Foreign affairs have been low on the agenda for most of the Democratic candidates, barely warranting a mention in interviews or on the campaign trail. It’s easy to understand why: Last year, an NBC News poll found that only 11 per cent of voters ranked foreign policy as a primary concern, and as FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich pointed out last month, “Foreign policy doesn’t usually affect elections.”
One single exchange between Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar over the latter’s inability to name the President of Mexico was pretty much the closest the candidates came to debating foreign policy in Nevada this week. Rightwing websites were quick to criticize the glaring omission, with a Breitbart headline screaming “Democrats skip foreign policy, national security at Nevada debate” and the Washington Examiner lamenting the “woeful neglect” of foreign policy.
It’s easy for progressives to dismiss out of hand these undeniably biased websites, but we do so at our own peril. The fact is that the Washington Examiner is right. It is “woeful neglect” not to discuss foreign policy and national security, and Democrats have been ignoring the issue for far too long.
These are not esoteric issues. My family understands that better than most. This week I found out my brother, a career soldier, will soon be deploying to the Korean peninsula. It is his fourth international deployment, including a tour each in Iraq and Afghanistan. He and millions of service members like him have been on the front lines of American foreign policy since 2004 — in my brother’s case, quite literally.
When we talk about kitchen table issues, we so often mean the economy and healthcare and education. But for military families especially, foreign policy has a direct impact on their everyday lives.
And these issues don’t just affect service members. Every American feels the consequences of foreign policy in some way—whether it’s Central American refugees in their community, rising prices at the gas pump, or even just avoiding “fake news” on social media—and every American deserves to hear where the candidates stand on them. They are also issues—unlike healthcare and tax reform—which are almost exclusively the purview of the President. Foreign policy is the one area where the Executive Branch has almost endless power and authority.
Without meaning to sound alarmist, the world is a dangerous place. The spread of coronavirus specifically and pandemics generally are a real threat to national security and global stability. Tensions in the Middle East are higher than they’ve been in years (thanks in no small part to Donald Trump). Russia continues to be emboldened in its disinformation campaigns, to exert influence in Syria and the Balkans and is, last I checked, still occupying part of Ukraine in Crimea. China is ascendant, slowly but surely garnering influence throughout Asia while endeavoring in what can only be called neocolonialism in Africa. The Northern Triangle — a mess of America’s own making — is still struggling with corruption and violence, while political instability in Latin America continues to be cause for ever greater concern. Oh, and Australia is literally on fire, reminding us the climate crisis is far from being solved.
The Democratic candidates have a wide array of views on this. Bernie Sanders would follow the path of Donald Trump and forsake America’s traditional role as “global cop,” shrinking the size of the military and reducing American intervention in geopolitical affairs. Pete Buttigieg would take a more active role in combating authoritarianism and confronting Chinese ambitions and aggressions. The rest of the candidates fall somewhere in between.
This matters immensely, because America stands at a crossroads. Donald Trump rode a wave of isolationist sentiment into the White House. He touts his “America First” policy as a retreat from the active role the United States has played on the world stage since the end of the Second World War. This trend towards inaction did not begin with Trump, though. The Washington Post reported as early as 2013 that isolationist sentiment is at a 50-year high. Whoever succeeds Donald Trump, whether in 2021 or 2025 (and God, let us hope it is 2021) will have to decide whether to chart the same course of managed decline or to try to ensure the Pax Americana — a Latin phrase meaning “American peace” which refers to the relative period of global stability overseen by the United States — continues into the 21st century.
Cards on the table, I think it should. America has made a lot of mistakes around the world, no doubt, but on the whole has been an immeasurable force for good. While the days of unipolarity are unquestionably behind us, there is still a role for American power — soft and hard — and American influence to play in international politics and global security.
To abdicate that role would cause a massive shift in global power, an upending of the chessboard the likes of which we haven’t seen since at least the disintegration of the British Empire. And while there’s a lot to criticize about empire, even the American empire, the thought of China and Russia filling the power vacuum (as Russia has done in Syria and China in Sri Lanka and the Horn of Africa) should give pause to even the most ardent isolationist, right or left.
I am but one voter, and Democrats may decide that isolationism and managed decline is the order of the day. They can only credibly determine that, though, after a robust debate about our country’s role in the world has occurred. As of now the Democratic candidates have not had that debate. Indeed, they have barely articulated a position, let alone philosophy, on what America’s role in the world ought to be.
Climate change, pandemics, and a general malaise among the electorate following twenty years of endless war continue to change America’s relationship with the international community. We have a straightforward choice between isolationism and continued global influence. We need to acknowledge that, and so do the candidates.
It’s hard to think of a more consequential policy than what you believe America’s place in the world should be. Anyone seeking to be president ought to be talking about it ad nauseum. Yet the moderators at Wednesday’s debate couldn’t be bothered to ask about it, and the Democratic candidates didn’t even try to mention it.
That’s utterly unacceptable, because the United States stands at a crucial period in its history, one unlike any moment since 1945. Our country must soon decide not only how it plans to lead the world in the 21st century, but if it will lead at all. If that’s not worth debating, I don’t know what is.