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The key foreign policy questions 2020 Democrats must answer, according to 9 experts

Here’s one: “If Iran attacked US forces in the Gulf, how would you respond?”

The Fox Theater and surrounding downtown area is prepared for the Democratic presidential debates hosted by CNN this week in Detroit, Michigan.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Twenty Democrats vying to become the next president take the stage in Detroit this week to participate in the CNN debates.

While the two-day event will almost certainly feature more questions about domestic affairs, it will also provide a chance to ask candidates about their foreign policy views.

That’d be a good thing: 2020 Democrats barely have fielded questions about how they would use American power in the world, even though six candidates have offered their global plans. A focus on foreign policy gives voters the chance not only to understand how a candidate sees the world, but also America’s place in it.

So ahead of the debates, I asked nine leading Democratic foreign policy thinkers, former officials, and other experts what three questions they’d like presidential hopefuls to answer this week.

It turns out they want to know a lot: in what cases would the candidates use military force as president, how do they plan to deal with China, what will they do to reduce the specter of nuclear war, and what their plan is to tackle the climate crisis.

Put together, these questions — if asked and answered — would go a long way toward giving Americans a much clearer picture of how Democrats would approach the world if they beat President Donald Trump next year.

The four foreign policy issues experts want 2020 Democrats to talk about

Every expert who offered foreign policy questions for the candidates had different takes on similar issues and their own pet concerns (you can find the full list of questions below). But taken together, four key themes clearly emerged from the pack.

1) Using military force

Ever since the US invaded Iraq in 2003, the country has perpetually been at war. Whether it’s in Syria or Afghanistan, Western or Eastern Africa, the US has spent roughly $6 trillion combating terrorism around the world, according to an estimate from Brown University’s Cost of War program. What’s more, the US has lost thousands of troops, contractors, and civilians while fighting abroad — including the deaths of two service members in Afghanistan this week.

That helps explain why Democratic candidates (and President Donald Trump) continue the question the wisdom of engaging American troops in foreign conflicts without end. But that still doesn’t answer when, exactly, a candidate would deploy the military — and it’s something experts want to know.

“If Iran attacked US forces in the Gulf, how would you respond?” asked Leon Panetta, who served as President Barack Obama’s defense secretary and CIA director. Mara Karlin, a former top Pentagon official now at Johns Hopkins University, formulated a broader query: “Under what circumstances would you use military force?”

Decisions on whether to send US troops into harm’s way, or bomb another nation, are some of the most solemn and vital duties of any commander in chief. Democrats aiming to become the next president should have to answer a slew of questions along those lines for that reason alone.

2) Confronting China

Trump has made pushing back on China’s aggressive trade practices a centerpiece of his presidency. That move has won some bipartisan praise in Washington, as many say it was high time the US stopped playing nice with Beijing and compelled it to follow traditional rules of global behavior. However, he still faces many critics for engaging in a tariff-based trade war that is slowing down the global economy.

But the US-China relationship is much more complicated than just trade. China is one of the most powerful nations on Earth both militarily and economically, and it seemingly has designs to have near-complete control in Asia. That, among other things, threatens US interests in the region and its alliances with countries like South Korea and Japan.

How to both curb Beijing’s trade excesses while forming a peaceful existence with China — if that’s at all possible — will dominate the next president’s agenda.

“Is China a rival of the United States, a partner of the United States, both, or something else altogether?” Jon Finer, formerly the chief of staff and policy planning director at the State Department, wants to know. “How would your administration approach this hugely consequential relationship?”

Defining a way forward for how Washington should interact with Beijing will be key for any presidential hopeful to formulate. Without it, a candidate can’t claim to have a thoughtful foreign policy.

3) Curbing the risk of nuclear war

Worry about nuclear bombs dropping on cities and killing hundreds of thousands of people is back.

A January 2018 World Economic Forum survey of 1,000 leaders from government, business, and other industries identified nuclear war as a top threat. It wasn’t long ago that a nuclear conflict between the US and North Korea seemed on the horizon. India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed enemies, could turn a regional squabble into a nuclear confrontation. And the US and Russia — the world’s foremost nuclear powers — have had warheads pointed at each other since the earliest days of the Cold War.

The Trump administration hasn’t helped allay these concerns, as it’s begun ending arms control agreements with Russia and has largely stood by while North Korea has improved its missile and nuclear programs.

That’s why a few experts and former officials want to know what a new president would do to reduce the chances of nuclear war.

“Are you prepared, as a priority issue, to make further agreements to reduce nuclear risk, despite the very difficult situation with Russia?” Thomas Countryman, who worked on these issues at the State Department, wants to know from the 2020 candidates.

“There is currently a nearly $1 trillion effort to modernize America’s nuclear weapons infrastructure,” notes Ben Rhodes, who worked closely with Obama on foreign policy. “Do you think that spending is necessary, and would you try to cut that budget and reinvest that funding into different priorities?”

It perhaps says more about the Trump administration and the state of the world that experts want CNN moderators to ask the Democratic hopefuls nuclear-related questions than it does about the candidates themselves.

4) Tackling climate change

Climate change is among the top foreign policy concerns on voters’ minds, experts and Democratic politicians say. It makes sense: The Pentagon is deeply worried that a changing climate may destroy military bases and lead to resource wars around the world. And it will certainly drive a wedge between Democrats and Trump, who thinks climate change is a hoax and withdrew the US from a global agreement to combat it.

It’s no wonder then, that multiple experts wanted to know how candidates would deal with the threat.

“What tangible ideas do you have right now that will help us address climate change?” asks Bishop Garrison, formerly the deputy foreign policy adviser for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

He and others may soon get their answers. Jay Inslee, the Washington state governor and 2020 candidate, has made it the centerpiece of his campaign, and every Democratic foreign policy platform released so far has made it a big issue. Climate change also will take center stage when CNN hosts a town hall on the subject in September.

So experts may have more answers to climate change questions in the near future.

Here’s the full list of questions from experts for 2020 Democratic candidates

It’s worth taking a look at all 27 questions I received for the 2020 Democratic hopefuls on stage this week, many of which are about issues not featured in the main four themes above.

They are arranged mainly in the order in which they were received, and some have been edited for length and clarity.

Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense and CIA director

  1. If Iran attacked our forces in the Gulf, how would you respond?
  2. Would you allow North Korea to retain their nuclear weapons?
  3. What is your primary criticism of Trump’s foreign policy and what would you do differently?

Loren DeJonge Schulman, deputy director of studies, Center for a New American Security

  1. What are the circumstances under which the United States should intervene militarily overseas?
  2. If you had been president, would you have supported military intervention in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Libya, Rwanda, or Bosnia?
  3. What’s the first meeting you will have with your National Security Council?

Bishop Garrison, former deputy foreign policy adviser, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign

  1. How do we counter and compete with Chinese dominance in a variety of areas — like green technology and foreign investment — while recognizing the need to maintain stable relations with it?
  2. What tangible ideas do you have right now that will help us address climate change?
  3. How are you going to address and end the “forever war” in Afghanistan?

Kori Schake, deputy director general, International Institute for Strategic Studies

  1. What should the defense budget be?
  2. What is your strategy for managing China?
  3. What opportunities are we missing for consolidating North American cooperation with Canada and Mexico?

Thomas Countryman, former acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, State Department

  1. How would you address the dangers of nuclear war writ large?
  2. Are you prepared, as a priority issue, to make further agreements to reduce nuclear risk, despite the very difficult situation with Russia?
  3. If you are elected, and the Trump administration has not extended the New Start agreement limiting nuclear weapons, will you sign a five-year extension before the treaty expires on February 5, 2021?

Mara Karlin, former deputy secretary of defense for strategy and force development, Department of Defense

  1. Under what circumstances would you use military force?
  2. How do you understand the respective roles of the president and the Congress in formulating national security and foreign policy?
  3. Looking at the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, grade President Trump’s foreign policy and tell us what you would do differently.

Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and speechwriting, White House

  1. There is currently a nearly $1 trillion effort to modernize America’s nuclear weapons infrastructure. Do you think that spending is necessary, and would you try to cut that budget and reinvest that funding into different priorities?”
  2. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that a two-state solution won’t happen on his watch, and has expanded settlements and demolitions of Palestinian homes. If the Israeli government continues to take steps to make a Palestinian state impossible, what tangible consequences would you impose? Would you be willing to condition certain types of US assistance on Israel’s settlement activity or policies towards the Palestinians?”
  3. Would you consider rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a way of generating greater leverage and international support for our efforts to confront China? If not, how would you distinguish your China and Asia trade policy from President Trump’s?

Kelly Magsamen, vice president for national security and international policy, Center for American Progress

  1. How will you defend our democracy from foreign interference?
  2. How do you view the connections between policy choices at home and foreign policy?
  3. What is the military’s role in foreign policy?

Jon Finer, former chief of staff and director of policy planning, State Department

  1. Is China a rival of the United States, a partner of the United States, both, or something else altogether? How would your administration approach this hugely consequential relationship?
  2. What are the main national security threats posed by climate change and what specific steps, other than recommitting to the Paris climate accord, will your administration take to address them?
  3. Many presidents have said the most consequential decision they face is whether, when, and how to use military force. What principles would guide such decisions in your administration, and which ongoing conflicts in which the US is engaged would you seek to end?

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