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2020

The Myth of the Missing Foreign Policy Debate

Since the presidential primary began, foreign policy experts have issued endless warnings about the Democratic candidates’ collective failure to make foreign policy central to the 2020 election. Their arguments have helped ossify a conventional wisdom in Washington’s pundit class that the candidates are ignoring foreign policy or lack the experience necessary to put together real foreign policy platforms. 

But few have questioned whether the conventional wisdom is accurate, and even fewer have bothered to examine what candidates have actually said about foreign policy.

So we decided to do it for them. 

Our team of researchers found not only that Democratic candidates regularly discuss national security and foreign policy, they weaved those issues into a larger argument about why Donald Trump should not be re-elected as president. The paper trail here extends beyond answers to questionnaires from groups like Amnesty International and the Council on Foreign Relations. In speeches, town halls, and interviews, candidates have advanced criticisms of President Trump’s foreign policy as reckless, costly, and unilateral, and several of them have articulated their own visions of American global leadership. 

Seven candidates—Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, John Delaney, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren—have already delivered major addresses outlining alternative approaches to foreign policy, each reflecting their campaigns’ larger ideologies. For example, Bernie Sanders centered his address around countering global authoritarianism and corruption, while John Hickenlooper’s emphasized the role of cybersecurity in international affairs. 

In discussing their other signature issues, candidates have included foreign policy dimensions where appropriate. Jay Inslee’s global warming-centered platform calls for putting climate action “front-and-center” in American foreign policy and outlines how to mobilize a global coalition to address a warming planet. Julian Castro’s immigration platforms calls for a 21st Century Marshall Plan for Central America, which addresses the role regional diplomacy plays in our national security. Overall, two-thirds of the candidates have foreign policy or national security issue sections on their websites. 

Candidates have also fielded a surprising number of questions about foreign policy from voters and reporters on the trail. Our analysis of audience questions from CNN Town Halls revealed that candidates have fielded audience foreign policy and national security questions—on issues like election interference and trade—from audience members with nearly the same frequency (approximately 9 percent) as questions on healthcare (9.5 percent), giving candidates the opportunity to flesh out their views on national security in a public forum. And when we include immigration and climate change—two issues with key nexuses to foreign policy and security—the percentage of audience questions on security issues doubles. 

On the Sunday morning news shows—Meet the Press, Face the Nation, This Week, State of the Union, and Fox News Sunday—presidential candidates discussed foreign policy in six out of ten of their appearances over a six-month period, typically regarding the most pressing international issues of the week. For example, Amy Klobuchar discussed how she would approach North Korea on May 5, while Pete Buttigieg cautioned against escalating tensions with Iran on June 16. 

This depth of foreign policy substance should be no surprise given the robust national security backgrounds many of the 2020 candidates have. Five veterans are running for president, several of them have made foreign policy central to their campaign messages, and nine candidates who have served on congressional armed services and foreign affairs committees have extensive legislative history on issues ranging from defense budgets to sanctions legislation. Joe Biden, who leads the field in most polls, was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before he became Barack Obama’s vice president.

The misplaced belief Democrats have ignored foreign policy became more deeply ingrained last week, when the foreign policy elite erupted online over the short shrift the topic received in the second round of primary debates in Detroit. It’s true the candidates said little about their foreign policies on the debate stage last week, but that reflects more on the moderators than the candidates themselves. 

When given the opportunity to speak on national security in the debates, candidates articulated alternative visions to President Trump’s unilateralist foreign policy. While Democrats did not agree on every single issue—they argued with each other about whether the U.S. should have a no first use of nuclear weapons policy or timetables for withdrawing from Afghanistan—they largely agreed on the need to engage with our allies, enhance the role of diplomacy, and reduce our military footprint abroad. And pre-debate proposals like Joe Biden’s call for a Summit of Democracies and Elizabeth Warren’s plan to revitalize the State Department demonstrate what candidates plan to do to fix the damage Trump has created.

That vision is right in line with what voters say they want from their next president. In a nationwide poll surveying more than 1000 likely voters this spring by National Security Action, a majority of respondents said Trump has made America less safe in the world and is moving relations with other countries in the wrong direction. Respondents ranked their top foreign policy concerns as standing up for American values like human rights and democracy, protecting Americans from terrorist attacks, and keeping America out of war. And further contrary to conventional wisdom, voters point to national security as among their top concerns in the election, second only to health care. 

Moving forward, Democrats certainly need to continue to make the case against Trump’s foreign policy, and articulate their own substantive ideas. But we should find some encouragement in the thoughtful unity against Trump’s foreign policy and the healthy state of debate among the candidates. As for foreign policy watchers, they should take notice of the robust foreign policy debate underway on the trail, rather than parrot a conventional wisdom that falls apart under close examination.

Ashley Wood is an Associate with  National Security Action.

Andrew Hanna is a Fellow with National Security Action.