FP Guide

FP’s Guide to the 2020 U.S. Election Debates

Eight things to read before the candidates meet.

John Kerry Campaigns With Ted Kennedy In Iowa
Shaun Heasley/Getty Images

Next week, the campaign season for the 2020 U.S. presidential election will begin in earnest when 20 candidates for the Democratic nomination face off in a two-night series of debates. With so many candidates, it will be difficult for them to differentiate themselves—but foreign policy offers them an opportunity to try.

To show why—and make the stakes clear—we’ve gathered our top reads on the Democratic front-runners and the challenges facing the party in the year ahead.

So far, the candidates have spent precious little time talking about foreign policy, writes Jonathan Tepperman, the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. For one, few of them “have international experience to draw on.” And further, “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.”

But the failure to pay attention to foreign policy is a problem, Tepperman explains, because “many of the threats now facing the country were caused—or at least intensified—by Washington itself.” And therein lies an opportunity: “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.”

The question for the Democratic presidential candidates, though, is how.

In trying to answer that question, argues Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh, some of them will have difficulty distinguishing their foreign policies from U.S. President Donald Trump’s. “Consider the case of [Elizabeth] Warren, the Massachusetts senator who was the first top-tier Democrat to announce an exploratory committee for a 2020 bid,” he writes. “In recent months she has forthrightly endorsed both tariffs and withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan.” Sen. Bernie Sanders, Hirsh continues, “is likely to have even more trouble distinguishing himself from Trump on some issues. The senator, after all, was the original ‘Tariff Man.’ He promised to impose tariffs on China ‘until they stop dumping steel into the United States’ during his 2016 presidential campaign.”

But the Democrats won’t win by being Trump lite on trade, cautions the Council on Foreign Relations’ Edward Alden. They’ve “been so suspicious of trade agreements for many decades, and so tempted by the siren of protectionism, that they now find themselves speechless as Trump continues on a ruinous path.” They should stop being so ambivalent on trade, he argues, and focus on what they really oppose: “Republican trade policies that have too often empowered large corporations while negatively impacting many American workers.”

At the same time, the party shouldn’t drift too far to the left, the economist Joseph Stiglitz told Hirsh in an interview. “To me it’s interesting that among young people in New York and California and some other places, the term ‘democratic socialist’ has no negative overtones,” he said. “But we’re running a national campaign for the presidency. And you have to understand that’s not true everywhere.”

Another point of caution comes from Micah Zenko, co-author of the new book Clear and Present Safety. When it comes to Russia, rather than sticking too close to Trump’s position, the candidates have gone to the opposite extreme. That’s a problem, because “when a political party increases its animus toward a foreign country—believing that this will enhance its own popularity—it introduces second-order effects that can manifest themselves years later. It creates a voting bloc of Americans who become socialized to hate a foreign government and, by extension, its citizens. … More broadly, it engenders hostility between the United States and foreign countries, which makes cooperation over shared problems more difficult and rapprochement unimaginable.

The democratic candidates will also have to reckon with past failures. “Where Democrats must step up if they are to mount a convincing foreign-policy vision,” writes Suzanne Nossel, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, “is in addressing the ways in which the Obama administration’s progressivism foundered amid internal contradictions, shifting global economic fortunes, and the harsh reality of ascendant global authoritarianism.” She cautions that, although Sanders in particular may “sound revolutionary and inspiring in contrast to the misadventures of the Trump administration, a Democratic foreign policy needs to do more than turn back the clock or dress up existing policy formulations with more radical rhetoric.”

And on that score, Hirsh argues, front-running candidate Joe Biden’s greatest strength—decades of experience—could prove a liability. Trump (and perhaps even other Democrats) will “be able to say—occasionally even with cause—that Biden was part of the problem.” Trump, Hirsh continues, “will point out that Biden voted for a disastrous war in Iraq, and he’ll try to argue that Biden recklessly provoked Russia. Trump will also no doubt delight in quoting Biden critics, such as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who wrote in a 2014 memoir that while the former [vice president] was ‘impossible not to like,’ he ‘has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.’”

If Biden does get the nomination, he will have a formidable task ahead, writes James Traub, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation. “Biden hails from the era when Americans thought that they could see further because they stood taller, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once put it. America no longer stands as tall nor sees as far,” he explains. Indeed, whoever eventually wins, “the world will not conform to the wishes of Democratic candidates. The next president will have to confront not only 21st century problems such as climate change and migration, but also 20th-century—and 19th-century—problems of great power rivalry.”

Kathryn Salam is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.