Most Americans tend to vote on issues closer to home, like health care and the economy, rather than foreign policy. They’re unlikely to pull the lever for a candidate based on that candidate’s worldview or thoughts on grand strategy.
But experts say there are a few key foreign policy issues that have the potential both to resonate with American voters and to expose important ideological rifts among the 2020 Democratic candidates — including trade and the global economy, military and defense spending, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Which means the Democratic debates this week could feature the opening salvos of a brutal ideological fight over the future of American foreign policy.
Trade and the global economy
There will be perhaps no bigger set of issues on foreign policy for the Democratic candidates than trade, at least early on.
In general, traditional candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg have defended America’s decades of free-trade economic policies. After all, seeking free trade and a globalized market has certainly helped US companies sell products abroad, rebuild foreign nations, and make America wealthy.
But more left-wing candidates, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), critique this bipartisan consensus. In their view, US-fueled globalization has only lined the pockets of oligarchs and filled corporations’ coffers while failing to improve the lives of middle-class citizens.
“For decades, the leaders of both parties preached the gospel that free trade was a rising tide that would lift all boats. Great rhetoric — except that the trade deals they negotiated mainly lifted the yachts and threw millions of working Americans overboard to drown,” Warren said during a foreign policy speech at American University in November.
The trade debate among Democrats, then, will likely serve as a proxy fight for whether a candidate is perceived to stand with the middle class or with the ultrarich.
But the candidates will also have to stake ground on key issues, primarily on the future of free-trade deals.
Take the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a big free-trade agreement negotiated during the Obama administration among the US and Latin American and Asian nations — which many viewed as an overt counter to China’s growing economic power.
Biden was vice president while negotiators worked out the accord. It wasn’t ratified by Congress before Biden (and Barack Obama) left office, and President Donald Trump — a free-trade critic — withdrew America’s participation from it only three days into his administration, negating any need for a vote. The remaining countries completed the deal without US involvement months later.
So Biden would certainly be eager to reenter the agreement if elected president, right? Not exactly. Biden’s campaign refuses to confirm whether he supports the TPP. Buttigieg’s campaign hasn’t responded to repeated requests from journalists about his position; Warren and Sanders predictably said they are against joining the deal.
Why the hesitation from Biden? Trump campaigned in part on bashing free trade, and some of his toughest challengers in the Democratic primary are fierce skeptics of it. It’s therefore likely that he sees supporting unrestrained trade as detrimental to his campaign.
The progressives also look askew at the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, between the US, Canada, and Mexico because they say it’s done more harm than good to the American economy. Buttigieg has a similar concern, saying NAFTA led to the loss of many US jobs. Biden, meanwhile, is a full-throated supporter of the deal and voted to implement it in 1993.
The ultimate test, though, may be each candidate’s stance on combating China’s aggressive trade practices. Warren and Sanders agree with Trump that China has hurt the US economy by manipulating currency and stealing American intellectual property. Both candidates have promised to fight back.
“It’s wrong to pretend that China isn’t one of our major economic competitors,” Sanders tweeted in May. “When we are in the White House we will win that competition by fixing our trade policies.” He was actually responding to Biden’s comment in which he scoffed at the assertion that Beijing was truly an economic foe: China is “not competition for us,” the former vice president said.
Buttigieg, meanwhile, considers the China challenge to be more about how its system of “authoritarian capitalism” is a threat to America’s way of life. “We also must be prepared to defend our values, interests, and relationships,” he said in his June foreign policy address.
Which means much of the Democratic foreign policy debate will center on who likes free trade and who doesn’t, with a lot of “How do we deal with China?” sprinkled in.
Some experts believe it’ll be the most bruising foreign policy fight in the campaign’s earliest days. But, they add, it’s surprising that there hasn’t been more discussion about it yet.
“To me the key storyline so far is the relative silence on economics,” says Heather Hurlburt, a US foreign policy expert at the New America think tank in Washington, DC.
“Warren and Sanders are trying to tug thinking on international issues around to an economics-first perspective, and the more centrist candidates just haven’t responded,” she continues. “The party is going to need to have another set of ideas around how economic and security policy connect.”
Military and defense
Every Democratic candidate is likely to call for military restraint and an end to the yearslong war in Afghanistan and other military engagements around the world. The Democratic base (and many Trump supporters) is tired of the US fighting in the Middle East, Central Asia, and elsewhere.
But the US president is also the military’s commander in chief, meaning candidates vying for that position must tussle over how they would oversee America’s armed forces.
The likeliest fight will be on a deceivingly simple question: How much should the US spend on its military?
For Sanders and Warren, the answer is simple: a lot less. They note that the US spends vastly more on defense than many nations combined, despite having few clear successes to show for it in recent decades. Reducing the military’s war chest, they say, would free up billions to spend on health care, education, and other areas while still leaving plenty left over to spend on security.
That argument leads some experts to raise an eyebrow. “The progressives seem to be suggesting you can significantly cut the budget while confronting Russia and China, which is wishful thinking at best, at least if one looks at the next four years,” says Thomas Wright, a US foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution think tank in DC.
Some of the more traditional foreign policy candidates, like Buttigieg, seem to agree. “Meeting the challenge of China means we must maintain investments in a military that can deter aggression and adventurism,” he said in his June foreign policy speech. And while Biden has not talked much about defense on the campaign trail, he did back Obama’s repeated calls to trim the military’s budget.
It’s worth noting that no candidate in the race so far has talked very specifically about when they would use military force.
Still, many will surely want to hear Democrats talk about how they’d deal with the critical foreign conflicts and crises the US currently faces.
For example: Would any of the candidates vow to remove all US troops from Afghanistan by their first term? Will they pull all troops out of Iraq or Syria? Or will they say a residual force must remain to combat terrorists in the region? And how much money should the government spend on providing benefits to troops in uniform and veterans out of it?
Democrats can’t avoid those questions forever.
Israel and Palestine
Israel and Palestine could prove another flashpoint for 2020 Democrats.
Poll after poll has shown that liberal Democratic primary voters are less sympathetic to Israel than they were in years past. That may help explain why several candidates for the Democratic nomination are highly critical of Israel.
Sanders, for example, has repeatedly condemned Israel for its actions on its border with Gaza, where, time and time again, Israeli forces have killed mostly unarmed protesters — including women and children — who are pleading for an end to the decade-long Israeli blockade of food, fuel, and medicine going into the Gaza Strip.
And while Buttigieg has chastised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, he continues to call Israel a “strong ally” and has said he would keep the US Embassy in Jerusalem.
Warren didn’t mention Israel or Palestine once in her foreign policy speech last year, but she refused to speak at a pro-Israel lobbying group’s DC conference this year (Buttigieg and Sanders also didn’t attend; Biden wasn’t yet in the race). That was widely seen as a rebuke to Netanyahu’s far-right government and Trump’s coziness with it.
Biden hasn’t touched Israel on the stump, but the Obama administration’s relationship with the Jewish state was extremely frosty. He’ll no doubt say he supports the country — surely, all candidates will — but he may join his fellow candidates in speaking harshly about Netanyahu. In 2016, for example, Biden said he was “frustrated” with Netanyahu’s leadership.
“I think every 2020 presidential contender will be asked how can they stand by Benjamin Netanyahu,” Waleed Shahid, the communications director for the progressive group Justice Democrats, told BuzzFeed News in January.
It’s of course possible that many other foreign policy issues will arise during this week’s debates and over the many months before the election. But this early on, expect these three main areas to dominate the Democratic discussion on foreign affairs.