The Democratic Debate and Competing Narratives

| January 2020
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As the Democratic field of presidential candidates narrows, the contenders for the nomination are beginning to devote more attention to the question of foreign policy. What has been interesting to see is how Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been making statements that would suggest that they are in favor of a reassessment of America’s global role and which tools of statecraft the United States ought to wield. Like candidate Barack Obama in 2007, Warren and Sanders have sounded what the Carnegie Council report on narratives identifies as the “regeneration” narrative: reconsidering U.S. intervention abroad to focus on internal reconstruction, as well as elements of the democratic community narrative–prioritizing ties with like-minded democracies. On trade issues, Sanders also appeals to a strain of “America First” as well, something which is more muted in Warren’s critiques. However, as David Milne and Christopher McKnight Nichols ask, would Warren or Sanders, once in office, like Obama, be more willing to entertain U.S. military intervention overseas once sitting in the White House instead of speaking at campaign rallies? They note:

If Warren or Sanders is elected president, she or he will face similar dilemmas to those that confronted Obama regarding the use of force. Previous form suggests that they may well respond in similar ways. The burdens of office have a way of sullying the purest-sounding pre-presidential intentions.

In other words, a Warren or Sanders could end up looking much more “traditional” in terms of embracing the bipartisan consensus, rather than disrupting it.

Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar seem to fall much more clearly behind the “chastened restorationist” storyline–that the U.S. needs to rebuild its position as the indispensable nation and the hub of the international liberal order–but in a fashion which is more directly connected to making that foreign policy relevant to the American middle class. Biden’s call for a “Summit of Democracies”  and for steps to revitalize the trans-Atlantic partnership also indicates the clear influence of the project spearheaded by Ash Jain and Matthew Kroenig at the Atlantic Council for rejuvenating the international rules-based liberal order.

Finally, Pete Buttigieg seems to fall in between: rejuvenating U.S. leadership and engagement, but cautious on returning to the multilateral free trade pacts that were part of the Obama administration’s approach of putting the U.S. at the hub of the trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic trading systems. He advocates some degree of retrenchment and a refocus on economic and technological partnership with close democratic allies.

What is most interesting is that no candidate has yet articulated a foreign policy approach that puts climate change as the central organizing principle. Nevertheless, as Peter Apps notes, there seems to be a growing number of Democrats who are interested in putting this issue front and center for both domestic and foreign policy. Yet what seems lacking is the translation of this broad sentiment into more discrete and concrete policy proposals–in a way that other issues like trade and terrorism already possess. Whether the desire of those primary and general election voters is a signal read by campaigns which then produces a more detailed climate change focused foreign policy platform depends both on voter pressure but also whether experts and campaign advisors begin to shape the picture of what such a policy framework would look like.

But it is also import to take a warning from Milne and Nichols, based on the shift we saw from candidate to President Obama: someone seeking the nomination may articulate one narrative on the trail but embrace another once in office.

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