Election 2020

For the 2020 Democrats, It’s America First, Too

The slate of Democratic candidates includes two Rhodes scholars, two ex-soldiers, and a former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But don’t count on them to resurrect a Pax Americana.

Candidate portraits by uli knörzer for Foreign Policy
Candidate portraits by uli knörzer for Foreign Policy

It’s no accident that when the 2020 Democratic candidates are asked about impeachment or Russian interference in U.S. elections, they prefer to pivot to domestic issues like wealth taxes and universal health care. The U.S. role in the world is not a favorite topic of either political party these days.

And for the rest of the world, that means that even if President Donald Trump is defeated in 2020, a pared-down U.S. presence abroad and increased burden-sharing by allied governments will almost certainly be the result. The not-so-distant days when the Democratic Party’s foreign-policy establishment embraced America’s role as the indispensable nation that confronted or toppled dictators and war criminals from Serbia to Libya are receding from memory—and with them the expectation that the United States can be relied on as a reliable enforcer of world peace.

“If a Democrat is elected, we will have all the nice words we have not had in the last four years,” Gérard Araud, France’s former ambassador to Washington and the United Nations during the Obama and Trump administrations, told Foreign Policy. “It will be much more polite, much more courteous, more predictable and coherent than under Trump. But frankly, the Americans won’t be more engaged in most of the world’s conflicts.”

The political battle fatigue caused by costly, open-ended wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has soured the American public, and the Democratic and Republican political leadership, on foreign entanglements. Democrats and Republicans alike “don’t want to be the policeman of the world anymore,” Araud added. “I think it’s a major shift.”

The pendulum under almost any Democratic administration would be bound to swing back to a more internationalist foreign policy. And the Democrats’ leading candidates have all issued calls for restoring America’s standing in the world by rebuilding the State Department, repairing strained alliances, embracing international institutions like the U.N., recommitting to the Paris climate agreement, and patching up relations with Iran.

But enthusiasm for the U.S. role as the primary guarantor of peace and security from Europe to the Middle East and Asia is losing currency in Democratic quarters. “The United States has an important role to play in leading the world, but we don’t necessarily have to do it at the point of the gun,” said a foreign-policy advisor of one of the Democratic candidates. “We do have the strongest and most capable military in the world. But that doesn’t mean we need to use it to throw our weight around.”

This has been a Democratic Party line, of course, since the administration of President Barack Obama, who opposed the ill-fated 2003 invasion of Iraq and was notably restrained in his use of large-scale military force. But if anything, it’s becoming more ingrained. The current slate of Democratic candidates lacks a single voice extolling the virtues of humanitarian intervention in far-off lands, and there is diminishing interest, particularly among progressives, in deploying U.S. military power to recover influence ceded to China and Russia.

More centrist Democratic candidates still see a need for a more limited projection of U.S. military power, whether through the use of special operations forces to counter terrorism or to support critical allies.

More centrist Democratic candidates—including former Vice President Joe Biden; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar—still see a need for a more limited projection of U.S. military power, whether through the use of special operations forces to counter terrorism or to support critical allies. Biden, for instance, has called for an increase in security assistance—including weapons—to Ukraine to help it defend itself and to make sure “Russia pays a heavier price for its ongoing war in Ukraine.”

“I’ve spent more time in the Situation Room, more time abroad, more time than anybody up here,” Biden boasted in the November Democratic debate. “I know every major world leader. They know me, and they know when I speak, if I’m the president of the United States, who we’re for, who we’re against, and what we’ll do, and we’ll keep our word.”

But even Biden, while vice president, pushed for a somewhat reduced U.S. presence abroad—for example, arguing during the Obama administration that the United States should dramatically cut back its troops in Afghanistan and taking the lead in negotiating the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

“Anything would be better than what we have now,” said Victor Cha, who served as the director for Asian affairs in the National Security Council under George W. Bush’s administration. But “after the euphoria wears off,” America’s allies will have to come to terms with the fact that they will have to shoulder a greater burden for their defense than in the past, he said.

“We’re not going back to what it was before Trump,” Cha said. “There needs to be some recalibration, and greater burden-sharing by the allies, but it’s not extortion. For many partners, that is not a high price to pay for more predictability and an actual strategic plan from the key ally.”

And for more progressive candidates, such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, experience in the war room is not necessarily a plus. For them, the creed of American exceptionalism is giving way to a more restrained view of the virtues and benefits of U.S. military power and calls for reductions in U.S. military spending.

“There is weariness among Americans of all parties and independents with long-term military engagements and legitimate questions of the consequences of that,” said Matt Duss, Sanders’s top foreign-policy advisor. “Iraq is the most obvious example, but there are others. Trump tapped into this in his usual divisive way.” By doing so, he exposed a “very shallow” national consensus over America’s international policing role, according to Duss.

Beyond that, progressives like Warren and Sanders have, like Trump, opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement and other free trade deals and would be likely to push for more protectionist trade practices.


U.S. Army soldiers are seen through a cracked window of an armed vehicle at a checkpoint in eastern Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, on July 7, 2018.

U.S. Army soldiers are seen through a cracked window of an armed vehicle at a checkpoint in eastern Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, on July 7, 2018. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

The end of the Cold War rang in a new era of military interventionism, persuading American leaders on both sides of the aisle that the projection of U.S. military power could shape the future and be a force for good.

President George H.W. Bush led the charge, leading an international U.N. coalition that ended Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait and authorizing the deployment of U.S. Marines in Somalia to help avert famine. President Bill Clinton found that superior U.S. air power could help end the genocide in Bosnia and drive the Serbian army out of Kosovo.

Democratic liberal interventionists, from Richard Holbrooke and Madeleine Albright to Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power, believed in the muscular use of force to achieve U.S. objectives, whether in Ivory Coast, Libya, or the Balkans. U.S. diplomacy, they asserted, was at its most successful when backed by the credible threat of U.S. military action. “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recalled then-U.N. Ambassador Albright telling him in 1993.

But the misguided and falsely justified Iraq invasion, and nearly a generation of war in Afghanistan, has tempered that view among Democrats and Republicans alike. Both wars exacted huge human and geostrategic costs—including the deaths of more than 6,700 U.S. service members, more than 30,000 Americans wounded, and trillions of dollars in expenditures—and did little more than destabilize these regions, providing Iran with a strategic boost as it sought to expand its influence. Biden has struggled to live down a 2002 Senate vote approving the U.S. war in Iraq—a vote he now acknowledges was a mistake.

Today, virtually all the Democratic candidates want to bring combat troops home from Afghanistan as soon as possible, though some, like Biden and Buttigieg, favor retaining some U.S. special operations forces and intelligence units to prevent terrorist groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State from reconstituting. “Americans are rightly weary of our longest war; I am, too,” Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations in August. “But we must end the war responsibly.”

Starting new wars is altogether another matter.

In 2011, Obama grudgingly lent his support to a U.N.-sanctioned invasion of Libya, following appeals by France, as well as by then-Secretary of State Clinton and White House advisor Power, to take action to avert atrocities.

The mission resulted in the downfall of Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi, who was executed by militias in the street, and the disintegration of the North African nation, which descended into a political and security abyss from which it has never recovered. The experience—which deepened Obama’s skepticism about the virtue of military intervention—led to the formulation of Obama’s “don’t do stupid shit” foreign-policy doctrine. It also helped convince Obama that American interests in Syria, where a government crackdown has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, were best served by limiting U.S. military involvement.

That skepticism has taken root in the Democratic Party. There is little appetite for taking down dictators and even less for military intervention beyond the limited use of special operations forces and drones. Even as evidence that Russian and Syrian forces are targeting hospitals and civilians in rebel-held towns, leading Democrats have expressed little appetite for a U.S. military role to stop it.

On Venezuela, Democrats have offered varying degrees of support for Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition figure recognized by the United States and dozens of other countries as his country’s legitimate transitional leader. But they oppose a U.S. military role in forcing President Nicolás Maduro from power.

“[W]e cannot simply anoint a new Venezuelan government—that would be repeating the mistakes of our dark history,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker told the Council on Foreign Relations.

The current slate of Democratic progressives shares a “rather anti-interventionist streak and see virtue served by a restrained U.S. foreign policy,” according to Stephen Pomper, the senior director for policy at the International Crisis Group and a former advisor on Africa and multilateral affairs in Obama’s National Security Council. “They are much less likely to give the U.S. a pass in order to achieve some pragmatic objective.”


U.S. President Donald Trump holds a working lunch with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House in Washington on March 20, 2018.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a working lunch with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House in Washington on March 20, 2018. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

A further U.S. retreat could have far-reaching impact on security and stability from the Middle East to Europe and East Asia, where America’s great-power competitors, Russia and China, are all too keen to fill the vacuum.

Last month, South Korea—seething from the U.S. decision to jack up the cost of hosting nearly 30,000 U.S. troops from under $1 billion to about $5 billion a year—signed an agreement with China to open channels for military cooperation. The U.S.-South Korean security alliance, warned an editorial in the Korea Times, “may fall apart due to Washington’s blatantly excessive demands.”

“Our allies and partners in East Asia and the Middle East are anxiously looking to the 2020 elections in the U.S. and thinking through a range of options,” Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Foreign Policy by email. South Koreans may welcome a changing of the guard in Washington, “as most of the Democratic candidates have voiced support for rebuilding our long-standing alliance with Seoul.”

But key allies in Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, may be rattled by the prospect of a Democratic victory.

“If Trump is defeated, Riyadh should be prepared for a dramatic shift. All of the leading Democratic presidential candidates have called for reassessing the U.S.’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.”

“If Trump is defeated, Riyadh should be prepared for a dramatic shift,” DiMaggio said. “All of the leading Democratic presidential candidates have called for reassessing the U.S.’s relationship with Saudi Arabia,” she added. “For starters, a new administration likely would end U.S. support of Saudi [Arabia]’s war in Yemen and focus on re-engaging Iran in talks as early as possible. It’s not surprising that we’re already seeing nascent moves by the Saudis toward potential dialogue with Tehran.”

Virtually all of the Democratic candidates have advocated greater restraint in the use of U.S. military power, citing the long-running wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the endless global war on terrorism.

Even a party outlier like Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard—who has called for an “end to this ongoing Bush-Clinton-Trump foreign-policy doctrine of regime-change wars”—is not as far from her party’s mainstream as her Democratic rivals would like to make out.

But the Democratic Party’s traditional and progressive wings continue to struggle to reconcile differences on a range of issues, including the U.S. military role in the world and the uncritical support of an Israeli government that has become increasingly allied with Trump and the Republican Party.

“The split at the center of the party is between elites in the foreign-policy community who would want to revive the indispensable nation point of view, whereas progressives are very skeptical of that because it tends to imply an endorsement of U.S. military global hegemony,” said Stephen Wertheim, the deputy director of research and policy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

But the consensus is that the traditional elites have already lost that internal war in the party.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch