“I know more about foreign policy than any of the candidates. I’ve negotiated deals around the world, I’ve dealt with politicians in every one of these countries, we do business with their companies and with their governments.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking Donald Trump said this. But you’d be wrong.
It was Mike Bloomberg, according to veteran reporter and columnist Joyce Purnick, who cited the quote in her 2009 book, Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics, recounting Bloomberg’s dalliance with a potential presidential run back in 2008.
Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman and three-term mayor of New York City, also contemplated a run in 2016 before ultimately backing Hillary Clinton. Ahead of the 2020 race, Bloomberg thought about it, decided against it, and then changed his mind and got into the mix late in 2019.
And now that he’s officially in, the former mayor is facing the first real test of what a Bloomberg administration foreign policy might look like.
Bloomberg is running as a Democrat, but he wasn’t always one, and his foreign policy reflects his evolution from Democrat to Republican to independent to Democrat once again.
He’s strongly in favor of free trade, backing deals such as President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He supported the Iraq War and has since said he doesn’t regret that, though he’s also described it as one of the US’s biggest foreign policy mistakes. He’s promised to restore American global leadership and sees the private sector as having a big role in that, especially on issues such as climate change.
And Bloomberg does have a global profile. His multinational company, Bloomberg LP, continues to do business the world over, though he’s stepped aside from day-to-day operations to run his campaign.
He became mayor of New York right after 9/11 and steered the city through its rebuilding and, later, the 2008 financial crisis. He had a robust travel portfolio, including visiting troops in Afghanistan after 9/11. He’s poured millions and millions into philanthropic efforts, particularly around climate change and public health. He served as the United Nations special envoy for climate action.
Bloomberg, then, has his fair share of foreign policy credentials. Cities, and by extension their mayors, are grabbing a more prominent role in world and economic affairs. Yet, as mayor, Bloomberg had a degree of independence he wouldn’t necessarily have as president. And as a philanthropist, he often undertook initiatives that made up for the shortfalls of national governments.
There’s still plenty in Bloomberg’s foreign policy that is unclear and untested, especially if he ends up facing off against Trump. A spokesperson for Bloomberg’s campaign confirmed to Vox that Bloomberg will put his company into a truly blind trust if elected president in November, and that he “strongly believes there should not even be the appearance that public office can be used for personal benefit.” Still, that hasn’t stopped his company’s business ties to places like China from coming under scrutiny.
But Bloomberg’s campaign is bargaining that after the volatility of Trump on the world stage, voters are looking for a candidate who will offer steady, predictable leadership: restoring America’s reputation, rebuilding alliances, and helping the country look a bit like the good guy again on issues like climate change and foreign aid.
Bloomberg is likely to use his record both at home and abroad to make the case that he can get results — a bet that he’ll be the better billionaire businessman to serve as America’s chief diplomat.
The foreign policy of a New York City mayor
Bloomberg isn’t the first New York City mayor to have national ambitions. (I mean, another one also ran in this very election.) America’s largest city and financial capital has always given its mayors a certain stature that others probably wish they had.
Bloomberg defined New York in the 2000s, serving three four-year terms, one of which he muscled through the city council to get for himself. He was first sworn into office on January 1, 2002, and the rebuilding of lower Manhattan and economic recovery happened under his watch. This transition wasn’t always smooth, but Bloomberg, untested in government until that time, took over a city still raw from the tragedy.
He also touts his record at keeping the city safe from another terror attack. He created the New York City Police Department’s counterterrorism force, which grew to about 1,000 officers and had a robust intelligence unit that posted officers overseas and worked closely with federal law enforcement.
Bloomberg’s campaign website says the NYPD’s unit, with federal authorities, deterred at least 15 terror attacks on NYC. In 2012, ProPublica examined a widely cited figure of 14 attacks and found that some instances overstated the NYPD’s role, or overestimated the seriousness of the plots foiled. The NYPD’s intelligence division also engaged in a highly controversial surveillance program that effectively amounted to spying on New York City’s Muslim population.
New York City mayors are also no strangers to foreign travel. As former New York City Mayor Ed Koch put it in his book The Koch Papers: My Fight Against Anti-Semitism: “This is not exclusively a New York phenomenon, but it is primarily a New York phenomenon.”
Koch said that New York’s diverse communities meant a mayor’s constituents took interest in what was going on in their homelands. It used to be “de rigueur that mayors would visit the three ‘I’ countries — Israel, Ireland, and Italy,” Koch wrote, though that changed as the city’s demographics changed, and Puerto Rico (which, of course, is a US territory) and the Dominican Republic soon joined the list.
Bloomberg kept up this tradition. He traveled to Israel as mayor-elect. He went on official visits to the Dominican Republican and Puerto Rico before and after he was sworn in. Later in his first year, he traveled to Greece and Turkey, and then to visit troops in Afghanistan.
He returned to Israel quite a few times as mayor. He stopped by the UK and Ireland and Italy. He traveled to China in 2007, where he implicitly criticized the regime’s censorship, saying “access to information is a strength, not a threat, and it is a fundamental part of innovation” — though he didn’t go as far as some human rights groups wanted. From there, he went to Bali for a climate conference, breaking with the Bush administration he once backed.
A lot of these trips were for ceremonial reasons, like dedicating memorials, or to promote business relations and cross-cultural ties or best practices. Exchanges went both ways, too.
A well-worn passport does not exactly mean an established worldview, but mayors do engage in a bit of parallel diplomacy. For Bloomberg in particular, politics had to crop up in his increasing global advocacy on climate change and public health. Yet these issues often seem much more political than they really are when viewed in the domestic context; in reality, such initiatives tend to generate a little bit more goodwill on the international stage than, say, discussing trade or national security concerns.
New York City mayors also have to work closely with the United Nations, which is headquartered in the city. That can naturally draw mayors into world affairs. The mayor’s office has long had a liaison office with the UN, which Bloomberg rebranded as the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs. The office both promotes NYC to the world and does the nitty-gritty work of dealing with diplomats when they descend on the city.
Bloomberg set off a bit of a dispute over diplomats’ parking violations early in his tenure that went all the way up to the State Department, but otherwise, he tended to see the UN as a platform to promote some of his key policies, including once speaking there about his public health initiatives. As the New York Times wrote at the time, it wasn’t exactly the Gettysburg Address, but “he was not above giving advice to the world.”
And Bloomberg couldn’t entirely avoid national issues in New York. He supported the Bush administration in the Iraq War (and Bush for reelection in 2004), and his opinion carried weight because he was the mayor of the city attacked on 9/11. ‘’Don’t forget that the war started not very many blocks from here,” Bloomberg said, standing alongside then-first lady Laura Bush in 2004.
Though Bloomberg’s views have shifted on the Iraq War, his remarks fed into some of the flimsy justification and misdirection to frame the war in Iraq as connected to the war on terror.
In 2007, Bloomberg switched from Republican to independent, saying it better reflected his “nonpartisan approach” in New York. It amped up speculation that he was contemplating a third-party run for president, especially as he was becoming more vocal on issues like climate change.
There was probably something to this, as Bloomberg began to publicly dabble more in foreign policy in the lead-up to 2008. The Times reported that he got regular briefings on foreign policy with as diverse a crew as Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state; and former Clinton ambassador Nancy Soderberg.
Still, Bloomberg’s actual foreign policy views remained a bit opaque beyond his initial support for the Iraq War and strong support for Israel. In late 2006, as questions about a possible Bloomberg presidential run started up, he described himself in a radio program as “a bit more of a hawk.”
He also suggested American power should be used to intervene to defend human rights, specifically referencing the genocide in Darfur: “We go back and we say, ‘Oh, we should have done more to stop the holocaust in the late ’30s in Europe,” he said. “Well, Darfur is another place where we haven’t learnt anything, unfortunately.”
In his answer, he also seemed to suggest some of the country’s entanglements abroad at the time had made such intervention difficult, though he wasn’t explicit:
I think this country has an obligation to help people around the world. One of the real problems with where we are today is America is a superpower and it has responsibilities. And if God forbid we were called upon to defend people who were getting massacred elsewhere in the world, do we have the resources and the stomach to go and do that.
That’s one of the problems of being tied up in one part of the world. And goodness knows there are places in this world where people are getting massacred. And I don’t think that we’re doing enough.
Bloomberg didn’t run for president in 2008, instead serving a third term as mayor, which ended in 2013. After he left office, he continued to pursue issues like climate change and public health through his philanthropic work.
Bloomberg has funded America’s Pledge, which brings together state and local leaders committed to meeting the goals of the Paris climate accord. In 2018, he was named the United Nations special envoy for climate action, and he personally covered the US’s share of contributions to the UN’s efforts to meet the Paris benchmarks. He runs the Bloomberg Business Forum, which had its third annual conference on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, which brings together government officials (including some heads of state) and businesses to talk about “global challenges.” As Vox’s Umair Irfan put it, Bloomberg turned himself into America’s “de facto climate ambassador.”
That already sets up quite a contrast with President Trump, whose decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement has in some ways elevated Bloomberg’s activism in this area. Global warming is undoubtedly going to be a huge challenge for the next president — and something Bloomberg has said he will make a priority. But, as with any administration, it’s just one of the many crises ahead.
Bloomberg’s foreign policy baggage: The Iraq War and China
Bloomberg isn’t the only candidate who will have to answer for his support of the Iraq War. As New York mayor, Bloomberg didn’t exactly have a say in what happened, though he supported the war and later opposed Congress trying to put a timetable on withdrawal in 2007.
He has become a bit more skeptical of the US’s prolonged commitment over time, and especially of the war’s ability to distract from other issues at home and abroad. He told the Council on Foreign Relations last month that “in hindsight, the biggest U.S. foreign policy mistake since World War II was the 2003 invasion of Iraq.”
So he’s acknowledged the mistake, but his stance also largely seems to be: Let’s move on and deal with the situation as it is, not as one wishes it could be.
“America wanted to go to war, but it turns out it was based on faulty intelligence, and it was a mistake,” Bloomberg said in January 2020. “But I think the people that made the mistake did it honestly, and it’s a shame, because it’s left us entangled, and it’s left the Middle East in chaos through today.”
He has previously said he would keep a small number of troops in places like Afghanistan for counterterrorism missions, though a campaign spokesperson also told Vox the candidate will support efforts to reach a peace plan in Afghanistan that will allow for the “judicious withdrawal” of US troops.
Bloomberg has also faced criticism for his somewhat soft approach to China. In an interview last year, Bloomberg told Margaret Hoover, the host of PBS’s Firing Line, that the country’s president, Xi Jinping, “was not a dictator.”
“He has to satisfy his constituents, or he’s not going to survive,” Bloomberg said.
Xi has steadily increased power, cracked down on dissent both within and outside of government, interned more than 1 million ethnic Uighurs in “reeducation” camps, and steadily encroached on Hong Kong’s autonomy. Though the crisis around the coronavirus may be rattling his regime in a way these other challenges haven’t, it has mostly exposed the limitations of China’s authoritarian rule.
As the Washington Post has reported, Bloomberg’s business has grown in China, and he’s built relationships with Chinese officials — the same ones he’ll have to deal with on tough issues like trade, climate change, and human rights.
A Bloomberg News reporter has also said a story got killed over fears that its publication could hurt Bloomberg’s company in China. That’s of course not the first time China’s economic potential has put some businesses in awkward positions: Look at the NBA, which faced a major controversy over one Hong Kong tweet.
Bloomberg has said he will put his company in a blind trust. But whether he will still carry over the mentality of making compromises with China to protect or grow economic ties into his presidency seems to be the outstanding question.
Either way, Bloomberg has said the US and China must “find ways to work together” and dismissed Trump’s hostile trade war as a viable strategy. A campaign spokesperson acknowledged that China isn’t playing by the rules but said a Bloomberg administration doesn’t think the trade war is the right approach.
Instead, Bloomberg would invest infrastructure and education at home in the US and strengthen alliances with other Asian countries. “Then, from a position of strength, [Bloomberg] will lead new and better trade partnerships, and revive international institutions such as the World Trade Organization, in order to write stronger global rules and pressure China to play by them,” the campaign spokesperson said.
Bloomberg has also said he would support legislation to sanction those responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, where Uighurs are being surveilled and detained. It’s a promising sign of some toughness, but that may make “finding ways to work together” much harder for both the US and China. Bloomberg’s engagement stance contrasts with some of his Democratic rivals — and it’s a definite departure from Trump.
Bloomberg’s foreign policy approach: Diplomacy, professionalism, and bringing his global ambitions to government
As Vox’s Emily Stewart has written, Bloomberg “is facts over fiction, data over politics, and realism over rhetoric.” Expect this to translate to foreign policy, too.
Bloomberg’s campaign has said restoring American leadership will be a top priority, including rebuilding alliances and renewing a focus on diplomacy as a first resort. Action on climate change requires both of these, and Bloomberg would already have a head start with a fair amount of global goodwill and a robust profile on this issue.
If Trump’s State Department has been marked by chaos and politics and the undermining of civil servants, expect a Bloomberg State Department to swing in the opposite direction with data, experts, and buzzwords like “strategic investment” and “coordinated application” — in other words, a kind of conceptual merging of government bureaucracy and a Bloomberg global initiative.
Bloomberg will certainly look to private philanthropy and civic groups to continue to partner with the public sector on issues like climate change. Public-private partnerships are nothing new for government, but a Bloomberg campaign spokesperson said that the candidate sees them as necessary across a range of issues, from hacking and cybercrime to pandemics. Global health is likely to be another key issue and is another area where the US could reassert leadership it’s largely vacated.
Otherwise, Bloomberg seems prepared to follow a pretty centrist Democratic foreign policy. He supported the TPP. Though he initially opposed the Iran nuclear deal, he says he’ll get back into the Iran deal without preconditions. He says he is committed to trying to find a realistic peace agreement in Afghanistan.
It’s a promise to get restore steadiness and maybe a degree of normalcy to American foreign policy — this time with a billionaire businessman who prefers pragmatism and plans.