US 2020 election: Where do top Democrats stand on foreign policy?

From Israel and Palestine to China, where do leading Democratic presidential contenders stand on foreign policy issues?

Democrat debate night two
Democratic US 2020 election presidential candidates debate during the second night of the first Democratic presidential candidates debate in Miami, Florida [File: Mike Segar/Reuters]

Washington, DC – The United States 2020 Democratic primary candidates have largely avoided discussing foreign policy issues in much detail, and when they do, it can be difficult to distinguish their positions.

“[I don’t] have much of an idea of what they think,” said Michael Walzer, a political theorist and author of A Foreign Policy for the Left, of the 25 candidates’ foreign policy platforms.

One reason candidates don’t discuss foreign policy with much depth or frequency is that they don’t necessarily have political incentives to do so, according to John Feffer, director of the Foreign Policy In Focus think-tank at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Analysts say, however, that even if there are many overlaps or lack of detailed plans, a progressive line can be delineated within the current crop of Democratic Party candidates.

“[Joe] Biden is running as the Obama candidate and [Elizabeth] Warren and [Bernie] Sanders are running on a much more progressive basis,” said Paul Musgrave a political scientist specialising in foreign policy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

“The big divergence is if you have the Obama line, the US and its institutions may need some fixing but are basically sound,” he told Al Jazeera. “The progressive standpoint takes the stance that the US and its institutions need to be reformed in order to reduce the concentration of wealth globally they see as producing international insecurity and conflict.”

For Senators Warren and Sanders, this means not only reducing the scope of the US’s military engagements, but challenging the current global economic order, the failure of which the two senators credit with the elevating authoritarian populists and boosting the potential for military conflict all over the world.

So as the US heads into the second Democratic debate on Tuesday and Wednesday, where do the candidates stand on the major foreign policy issues, including foreign military involvement or intervention, North Korea, Israel, Palestine and China?

Military involvement or intervention

Following US President Donald Trump‘s departure from some of the foreign policy norms that characterised the previous administrations of Barack Obama and George W Bush, the Democratic Party’s progressive wing has an opportunity to reframe foreign policy around its scepticism of American military interventionism.

According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, the majority of US veterans and civilians agree that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not worth fighting. Another poll by Eurasia Group, found that one-third of Americans do not believe the US is an “exceptional nation”.

A desire to dial back the US’s interventionist tendencies has also gained some traction in Congress, with a bipartisan vote in the US House of Representatives to block Trump from going to war with Iran without first obtaining congressional approval.

Democrat debate night two
Democratic US 2020 election presidential candidates debate during the second night of the first Democratic presidential candidates debate in Miami, Florida [File: Mike Segar/Reuters]

The Democratic primary frontrunners – former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Kamala Harris, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg – seem to have gotten the message, downplaying military responses to tensions abroad, or simply ignoring the thorny quandaries posed by the US’s foreign entanglements.

“Americans don’t want to get involved in any foreign wars, shooting wars of the type we saw in the 2000s…so I think the Democrats feel that they’re in safe territory generally taking a position like that,” said Feffer.

Even Biden, who supported the war in Iraq and is known as a political centrist, denounced the US support for Saudi Arabia’s war with Yemen.

Regarding Afghanistan, most Democratic candidates at least pay lip service to a significant troops’ withdrawal if not an outright exit from the country. Former Representative Beto O’Rourke, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Biden, Warren and Sanders all want to pull out of Afghanistan. Conversely, Harris, and Buttigieg want to withdraw most American troops while leaving a US military presence behind.


Disillusion with the status quo of American foreign policy is not new and exploiting it may even prove politically expedient for the progressive flank of the Democratic Party, particularly when it comes to militarism, said Samuel Moyn, a professor of history at Yale University and the author of Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.

“You need to reflect on the fact that the last two American presidents have run as anti-war candidates,” he said. “Even though they ran and won as antiwar candidates, we know as both Trump and Obama governed as endless war candidates. There’s lots of support for a broadly antiwar policy and voters want it … these extremes of left pacifism and right populism converge and are enjoying a moment where they are no longer quarantined.”


Aside from Senator Corey Booker, most of the candidates have pledged to return to the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal if elected. Trump withdrew the US from the agreement last year, reinstating sanctions on Tehran.

During the first primary debate last month, Booker said that if given the opportunity “to leverage a better deal, I’m going to do it”.

During the same debate, Senator Amy Klobuchar said she would seek a better deal, though when asked if she would readopt the original agreement, she raised her hand along with every other candidate, except for Booker. She did, however, cite Iran as the biggest threat facing the US.


North Korea

Although many Democratic candidates condemned Trump’s recent meeting with Kim Jong Un as a superficial photo-op, the Sanders, Biden, and Harris campaigns all said they would not rule out face-to-face meetings with the North Korean leader, while Warren tweeted that she would pursue “principled diplomacy” with Pyongyang.

Palestine and Israel

Starker divisions emerge over the US relationship with Israel.

Biden has so far refrained from calling the occupation of the West Bank a human rights crisis and called for a two-state solution. Buttigieg has effectively done the same, but he has also said he would allow the US embassy to remain in Jerusalem, a move Trump made as president.

Harris told the New York Times that “overall”, Israel as a country meets international standards of human rights and is “dedicated to being a democracy and is one of our closest friends in that region…and [the United States] should conduct foreign policy in a way that is consistent with understanding the alignment between the American people and the people of Israel.”

Democrat debate night two
Former Vice President Biden, Senator Sanders and Senator Harris debate during the second night of the first Democratic presidential candidates debate in Miami, Florida [File: Mike Segar/Reuters]

Sanders, on the other hand, has suggested he could threaten to cut US military aid to Israel and posted a campaign video drawing comparisons between apartheid South Africa and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Earlier this year, Warren joined Sanders as the only two presidential candidates to support a proposed Senate resolution saying that “unilateral annexation of portions of the West Bank would jeopardise prospects for a two-state solution, harm Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbours, threaten Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity, and undermine Israel’s security”.


There are also some divisions when it comes to China.

Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg, Booker, and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro pledged to use the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction the people running Uighur detention camps and put companies that build the Uighur detention camps and their surveillance system on the Commerce Department’s Entity List, which would severely curtail their ability to do business with American companies.


Warren, meanwhile, signed a letter sent to the Trump administration, demanding Magnitsky sanctions against Chinese officials overseeing the mass detention of ethnic majority Uighurs.

According to the United Nations, at least one million Uighurs and other Muslims are being held in detention centres in remote areas of western China. Beijing maintains the camps are training centres designed to help stamp out “extremism”.

As for trade with China, Biden downplayed the threat it posed to the US at a campaign rally, earning him criticism from Sanders, whose views align more closely with Trump’s on this issue. In fact, Sanders offered to go further than even Trump by labelling China a currency manipulator. Warren took a similarly aggressive approach, supporting tariffs on Chinese goods.

Buttigieg, for his part, also identified China as posing a major challenge to the US, arguing that the US should invest in its “domestic competitiveness” so that China’s technologically sophisticated authoritarian model would not appear superior to the US’s on the world stage.

Source: Al Jazeera