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The case for more foreign policy in the 2020 debates

The US president often has nearly unchecked authority in foreign policy. We should learn how candidates would wield that power.

Wolf Blitzer, a CNN political anchor, walks past the Fox Theatre ahead of the democratic debates in Detroit, Michigan. The marquee reads, “CNN Democratic presidential debates.”
Wolf Blitzer, a CNN political anchor, walks past the Fox Theatre ahead of the democratic debates in Detroit, Michigan, on July 29, 2019.
Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images

The one area any US president has the most control over isn’t tax policy or health care or even the economy.

It’s foreign policy. From launching nuclear weapons to pulling out of important international agreements to forging new alliances and trade deals, the US president often has nearly unchecked authority.

So you’d think more attention would be given to the 2020 presidential candidates’ views on foreign affairs. But so far, foreign policy has barely registered.

Only six Democratic candidates out of the crowded field of more than 20 have come out with foreign policy plans. Foreign policy rarely came up during the Democratic debates last month — and the few times it did, it led to more side commentary than serious discussion.

Moderators tend to focus much more on immigration, health care, and the economy, and for obvious reason: Conventional wisdom holds that Americans don’t tend to vote on foreign policy issues.

But ignoring those issues — especially in this election — is a huge mistake, for two critical reasons.

First, President Donald Trump has a pretty compelling story to tell on foreign policy. He can say that his administration defeated ISIS’s physical caliphate, started a potentially viable peace process in Afghanistan, improved a free-trade deal with Mexico and Canada, increased US military spending while getting European nations to contribute more to defense, and did more to support Israel than any president, Republican or Democrat, has in recent memory.

Of course, there are obvious problems with his record — the fraying of traditional alliances, the trade war with China slowing down the global economy, and North Korea testing missiles again — that Democrats rightfully can hit Trump on. But by not engaging on these issues, Democrats are essentially ceding major ground to Trump.

Second, little says more about a candidate than how they plan to wield America’s power abroad.

“How leaders define their foreign policy priorities can truly give us a sense of the lens through which they view the entirety of the world — to include the US — and its problems,” Bishop Garrison, the deputy foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, told me.

“Foreign policy solutions will have ramifications that affect a multitude of areas in society beyond fiscal concerns,” he added, “and we need a leader that not only understands that but knows how to navigate it.”

At the debates Tuesday and Wednesday night, CNN’s moderators will have the perfect chance to ask each of the 20 Democratic presidential candidates onstage to articulate their views on everything from when (and when not) to use US military force, what is the best way to deal with troublesome countries like Iran and North Korea, and why America’s traditional alliances matter.

The problem is, they likely won’t.

Foreign policy is the most important subject no one really talks about

This may all sound like a foreign policy reporter pleading for more world affairs coverage in the 2020 election cycle. And to a certain extent that’s true — I would like to hear more Democratic views about how candidates would deal with global issues.

The reasons for my dissatisfaction, though, are understandable.

It’s very early in the campaign, and foreign policy typically becomes more of an issue once each party’s nominee is confirmed. What’s more, American voters naturally care more about domestic issues than foreign ones. A Pew Research Center poll from January found that health care costs, the economy, and education ranked as the top three issues on voters’ minds, though terrorism was the fourth.

It’s therefore no surprise that foreign policy questions rarely get asked during primary debates, as a chart from Foreign Policy last month shows. In 2004, the Democratic primary saw nearly 13 questions per debate, but that was right at the start of the Iraq War.

Otherwise, debates in the past two decades have rarely featured many queries about foreign policy. For example, Republicans fielded roughly five and a half of those questions per event in 2016 and Democrats only two — and together those proved higher totals than the previous two cycles.

Foreign Policy.

But as Dina Smeltz, a pollster on foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told me, “Democrats are paying more attention to news about the US and relations with other countries than they have since before 2016.”

That means there’s an appetite to talk more about how a Democratic administration would run US foreign policy — and that conversation could begin in earnest at the debates this week.

Make foreign policy sexy again

If Democratic voters want to hear about foreign policy, what should candidates say? The general consensus from experts is that solutions for climate change could prove particularly popular.

“While health care tends to lead other issues, climate change is one foreign policy issue that is also a top priority,” says Smeltz.

This may explain why that issue has received more attention than any other foreign policy dilemma so far. Jay Inslee, the Washington state governor and 2020 candidate, has made it the centerpiece of his campaign, and no Democratic foreign policy platform has neglected to make it a big issue. And climate change will literally take center stage when CNN hosts a town hall on the subject in September.

Constantly pressing candidates on how they plan to slow carbon emissions and more could lead to some of the most important and interesting answers of the entire cycle.

But having concrete solutions for climate change isn’t nearly enough. The next president will need plans to confront China’s aggression in Asia and theft of US intellectual property; Russia’s interference in American and other foreign elections; growing nuclear and missile programs in North Korea and Iran; and the rise of authoritarianism. These issues, among others, will fill the next administration’s inbox.

“Someone is going to inherent this mess,” says Garrison.

What’s more, candidates must also make clear why foreign policy matters from coast to coast. Taking on China’s trade practices could improve American industry. Keeping allies happy allows the US to count on them when world events go awry. Getting other nations to care for their own defenses allows the US to invest in other areas like health care, education, or infrastructure. And why (or why not) should the US send troops into harm’s way, especially as two US service members were killed in Afghanistan this week.

Each of these issues merit a full debate on their own. This week, at least, let’s hope they merit at least a question.