he 2020 Democratic primary currently boasts one of the most crowded rosters of candidates in electoral history, leading to packed debate stages and worries that style and soundbites will triumph over substance. One of the first policy areas to get lost in the crush of candidates has been foreign policy. With issues like Medicare for all and criminal justice reform dominating discussions, it can be easy to forget that foreign policy is the area in which the president has the greatest influence. In many cases, the White House has unilateral authority to change policy as a result of continuing authorizations of force and the expanded role of executive orders. However, the complexity of foreign policy issues makes them difficult to distill to thirty-second talking points fit for the crowded debate stage. We have compiled a brief guide on where the frontrunners stand on foreign policy issues.
Joe Biden has the highest public profile of any current candidate, which has been both an asset and a liability. Biden has frequently invoked his time as Barack Obama’s Vice President to highlight his long experience with international issues, but he’s also come under fire for his record. The most notable sticking point has been his support for the Iraq War, which many Democratic voters now regard as a mistake. This issue has been thrown into stark relief by the presence of Bernie Sanders, who voted against the war and was one of the strongest voices opposing it. Biden’s trips to Ukraine as Vice President have also become fodder for the Republican party, as ties between his son and Ukrainian firms have been used to level accusations of nepotism.
Much of Biden’s rhetoric around foreign affairs has been focused on criticizing what he called “the manufactured crises of this administration” and promising to return to “purposeful and inspiring” foreign policy in the vein of both Republican and Democratic predecessors. However, his campaign has put forward few concrete policy commitments. His website calls for an end to forever wars, but also hedges by calling only for the return of the “vast majority” of troops, leaving the door open for continuing presence along the lines of that maintained by the Obama and Trump administrations. His website also contains language suggesting that he would either maintain or expand the current military budget, which positions him as hawkish in comparison to the other two frontrunners, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
On trade, Joe Biden has emphasized international cooperation and the benefits of free trade, as well as the costs of ceding the international arena to Chinese influence. He has stated that he supported the TPP, despite its imperfections.
Elizabeth Warren’s campaign has so far struck a highly critical tone in regard to foreign intervention, emphasizing the high cost of military commitments and proposing an alternative strategy that focuses on exerting economic power to achieve policy goals. Warren has also been critical of past trade deals, including NAFTA and TPP, saying they sold out American workers to the benefit of multinational corporations and countries with poor labor and environmental standards. Warren has proposed a plan that would see the renegotiation of trade agreements to seek both free trade and the enforcement of higher labor and environmental standards using the leverage of America’s markets.
Warren’s campaign has called, like most of the Democratic candidates, to bring troops home. Contrasting with centrist candidates such as Biden, however, she has also called explicitly for cuts to military spending, specifically targeting “programs [which] merely line the pockets of defense contractors”. Warren has also signaled that she would rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, but only if Iran returned to meeting its obligations first.
Bernie Sanders, along with Joe Biden, has one of the longest records of the current Democratic field, however, his has largely been viewed as unambiguously positive by his supporters, and as a sign of his consistency. His current platform centers on economic justice as the foundation for democracy, both domestically and around the globe.
Sanders has sometimes been described as a protectionist regarding trade, having opposed NAFTA, TPP, and the PNTR, which in the early 2000’s normalized trade relations with China. His campaign has emphasized that he supports “fair trade” (as opposed to free trade) which would see labor standards written into every trade agreement the United States signs. He has also taken a strong position on outsourcing and overseas corporate tax havens, citing them as primary drivers of manufacturing decline.
Sanders has a strong record of opposition to military intervention, most notably including his opposition to the Iraq War, support for which has been a point of criticism leveled against fellow frontrunner Joe Biden. His platform includes an end to overseas wars, including notably a call to repeal the authorization of force, which has been used by both the Obama and Trump administrations to justify continuing interventions. Additionally, he’s strongly supported rejoining the JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal.
Pete Buttigieg has never held national office, a fact that has been a major point of criticism of his campaign. Like many of his fellow candidates, Buttigieg has called for an end to forever wars, specifically citing his experience as a soldier in Afghanistan. Outside of this, however, Buttigieg has offered few concrete positions, instead focusing on the need to “restore American credibility” after the Trump administration.
The economic policy section on Buttigieg’s website contains no mention of trade, and in interviews he has avoided taking any position on the issue. One place where Buttigieg has taken a definite stance is on the Iran Nuclear deal, which he described as “as close to the real ‘art of the deal’ as diplomatic achievements get”. Overall, foreign policy is seen as a weak point for the Buttigieg campaign, and one that will be difficult to overcome given his lack of experience.
Kamala Harris has generally staked out an internationalist/centrist position, with few policies that distinguish her from the majority of the field. Her platform has been generally anti-protectionist, while still calling for greater involvement of labor and environmental groups in negotiations. Notably, she has stated that she would seek a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan contingent on a negotiated political solution, distinguishing her from more stridently anti-interventionist rivals.
Gabbard drew attention early into her candidacy when she outlined a commitment to non-intervention that drew criticism for implied support of Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad. Since then, her campaign has been dogged by accusations of sympathy for autocrats, including a highly public feud with Hillary Clinton, which involved unfounded accusations that Gabbard was a Russian asset.
Andrew Yang, a former Silicon Valley executive, has run a campaign focused on technocratic solutions to economic issues, including his centerpiece proposal for Universal Basic Income (UBI). His position on trade has also distinguished him from his rivals, as he calls for a border adjustment tax and Value Added Tax (VAT) to ease the impact of automation, which he identifies as a greater contributor to manufacturing decline than trade.