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With the 2020 Democratic primary field looking to be incredibly large, there are a whole host of potential stances that candidates could take. Furthermore, the unpredictability of Trump means that the Democrats could be forced to shift onto new ground.

Where Next for Democratic Party Foreign Policy?

April 4th, 2018

Max Rodgers – Research Assistant

For decades, the issue of US defense policy has been one of particular difficulty and division for the Democratic Party. Traditionally, since the end of the Cold War, the Republicans have been seen as the ‘more natural’ party for those who prioritise defense issues. When looking at the history of the Democrats, both in the White House and Congress, it’s clear that the relatively hawkish tilts of the party on defense during the Truman and Kennedy administrations began to dissipate after the backlash to the Vietnam War in the Johnson administration and the subsequent rise of the McGovern wing in the 1970s.

The Carter administration, largely remembered in foreign and security policy terms for the Iranian hostage crisis, gained a reputation for trying to focus on human rights and diplomacy over a more aggressive military stance. President Clinton – elected in part due to the voter’s desire to move towards a more domestic political focus after Reagan and Bush – had some initial missteps in foreign and security policy during his first term. He inherited a difficult situation in Somalia from the Bush administration, which ultimately culminated in the 1993 Black Hawk down incident and a US withdrawal. Clinton’s own operation in Haiti also produced poor results – although he experienced more success with diplomacy in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the administration faced criticism for failing to intervene in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In his second term, there was a growing interventionist tilt, including humanitarian endeavors with military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, plus air operations against Iraq and suspected terrorist facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan.

Ironically given what was to follow, George W. Bush was elected on the premise of a “humble” foreign policy stance. However, after an initial unity in the wake of the 11th September attacks, Democratic lawmakers found themselves increasingly divided thanks to the Iraq War – particularly with the initial vote to authorize the invasion, which split Democratic lawmakers. As the war faltered, some prominent voices such as Nancy Pelosi argued for prompt withdrawal of forces whilst others, such as her deputy Steny Hoyer, argued for a more phased pull-out, showing splits were still rampant. As Iraq and Afghanistan became more unpopular in the US in the run up to the 2008 presidential election, the candidate seen as embracing popular skepticism over Iraq,  Barack Obama, prevailed over the more interventionist Hillary Clinton in the primary.

During Obama’s Presidency, there tended to be a mix of interventionist and non-interventionist policies. His responses to issues such as Syria and North Korea, as well as his military expenditure cuts, have been resolutely criticised by IR voices such as David Greenberg and Michael Gerson, particularly for being too ineffective and weak. The cores of their arguments are that Obama was unwilling to take bolder action, as a result portraying an image of the US retreating from its global leadership role, on issues like Syria. However, others such as Jeffrey Goldberg and Gideon Rose argued that Obama’s use of pragmatic diplomacy, his strategy to neuter China’s rise and willingness to go hard on terror with drones, represented forms of ‘smart power’. With this, they argued that Obama should be praised for exercising a more pragmatic, effective leadership.

When looking at the Democrats, both then and now, on such issues, a distinction must be made between ‘world stage policy’ and defence spending. The core of disagreements tends to be about the world stage, specifically the extent of the role that the US should play in shaping and intervening in global events. On the issue of defence spending, the Democrats have traditionally been far more united in the post-Cold War era that domestic spending should be prioritised over the military budget. The Bill Clinton budgets notably reduced spending in such relevant areas whilst under Obama, sequestration also facilitated defence cuts. However, during 2016, Hillary Clinton was noting the need to raise defence spending for her proposed programme, reversing the trend of her predecessors.

During the 2016 Democratic primaries, a split between interventionism and non-interventionism occurred between the two main candidates, with Hillary Clinton seen as taking a more hawkish stance on both world stage policy and defence spending and Bernie Sanders as the more dovish.  This battle between ‘establishment’ and ‘radical’ viewpoints characterised the primary. With Clinton’s defeat in the general election to Trump, the disunity largely disappeared as the Democrats had a new enemy in a volatile Republican president. A key attack line of the Democrats against Trump has been that his abrasive manner and inexperience are badly harming US leadership on the world stage.

Likely 2020 primary candidates such as former Vice President Joe Biden and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders have prominently expressed this view. In addition, former Obama administration officials such as Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power and John Kerry have also been prominent in critiquing Trump’s effect on the world stage. Whilst criticism of Trump unites the Democrats, it is also incredibly likely that the fault lines between the Clinton and Sanders wings of the party in 2016 will open up again once the 2020 primary starts.

With Bernie Sanders, or someone espousing his 2016 views, looking almost certain to run, it cannot be doubted that there will be a strong voice in the primary arguing for cuts to defence spending and for the US to take a reduced role in world affairs – at least from a military perspective – so that a focus on domestic policy can take more precedence. In tandem, despite Hillary Clinton’s defeat, there still very likely will be Democrats who argue the benefits of internationalist thinking in 2020. Opposition to Trump now might unite the Democrats, but that barely sealed fault lines will likely erupt once the primaries begin.

With the 2020 Democratic primary field looking to be incredibly large, there are a whole host of potential stances that candidates could take. As mentioned above, some could take the Sanders approach and argue for a less security-driven role on the world stage to focus on domestic problems, in tandem with reductions to defence spending. Some could take the Obama approach and pitch for a mix of internationalist and non-internationalist thinking whilst committing to some defence spending reductions. Equally, the Hillary Clinton approach of pressing for an unashamedly internationalist role on the world stage, and not ruling out defence spending rises, could come into play too.

The response of the Democrats and by extension the 2020 primary candidates will also depend largely on the course of Trump’s Presidency. His upcoming meeting with Kim Jong-un is a key example of the unpredictable nature of his foreign and defence policy, having not long ago sent controversial tweets with insulting comments about the North Korean leader. As in other areas, Trump sets the agenda, and the Democrats will be responding to Trump rather than putting him on the back foot.

In conclusion, the fault lines that were opened up in the 2016 primaries regarding world stage policy and defence spending are likely to open up once more as the 2020 primaries creep up. The approaches of Sanders, Obama and Clinton are likely to still be used as a base plate for 2020 candidates, but it cannot be said at this point which one will win out with the primary voters. Furthermore, the unpredictability of Trump means that the Democrats could be forced to shift onto new ground or change position to a former one in order to provide opposition to him. Fundamentally, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding what case the Democrats will argue on world stage policy and defence spending in 2020.

Image source: Marc Nozzel


About Max Rodgers

Max Rodgers is a recent graduate of the University of Warwick, having successfully completed an MA in US Foreign Policy and prior to that a BA in Politics and International Studies. His research interests include US politics and foreign policy, particularly in a Cold War to present setting; international relations within the Asia-Pacific; the politics of intelligence/national security, and finally perceptions of US superpower status in the Obama and Trump eras. He has previously interned at the Spectator and in Parliament, as well as being the Summit Coordinator of the Warwick Economics Summit, the largest student run economics based conference in Europe.