Essay

The 2020 Candidates Aren’t Talking About Foreign Policy. They Need to Start.

The United States caused many of the planet’s problems and can still unmake them—but only if its politicians face up to the challenge.

2020-foreign-policy-jonathan-tepperman
Foreign Policy illustration/Bastiaan Slabbers/Drew Angerer/ Sergio Flores/Scott Eisen/Scott Olson/Ethan Miller/Nur Photo/Getty Images

One of the most striking things about the Democratic primary so far—aside from the sheer number of candidates running—is how little any of them has said about foreign policy. With very few exceptions (like one-off essays by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders), the group has ignored the rest of the world and focused on domestic issues.

Such neglect probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. Few of the governors, senators, and mayors now running for president have international experience to draw on. And they know that while American voters do care about foreign policy, especially when it comes to fighting terrorism and protecting U.S. jobs, most don’t care about it as much as they do about domestic issues. Very few U.S. presidents have won office by building their campaigns around international themes.

Despite that reality, the fact that even the current candidates who do have serious foreign-policy chops, like former Vice President Joe Biden, aren’t talking about the subject is a big problem, for two reasons.

While the United States has made a number of big mistakes in recent years, the good news is that, what Washington did, it can also undo.

The first is that this is a particularly fraught and dangerous moment for the United States and the world. The international order seems less steady today than at any other time in the last 70-odd years. China and (with the U.S. president’s inexplicable acquiescence) Russia are growing ever more sophisticated and aggressive in their challenges to the United States and its allies. Europe is leaderless and confounded by Brexit. Cyberattacks and election interference are proliferating. Americans are still fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and terrorist groups (including the Islamic State) around the world. Populism and other forms of extremism are rising. Deadly, extreme weather-related catastrophes are growing increasingly common. And the list goes on and on.

The second reason it’s a problem that the candidates are ignoring foreign policy is that many of the threats now facing the country were caused—or at least intensified—by Washington itself. For Americans, that thought should be chastening. But it should also be a source of hope. While the United States has made a number of big, consequential mistakes in recent years, the good news is that, what Washington did, it can, in many cases, also undo—or at least work to remedy. But only if its leaders, and the country as a whole, start facing up to the issues.


U.S. President Donald Trump takes his place for the family photo on the first day of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. Foreign Policy illustration/SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

To better understand this point—that much of our current mess is at least partially America’s doing, and why that’s a good thing—it helps to break the long list of looming international challenges into two groups: one structural and the other contingent.

The structural problems include threats like climate change, inequality, populism, and the rapid aging of the developed world. These challenges are the result of slow-moving trends and tectonic shifts that most of us have long ignored but that are now, finally, demanding our attention. (It’s hard to disregard man-made weather changes, for example, when your house is flooded or the bees that usually pollinate your crops have vanished.) Because these threats are widely distributed—a new study by the United Nations estimates that up to a million plant and animal species now face extinction—took a long time to develop, and resulted from broad structural forces, they are hard for any government to grapple with, especially on its own (though that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try).

But the second set of threats now facing the United States is different. Problems like Russian and Chinese belligerence, the Islamic State, Afghanistan, the chaos in Libya, or the havoc being wrecked in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere by Saudi Arabia and Iran can all be traced to things the United States has either done or should have done but didn’t. That doesn’t mean these problems are all Washington’s fault. But in every case, they’ve been made worse by American blunders and, above all, by the perception that the United States is withdrawing from the world.

That perception dates back to the 2008 financial crisis, which took some of the shine off the U.S. economic model and was interpreted (especially in Beijing) as a sign of American weakness (never mind that the country has since enjoyed one of the longest recoveries in history). All of a sudden, the preeminence the United States had enjoyed since the end of the Cold War—and had managed to maintain even through disasters like the war in Iraq—didn’t look so stable.

Concern intensified during the presidency of Barack Obama, whose reading of the U.S. public, innate caution, and desire to avoid doing “stupid shit” led him to pursue a policy of retrenchment—even when that meant drawing red lines and then failing to defend them.

This record has led to a growing consensus that the United States no longer cares much about the world beyond its borders—or, worse, that it’s too weak to do much about it.

And things have gone into overdrive under President Donald Trump, as he has found ever more creative ways to coddle Russian President Vladimir Putin and other autocrats while antagonizing and embarrassing U.S. friends and allies, undermining international institutions, ignoring human rights, and making it clear he has no interest in helping to resolve conflicts like the Syrian civil war.

This record has led to a growing consensus that the United States no longer cares much about the world beyond its borders—or, worse, that it’s too weak to do much about it if it wanted to. That consensus has affected the rest of the planet in three key ways.

First, it has helped convince leaders in places like Moscow and Beijing that they can do whatever they want, especially in their own neighborhoods—think eastern Ukraine or the South China Sea—without having to worry that Washington will try very hard to stop them. Russia’s election interference and attempts to intimidate its neighbors, China’s island building, its cyberattacks, and its campaign to covertly extend its influence in Western countries with large ethnic Chinese populations—these actions and many others can all be attributed to the same basic assumption about America’s weakness and its lack of stomach for a fight.

Similar assumptions have also encouraged many traditional U.S. allies to start hedging their bets by preparing for a world in which they can no longer depend on American leadership or protection. Such hedging has taken several forms, from the announcement in March that Italy would join China’s world-spanning Belt and Road Initiative to the decision by the other 11 members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to proceed with the trade pact, which Trump has spurned, on their own.

The final impact the growing perception of American indifference has had is to signal to various U.S. proxies—countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which enjoy generous U.S. military backing—that they can pursue their own narrow objectives without getting permission from Washington first, as they might have done in the past. Among other things, that shift explains the catastrophic Saudi and Emirati intervention in Yemen’s civil war; their support (along with Egypt) for the aspiring Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, who is now trying to bomb Tripoli into submission; and other ugly little struggles underwritten by American funds and guns.


The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan leaves Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong on Nov. 25, 2018. Foreign Policy illustration/Liang Yingfei/Caixin Media/VCG via Getty Images

The alarming thing about all three of these trends—U.S. adversaries feeling their oats, American allies starting to hedge, and proxies acting irresponsibly—is that they’re currently gathering force. We should expect more of all three forms of behavior in the months and years ahead.

The good thing is that, because they’re based more on rhetoric than reality, they’re all reversible (at least to some degree).

To see why, start with the fact that much of the handwringing about U.S. decline and the end of the American century has been overwrought and overstated. While there is no question that the power differential separating the United States from some would-be competitors is shrinking, the reality is that the country still retains a massive edge in hard power, by just about any measurement. Despite widespread fears that a recession is coming, for example, the U.S. economy remains the world’s largest and keeps on growing, with an unemployment rate of just 3.6 percent. The country also hosts world-beating technology, finance, entertainment, and higher education sectors.

While the power differential separating the United States from its competitors is shrinking, the country still retains a massive edge in hard power.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, is so overwhelmingly powerful that the country doesn’t just have the world’s largest air force—it also has the second largest (the U.S. Navy). Indeed, America’s military power is so unassailable today that even the country’s biggest potential adversaries have basically given up on the idea of confronting it directly, in a conventional war. And the United States’ physical location remains as advantageous as ever. Kori Schake of the International Institute for Strategic Studies has called it “the most propitious geopolitical environment any country could hope for,” and no wonder: The United States is surrounded by two oceans and two friendly neighbors—unlike China, for example, which borders 14 far less congenial states. As Tufts University’s Daniel Drezner recently pointed out, the United States not only has more treaty allies than any other country in the world; it has more allies than any country ever.

What about other, less material variables, like public and elite opinion? Here, too, the picture remains far brighter than most people seem to realize. And that’s because, while many states may have started worrying about Washington’s reliability, there are still no other plausible candidates to replace it as the global provider of public goods—to police sea lanes or lead global efforts to fight problems from pandemics to cybercrime. Which is why the United States remains—despite all the reckless damage Trump has done—“a dominant power that other strong states voluntarily work to support rather than diminish—a historical anomaly,” as Schake put it. Indeed, that status makes the United States unique in today’s world. Few if any countries would want to see Russia, say, assume America’s traditional mantle. And while a handful of autocrats might envy Putin’s success in controlling his population, even they wouldn’t want to adopt his broader approach to running his country, which has produced a hollow gas station of an economy and a declining population. There is no such thing as a “Russian dream.”

As for China, while it has poured money into the developing and (more recently) developed world in order to extend its influence, many of these arrangements have been structured as loans so unfair that they’ve prompted furious blowback—see Malaysia or Sri Lanka. And China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea have driven many of its neighbors, like Vietnam, into America’s arms (whether or not the current U.S. president is willing to return the embrace).

If many of today’s problems have been caused by the perception—not the reality—of American weakness, then there’s reason to hope that the next U.S. president will be able to turn things around.

The point here is that if many of today’s international problems have been caused either by Trump’s aggressive disdain or by the perception—not the reality—of American weakness, then there’s reason to hope that the next U.S. president will be able to turn things around.

Doing so won’t be easy—far from it. International institutions battered by Trump’s hostility will take time to rebuild. Wary allies will take time to win back. And the deterrence of great-power adversaries won’t be re-established overnight. Meanwhile, the deep dysfunction of the U.S. political system will make reform even more difficult. Overcoming all these obstacles will take a great deal of painstaking planning and a deliberate, clearly articulated policy that argues—and then demonstrates, repeatedly—that the United States is back.

Tough as all that will be, however, it’s crucial to remember that none of it will be impossible. The world’s problems—especially the contingent ones, those tied to U.S. behavior—aren’t unsolvable. In fact, the United States has successfully overcome bigger challenges in its past.

But the country won’t be able to do so—indeed, it won’t even start the process—unless its citizens start talking about these problems. Especially those citizens who hope to lead the country starting on Jan. 20, 2021.

Jonathan Tepperman is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.

  Twitter: @j_tepperman