AMES, IOWA AND WASHINGTON, DC
BEFORE LAUNCHING into a speech for the 30 or so Joe Biden-curious Iowans who had gathered in Ames on a frigid Wednesday evening in early January, John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004 and a secretary of state for Barack Obama, made sure to hug an old friend in the crowd: the gunner from his swift boat in Vietnam many decades ago. Soon after returning from that war as a wounded and decorated veteran, Mr Kerry had concluded that it was a pointless misadventure. In Iowa he worried that America was on the cusp of another disastrous war—this time with Iran.
President Donald Trump had ordered the killing of General Qassem Suleimani, perhaps the second-most powerful man in the country, and eviscerated what little remained of the detente that Mr Kerry and Mr Obama had worked to establish. “So when Donald Trump stood up the other day and said to everybody—big, bold, beefed-up, chest-beating thunderous rhetoric—‘I will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon’…Guess what, Mr President, we already did that,” Mr Kerry said. “We didn’t sit there publicly pissing and moaning and screaming about how bad they were and tweeting away and creating a storm. We worked diplomatic channels. Guess what? We got to the table.”
All this, Mr Kerry argues, is reason to trust in Mr Biden, who, between his time as a senator and vice-president, has nearly a half-century of experience in matters of foreign policy. More years, in other words, than Pete Buttigieg—the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana who is vying with him to represent the moderate faction of the Democratic party—has had on Earth. His long experience is the reason Mr Biden thinks that foreign-policy debates are to his advantage.
Unfortunately for him, until recently the race has focused almost exclusively on domestic matters, such as tax, health care and education. Foreign affairs have been relegated to one-off speeches. None of the four leading candidates has published a dedicated China policy on their campaign websites, for instance. What little debate the candidates have had on foreign policy thus far has been unilluminating. All mightily disagree with Mr Trump’s impetuosity and regret the crises he has brought about—whether by launching trade wars, pulling out of the Paris climate accord or by alternately taunting and serenading Kim Jong Un. General Suleimani’s death has changed that, at least temporarily. On January 14th, the candidates had their final debate before the all-important Iowa caucuses, with foreign policy dominating. It helped reveal that beneath their superficial unanimity lie significant differences.
Of the major candidates, Mr Biden is most guided by the impulse to restore the pre-Trump status quo. Reassurance of NATO allies whom Mr Trump has alienated; rejoining both the Paris accord and the Iran nuclear deal; and pursuing arms control treaties with Russia all rank high among his priorities. He is the candidate most in line with the Washington foreign-policy establishment, often lamented as the “the blob”. Critics to his left have suggested that this is hardly a mark of good judgment. They pointed to Mr Biden’s having voted to authorise the Iraq war in 2002 (this may be the fourth primary in two decades in which that decision becomes a critical issue). But he does not follow in the liberal interventionist tradition of Hillary Clinton. He had disagreed stridently with Mrs Clinton over the decision to intervene in Libya, for instance. Though Mr Biden would like to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East”, he is open, unlike some of his opponents, to leaving residual forces in Afghanistan. He would also like to increase arms sales to the Ukrainians, to combat Russian incursions.
Though voters may appreciate a return to the old ways, some breaks are more difficult to snap back into working order than others. The Paris accord would be easy to rejoin; Iran might not be put back in the bag so willingly. Israel’s continued annexations in the West Bank may have already made an independent Palestine an impossible goal. Great-power competition with China continues apace. Mr Trump’s norm-breaking around matters of trade—such as imposing tariffs on stretched national-security grounds—may embolden other countries to try the same tactics. The process of rebuilding alliances frayed by Mr Trump’s “extremely transactional and bullying” attitude could require more than a single administration, warned Susan Rice, the former ambassador to the United Nations under Mr Obama, at a national-security conference organised on January 8th, by the Centre for American Progress, a Democrat-affiliated think-tank. “Envision almost a renewal of our vows to NATO,” she advises. “You stand up and you recommit and apologise for your transgressions.”
Both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the leading left-wing candidates for the nomination, differ from the blob in that they frame foreign policy in terms of domestic projects. Mr Sanders sees international affairs in terms of a binary contest, between “a growing worldwide movement towards authoritarianism, oligarchy and kleptocracy” and his own egalitarian vision. He has been a sharp critic of American interventions, particularly in Latin America, over his many decades in Washington. Ms Warren views corruption as the wellspring of all problems, both domestic and foreign. Her analysis of global disorder, published in Foreign Affairs, blames both “endless wars” and the export of “a particular brand of capitalism, one that involved weak regulations, low taxes on the wealthy and policies favouring multinational corporations”, for America’s diminished standing. So reducing inequality can enhance stability internationally as well as at home. Mr Sanders and Ms Warren are trying to overcome the somewhat artificial divide between foreign and domestic policy. This is especially important in the context of competition with China—where infrastructure, education, research funding and industrial policy may matter more to long-term outcomes than any reshuffling of aircraft-carriers.
“It is easy to draw the contrast with the current president who has no obvious plans other than dragging us closer and closer to war in the Middle East. This president is a man who embraces dictators and then fights with our allies,” said Ms Warren, when asked about her vision of foreign affairs after an event in Mason City, Iowa. “But we also have to understand that international policy is not made by the military alone…We need a State Department that is fully staffed up, we need to use our economic tools, and we need to work with our allies.” Her published plan to rebuild the foreign service—which Mr Trump seems to have damaged for decades to come—is thoughtful and detailed. Her mention of “economic tools”, though, hints at her enthusiasm for wielding trade policy to extract concessions related to the environment, labour standards and human rights. Both she and Mr Sanders may agree with Mr Trump in keeping tariffs on China, for instance, albeit for less haphazard and more principled reasons.
The Democratic candidates may keep in lockstep in their denunciations of Mr Trump’s foreign policy. But the differences between them are significant. And their plans for America’s relationship with the rest of the world are more likely to be implemented than their domestic agendas, which tend to receive more attention. Much foreign policy can be made by executive fiat, sidestepping an intransigent Congress. Overseas, adversaries and allies alike will find a change in the American presidency entails queasier see-sawing than ever before. “As Congress has become more and more dysfunctional, the presidency has taken more and more power,” says Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University. “If you combine consolidated executive power with polarisation, it leads to schizophrenic foreign policy,” he adds.