Some of the leading Democrats in the 2020 presidential contest are working to strengthen their foreign policy bona fides, eager to address their own inexperience on national security matters and draw a contrast with President Donald Trump’s unpredictable approach to trouble spots overseas.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is considering a trip abroad. California Sen. Kamala Harris’ growing foreign policy team is highlighting her access to the nation’s most guarded secrets as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, while Pete Buttigieg touts his military service. And with increasing frequency, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is talking about Iran, Venezuela and peace in the Middle East as she courts voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.
So far, foreign policy has taken a backseat in the Democratic primary to domestic issues like health care and the economy. But national security can quickly become a front-burner issue, as the recent uptick in tensions with Iran and Trump’s flirtations with North Korea have shown.
“The Trump administration has really laid bare the wide birth a U.S. president has to make decisions of enormous importance,” said Jenna Ben-Yehuda, president and CEO of the Truman National Security Project, a left-leaning foreign policy think tank.
Polling also suggests Democrats have an opportunity on foreign policy. According to a Quinnipiac poll conducted in May, 58% of Americans disapprove of the way Trump has handled foreign policy, while 37 percent approve. A CNN survey also conducted in May found that just 32% of Americans backed Trump’s approach to Iran and 41% approved of his handling of North Korea.
The pressures of the presidency are unique in American politics, and it’s nearly impossible for candidates, regardless of their party, to amass comparable experience as senator, governor or in other positions. The last several American presidents have also taken office without significant foreign policy experience, including Trump, who never served in government or the military before he was elected, and Barack Obama, who spent just two years in the Senate before his 2008 victory.
Still, Democrats see an incentive to outline their vision for America’s role in the world. Most are quick to condemn Trump’s approach, but interviews with foreign policy advisers for several campaigns show that 2020 Democrats are still formulating own plans for complicated foreign conflicts.
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Some Democrats are open to talking to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as Trump did last weekend. Advisers for Harris, Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden all said their bosses would not rule out a face-to-face meeting with Kim under the right circumstances.
On Iran, advisers for Harris, Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg said they would quickly re-join the international agreement to block Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, even as Iran begins to violate its terms. But they offered no indication of how they would handle those violations.
Biden is an outlier in the Democratic field, bringing decades of foreign policy experience to the primary, both as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and eight years as vice president. He touts his existing relationships with many foreign leaders and argues he could quickly re-establish the United States as a global leader after Trump’s withdrawal from numerous international agreements, including on climate and trade.
Yet Biden’s long record also includes decisions that could leave him vulnerable, most notably his 2002 vote in support of military action in Iraq, a vote he’s since expressed regret over.
“It’s true that Biden does have a lot of experience,” said Matt Duss, Sanders’ foreign policy adviser. “He has a lot of experience making the wrong decisions and the wrong calls at key moments.
Biden has a loyal cadre of foreign policy advisers, led by Antony Blinken, who served as deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration. Yet other high-ranking Obama national security advisers have fanned out to other candidates, most notably to Harris. She’s being advised by Matthew Spence, former deputy assistant secretary of defense; Michèle Flournoy, former under secretary of defense for policy; Dana Shell, former ambassador to Qatar; David Cohen, former CIA deputy director; former State Department official Phil Gordon and Matt Olsen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
Harris advisers point to her tenure on the Senate Intelligence Committee as evidence of her experience, noting that she’s regularly briefed on specific threats from foreign adversaries. Her team also highlights her work as California attorney general, where she was particularly focused on cyber security, border security and climate change, which many Democrats see as a critical foreign policy issue.
Sanders, whose campaign is more associated with economic issues than foreign policy, favors less U.S. intervention in the world and has called for dramatic cuts to the national defense budget. Still, he is considering a foreign trip in the coming months.
Warren, another candidate whose campaign is rooted in economic issues, has traveled extensively as a senator, including with Republican colleagues, to destinations including Israel, Jordan, Ukraine and Afghanistan. Warren’s campaign, which tracks the questions she gets at public events, said she’s seeing steady interest from voters on foreign policy. Aides have tracked 19 questions on international affairs so far, most on Israel with some touching on Russia, Venezuela and Iran.
Warren’s foreign policy team is led by Sasha Baker, who served as deputy chief of staff to former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.
Known for releasing detailed plans to address domestic issues, Warren has yet to release a plan for any specific foreign policy challenges. Last week, however, she outlined a plan to invest in American diplomacy.