At the Debate, a Side Order of Foreign Policy

At the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit, the handful of exchanges around foreign affairs and national security let Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren stand out.

America, leader on the world stage, can’t find time to talk about its global power on prime time. In the tweet-length answers that each presidential candidate provided last night, there wasn’t much to work with. The moderator’s international-policy prompts offered preposterous false choices: Police the world or ignore it? Meet dictators or not? Withdraw troops or keep the endless war churning? Reserve the right to a pre-emptive nuclear strike—or, what exactly?

These were convoluted questions at such a tense time, as an impetuous president sits in the Oval Office this morning not far from the nuclear football. 

At the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit, the handful of exchanges around foreign affairs and national security let Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren stand out. Amid the back-and-forth, Pete Buttigieg’s responses were deeper than expected, and as for the rest—who could keep track?

Of the serious candidates, Sanders is the most outspoken on advancing a principled foreign policy that prioritizes human rights and American interests abroad as one and the same. It’s bolstered by his strong record in the Senate, most recently holding Trump to account by leading a bipartisan vote to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates in their dirty war in Yemen (Trump later vetoed the measure). Sanders talks clearly and boldly on Israel-Palestine, too, though CNN didn’t give him or any of the candidates a chance to speak on that topic.

CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Sanders about the fact that he and Trump had both said at one point that the U.S. cannot be the policeman of the world. Previewing how he might brawl against his Republican opponent, Sanders quickly dismissed the ridiculous premise of the question: “Trump is a pathological liar. I tell the truth.”

Then he got down to business. “We have spent $5 trillion on the war on terror.” The whole debacle of American war spending is unbelievable by the numbers. And it has huge knock-on effects. The trillions spent on wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan caused the average U.S. homebuyer to spend $600 more in mortgage payments in 2008 alone, due to war borrowing, according to the Costs of War Project at Brown University.  

“And there are probably more terrorists out there now than before it began,” Sanders added.

It’s important to emphasize that the immigration crisis and the climate crisis are both complex global problems that require visionary American leadership. Far too many foreign-policy analysts on Twitter, from Nicholas Kristof to Nicholas Burns, failed to note that they are indeed national security predicaments, and the debate moderators certainly didn’t present them that way.

Bernie Sanders articulated it well in his description of the Northern Triangle migration’s root causes, saying he would “bring the entire hemisphere together to rebuild Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.” Paired side by side with Warren’s comments on decriminalizing border crossings and ending Trump’s brutal child separation policies, one could see a coherent Democratic plan for the migration crisis emerging.

Buttigieg’s answers, while overly polished, offered a lesson in messaging for progressive foreign-policy activists. He acknowledged the “endless war” and “climate crisis” in the same breath as his “industrial Midwestern hometown” during his opening remarks, linking international issues of concern to local ones.

The squabbles about when and how to withdraw from Afghanistan in the Wednesday debate lent a glimpse into how poor Democratic agenda-setting has been regarding the endless wars. I couldn’t help but think of previous unsuccessful presidential candidates like former Senators John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, both of whom voted for the Iraq War in 2003. At Democratic debates, a progressive foreign policy has proven elusive for the party.

That the candidates are scarcely asked about foreign affairs is also a function of the way American media treats the world, as a place far away, with limited consequences for American citizens.

The dearth of foreign coverage on cable networks and evening programs is criminal—it serves to obscure America’s outsized role in international institutions. Notwithstanding CNN’s excellent international correspondents like Clarissa Ward and Ivan Watson, the American network siloes its international coverage. In spite of the outstanding resources at its fingertips, CNN doesn’t give its all-star foreign reporters as much airtime as they should. 

So it’s up to candidates to convey to Americans just how dire the stakes are internationally. As the climate emergency bells ring, Trump is disengaging from international forums and treaties, empowering autocrats, and damaging allies.

And this challenge—that America under Trump is losing its leadership role in the world—needs to be discussed at the kitchen table.

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