A Foreign-Policy Cheat Sheet for the Democratic Debates

We know what the candidates want to talk about. Here's what journalists should be asking.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren attend a news conference in Washington on July 24, 2018.
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren attend a news conference in Washington on July 24, 2018. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

At this week’s inaugural Democratic presidential debates—the first of a dozen scheduled over the next year—the candidates should be forced to fully reveal their foreign-policy principles and preferences. Of the two dozen notable candidates, only a few have substantive foreign-policy experience, including Joe Biden, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bernie Sanders. But no matter their exposure to global affairs, nearly all emphasize three points: They would not have authorized the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, they would not have abandoned the Iran nuclear deal, and they are strongly opposed to the “forever wars”the permanent war footing that the country has been on since 9/11.

At a time of rising international tensions around the world, caused in part by Washington’s own chaotic government, such clichés simply won’t cut it. The post-2021 commander in chief test will likely not be whether to approve another massive invasion of a Middle Eastern country. Past strategic choices never precisely repeat, and to judge candidate on what they would have done (with the privilege of hindsight) reveals nothing about how they will approach their own novel, consequential decisions.

Listed below are 12 questions that journalists, interviewers, and debate moderators should pose to the candidates to elicit more general, and thus more relevant, insights into their strategic thinking. The candidates may not be forthcoming in their responses—but that, too, would divulge a great deal about how they would shape America’s role in the world.


What is the single greatest threat that Americans presently face? What will you do differently from your predecessors to reduce the severity and probability of that threat?


Do you agree with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s assessments about the causes and potential impacts of climate change? If so, would you commit to the Paris Agreement, and what would be your greenhouse gas emission targets and your corresponding plan to reach them?


Do you agree that great-power competition should be the predominant organizing principle of U.S. grand strategy? If so, what does that phrase mean to you? If not, what should be the guiding principles of U.S. foreign policy with regard, individually, to China and Russia?


What are some of the traits and characteristics that you believe define the “forever wars”? How would you diminish or terminate the U.S. role in each of these wars?


What is it exactly about these forever wars that you oppose? Is it their initial intervention decisions, how they have been conducted, that they have not been effective, that they are relatively open-ended, or something else?


If you oppose the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, for what sorts of military force (size of troops involved, numbers of bombs dropped, types of political or military objectives, etc.) would you seek congressional authorization during your presidency? Would you reserve the right to still use force if congressional authorization was not provided?


If you contend that the United States spends too much on the military, from which of the four main Pentagon spending categories would you work with congressional appropriators to find savings—military personnel, operations and maintenance, procurement, or research and development? Please be specific.


What would be the role of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal during your presidency? What would be the specific objectives and missions that the arsenal fulfilled?


What would be the expected roles and responsibilities of mutual defense treaty allies in your grand strategy? Would you expect they further increase their defense spending or enhance reimbursements to the United States? Would you commit to coming to a treaty ally’s defense during militarized disputes over territory that the United States does not recognize as belonging to that ally?


What should be the United States’ obligation and role in influencing the political character of other countries?


The Trump administration reduced citizens’ ability to evaluate U.S. foreign policy by ending the release of previously available information, such as the Nuclear Posture Review, nuclear weapons and dismantled warhead numbers, and troop numbers for Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Will you reverse these decisions and promise greater foreign-policy transparency?


Will you, your cabinet officials, and departmental spokespersons revert back to the routine, bipartisan practice of addressing—on the record and in public settings—journalists’ foreign policy and national security questions?


Though Democratic presidential candidates are understandably focused on the existing Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and a potential new one with Iran, we should not allow them to frame their foreign-policy vision exclusively in opposition to these familiar battles. It is far more meaningful and revealing to ask them overarching and open-ended foreign-policy questions. It will be up to all journalists to try to force them to provide answers over the coming weeks and months.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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