The outcome of this year’s presidential election will shape the fate of the United States and many other countries. On “Super Tuesday,” when 14 states hold primary elections, American voters can help make profound decisions about war and peace.
Lamentably, few are interested. During the most recent debate among Democratic candidates, which lasted for two hours, moderators did not ask a single question about foreign policy. Most candidates are happy with this, since they know or care little about the outside world. Besides, saying something wrong risks alienating rich donors, war-addicted pundits, and powerful Washington lobbies.
Yet presidents have immense power over foreign policy. It is lovely to dream that a new president could bring us rational gun control, free education in public colleges, and national health insurance, but none of that is likely to happen. Even if a new president proposes sweeping reforms, Congress would block or severely weaken them. In foreign policy, however, a new president could reshape the world with a few strokes of the pen.
He or she could bring the United States back into the Iran nuclear deal; end support for Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen; lift sanctions on Venezuela; and offer to begin peace talks with Russia and China. A new president could also pull American troops out of the Middle East, stop promoting the overthrow of foreign governments, drastically curtail our drone war, and bring the United States back into compliance with both the Paris Accord on climate change and the treaty limiting intermediate-range nuclear weapons. Steps like these would help transform the world’s most violent bully into a great power that uses its influence to reduce tensions rather than intensify them.
Since most voters cast their ballots without considering candidates’ views of the world, I resolve to do the opposite. Although not enrolled in any political party, I will vote in this year’s Democratic presidential primary — and base my choice exclusively on each candidate’s foreign policy views. Here’s my scorecard.
Three candidates are fully wedded to the paradigm of conflict and confrontation that shapes American foreign policy: Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden was a key promoter of the Iraq War. He sees Russia as America’s eternal enemy. His world view, encapsulated in his warning that “when we create the vacuum, the bad guys step in,” is a recipe for eternal conflict. Peace lies in precisely the opposite direction: allowing countries to shape their own futures rather than insisting on dominating them.
Klobuchar’s credentials as a Cold Warrior are most evident in her full-throated support for nationalists in Ukraine, motivated partly by connections to the Ukrainian community in her home state of Minnesota. Pouring weapons into Ukraine, and pushing that country toward confrontation with Russia, is one of her few foreign policy priorities. The other is “to bring in American support in a big way for Israel.” In a recent interview she was unable to name the president of Mexico.
Buttigieg visited Israel in May, arriving just four days after Israeli soldiers killed dozens of Palestinians protesting the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem. He praised the Israelis for being “very effective when it comes to security.” Buttigieg also supports overthrowing the government of Venezuela, asserting that it “has lost the legitimacy to govern.” He shares the Biden-Klobuchar view that the United States has the right to decide which foreign governments may live and which must die.
The billionaire candidate, Mike Bloomberg, not only supported the Iraq War, but endorsed the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004. On one key foreign policy question, though, Bloomberg has a wiser policy than most of his rivals. He warns against escalating tensions with China, and with a refreshing dose of realism asserts that “we just have to find ways to work together.”
Elizabeth Warren’s foreign policy platform is remarkably undeveloped. She mouths appealing platitudes, but her list of foreign policy advisers is loaded with veterans of the Pentagon, the State Department, and Washington think tanks that support sanctions and military intervention. No one, perhaps not even Warren herself, knows what a Warren foreign policy would look like.
Bernie Sanders would change the way America approaches the world. He pledges to reduce military spending, bring the United States back into the Iran nuclear deal, lift sanctions on Venezuela, and take the United States out of “the business of regime change.” Yet he has said he will view Russia as an adversary or enemy if it does not change its policies; would consider a pre-emptive strike on Iran or North Korea to prevent them from testing a nuclear weapon; and might use military force for “humanitarian intervention.”
So much for the “major” candidates — unless one includes Major Tulsi Gabbard of the Army National Guard, who is also a member of Congress. Her foreign policy views are so far outside the mainstream that she has been frozen out of most television coverage of the campaign and demonized as a near-lunatic. Those views, as summarized in one supporter’s tweet, terrify almost everyone in Washington: “End wasteful wars; Bring troops home; Reduce military budget; Use peace dividend for people; Non-interventionism; Respect sovereignty of nations.”
By deciding to cast my vote based on candidates’ foreign policy views, I place myself in a tiny minority. Since I’m there anyway, why not isolate myself even further? With long-shot hopes for peace and an end to American regime-change projects, I’ll give Gabbard my vote.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.