Opinion

Why 2020 Democrats need a better retort to 'America First'

Nothing is more integral to a president's job than foreign policy. Democrats can't just wave it away.

Will foreign policy matter at all in the 2020 election?

From the way the various Democratic hopefuls have been positioning themselves, one might conclude that they think it won't. On the surface, there is unified opposition to President Trump's impulsive and feckless approach to foreign affairs, his insulting treatment of long-time allies, and — especially — his unwillingness to respond to Russian interference in American elections. Meanwhile, below the surface there are significant tensions between those who support parts of the president's stated agenda — particularly on trade — and those who oppose it. For the sake of unity, the emphasis has been far more on pointing out Trump's personal ineptitude and corruption than on laying out a vision of their own.

But foreign policy is not a peripheral part of the president's job. On the contrary, it's the one area where the president has the ability to act largely alone, and receives substantial deference from the other branches of government. To run for president without articulating a coherent vision beyond "don't make foreign policy on Twitter" is to do a serious disservice to voters.

And it could have significant consequences for a victorious Democrat's actual ability to set a foreign policy course. The real contest in foreign policy, in recent decades, hasn't been between the president and Congress, but between the president and the government's permanent bureaucracy, both within the military and without. When the president hasn't prepared the ground for change, both through the campaign and through staffing, that bureaucracy starts with an enormous advantage. Indeed, the last Democratic president was largely unable to extricate America from foreign commitments of which he himself was deeply skeptical precisely because he faced substantial opposition from that permanent bureaucracy.

To prevent a repetition of that dynamic, Democratic hopefuls need to start articulating a coherent perspective on foreign affairs that will guide their administration and start identifying staff who agree with and will implement that perspective.

The candidate who has taken the most notable steps in that direction is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), who laid out a foreign policy vision rooted in her primary domestic concern: the capture of the state by corporate and wealthy interests. There are important insights in this vision about how the world works — and works to the detriment not only of American workers but workers in countries like China and India that have arguably benefited the most from globalization. And there are some specific policy choices that would flow logically from her larger perspective. A President Warren would surely be less supportive of Saudi foreign policy goals, seeing the petrostate as a prime example of precisely the forces she seeks to combat. A President Warren would likely also see Russia less as a military threat than as a threat to the integrity of the democratic process in Western countries; logically, she would fight Russia with cybersecurity measures, attacks on tax havens and money-laundering, and a robust effort to decarbonize the economy, rather than by sending lethal aid to Ukraine.

But that's my attempt to tease out the logical implications of her worldview; the meat still needs to be laid on the bones. How would a President Warren respond if, after reversing American support for the Saudi war in Yemen, the Gulf monarchy seeks new security partners, moving closer to Pakistan, China, and Russia? What would a President Warren's support for democracy imply for the question of Taiwan's status? More generally, would she treat China as a geopolitical rival and both use our military and orient our Asian alliances around restraining China? Or would she focus on insulating the U.S. economy from competition with an authoritarian regime? And what about the European Union, often criticized from the left for being structurally beholden to the interests of finance? Would she push Europe's leaders to restructure their union in a fashion analogous to the way she aims to restructure America's own economy?

The core test for a presidential aspirant is not whether they know the right answer to every foreign policy question. It's whether they have an articulable understanding of the national interest and whether they know how to manipulate the levers of power towards those stated ends.

Donald Trump, for all his manifest faults, made real strides toward the first question, albeit far fewer toward the second. "America First" wasn't just a slogan — it was a real perspective, a preference for a foreign policy that asks, first and foremost, what's in it for us? That's why Trump's key complaint about the Iraq War was that we didn't take the oil. It may be absurd, but it cuts to what, for him, was the chase: What did we get out of the war? And if we didn't get anything, why did we do it?

That perspective is an underrated factor behind Trump's victory, not so much because a majority of Americans viscerally agree but because it was never effectively answered, and therefore grew in strength with time. Donald Trump was able to dominate the Republican primaries, and has continued to bring his base with him even as he sails the American ship of state into uncharted waters, in part because his foreign policy appears to be genuinely his own. Fecklessly and incompetently executed, yes; sometimes destructive of the national interest it claims to serve, and corrupted by personal conflicts of interest, granted. Nonetheless, it's a real outlook on the world, and it has its visceral appeal — an appeal only bolstered when it goes up against a conventional wisdom that seems resolutely incapable of learning from its own mistakes.

Opposing Trump shouldn't mean opposing the idea of a foreign policy based on the national interest properly understood, nor should Trump be allowed to get away with implying that he has pursued a foreign policy of restraint, no matter whether he fulfills his promises to pull out of Syria and Afghanistan. The Trump administration's moves to intervene in Venezuelan politics, potentially with the military, for example, are not a betrayal of Trumpism, anymore than the withdrawal from the Iran deal, the vigorous support for the Saudi regime, or the appointment of ultra-hawks like John Bolton were. Trump did not run on bringing America home, or making American policy less aggressive and militaristic.

But opposing Trump does mean articulating a coherent alternative worldview. And that worldview cannot be limited to a return to that conventional wisdom, not just because of its historic failures, but because embracing it is a transparent way of passing the buck away from the desk where it is supposed to stop. At a minimum, whoever wins the nomination needs to articulate a perspective on foreign policy that is genuinely their own, not outsourced to a panel of wise experts, much less a collection of ignorant focus groups. They need to make an argument, and they need to win with it, if only to show that, as president, they'll actually be in charge.

The president is the commander in chief. Those who would claim that office should show that they can command their own troops before presuming to command the country's.

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