrous claims of infallibility. Both Sanders and Warren stressed the need for multilateral solutions to Iran and climate change; Biden talked about the need to restore U.S. alliances. Buttigieg had the best foreign policy answer of the night in calling for an end to the current AUMF and for Congress to take some responsibility in foreign policy — a point that Biden agreed on.
To the extent that it matters, the tenor of the foreign policy debate likely helped Biden, since he is the most trusted on this issue by both the elite and mass public. That said, a recent Morning Consult survey shows that “voters consider health care and climate change the two most important issues in the race,” and Sanders is more trusted on those issues. So I suspect the post-debate landscape will resemble the pre-debate landscape.
The good news is that every candidate on the stage sounded better than Trump in describing their foreign policy worldview. The better news is that candidates largely avoided the trap of making specific policy promises that will not age well. Axios’s Zachary Basu described the foreign policy portion of the debate as “tame but substantive.” After four years of counterproductive disruption, that sounds awfully compelling.