Credit CNN in this week’s debates: The moderators attempted to ask the candidates questions about foreign policy and national security. Foreign policy is a pretty important topic for a country that was once the undisputed hegemon of the world, spent the last 18 years battling Islamist terrorists, and now faces threats from revisionist powers like China and Russia. And to a greater degree than in domestic policy, the president holds a large deal of unilateral power in international affairs.
CNN did its job, but the candidates did not. Where there was consensus, it was hollow, and were there was disagreement, no one made any good arguments about, well, anything.
Most of the candidates agreed that diplomacy is very important.
SANDERS: What we need is a foreign policy that focuses on diplomacy, ending conflicts by people sitting at a table, not by killing each other… Bring countries together in the Middle East and all over the world to come to terms with their differences and solve those problems peacefully.
HICKENLOOPER: We should have an international diplomatic approach where we’re talking to everybody, because if we’re going to deal with climate change and cyber security and nuclear proliferation, we’ve got to be talking to everybody.
RYAN: We’ve got to demilitarize our foreign policy. We’ve got to make sure that we are engaging these countries all the time.
KLOBUCHAR: I just think you have to leave open the possibility of meeting with anyone at any place.
O’ROURKE: We will not send more U.S. service-members overseas to sacrifice their lives and to take the lives of others in our name. We can resolve these challenges peacefully and diplomatically.
GABBARD: I will end these wasteful regime change wars, work to end this new Cold War through the use of diplomacy to de-escalate these tensions…
Only slightly less popular than the talking-is-good consensus was the support for bringing the troops home.
SANDERS: We have been in Afghanistan I think 18 years, in Iraq 16 or 17 years. We have spent $5 trillion on the war on terror. And there are probably more terrorists out there now than before it began.
O’ROURKE: And it’s time to bring those service-members back home from Afghanistan, but also from Iraq, also from Yemen, and Somalia, and Libya, and Syria. There is no reason for us to be at war all over the world tonight. As president, I will end those wars, and we will not start new wars.
BUTTIGIEG: We will withdraw. We have to. And we need to talk not only about the need for a president committed to ending endless war, but the fact that Congress has been asleep at the switch.
GABBARD: We have to do the right thing, end these wasteful regime change wars, and bring our troops home.
YANG: I would bring the troops home, I would de-escalate tensions with Iran, and I would start investing our resources in our own communities.
BIDEN: I was asked by the president in the first meeting we had on Iraq, he turned and said, Joe, get our combat troops out, in front of the entire national security team. One of the proudest moment of my life was to stand there in Al-Faw Palace and tell everyone that we’re coming—all our combat troops are coming home.
Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper provided a welcome note of dissent here, in which he suggested that leaving our allies in Afghanistan to the mercies of the Taliban after nearly two decades of hard-fought progress might not be a good or compassionate idea. Senator Cory Booker went nearly as far, suggesting that a peremptory withdrawal of forces might further destabilize the region. Both were ignored.
Except for incomprehensible exchanges about nuclear no-first-use and what Representative Tulsi Gabbard insists on calling a “nuclear arms race” (the 1980s called; they want their foreign policy back), the candidates didn’t have much else to say about how the United States should interact with the world. And that’s a shame.
The candidates’ collective incoherence betrays a lack of confidence, understanding, or both. Contrast their policies on health care, for which they had no trouble identifying overall goals. They wanted universal coverage, at least for every citizen if not every resident. Even ostensible centrist John Delaney couched universal healthcare as a fundamental human right. They only disagreed over how best to arrive at their preferred outcome.
Beyond anti-military platitudes, however, the candidates’ desired outcomes on foreign policy were vague at best. They agreed they wanted to talk to every single country all the time—but what about? Human rights? General stability? Maintaining the American-led, post-war international economic and security system? Trade?
They share this problem with President Trump, who has espoused no shortage of policy suggestions (often contradictory) about how we ought to interact with other counties. But his overall outlook on the American role in the world, “America first,” is just a bumper sticker. It’s hardly better than his predecessor’s approach to foreign policy, which Obama once summed up as “Don’t do stupid shit.”
Maybe our politicians, distracted by the “end of history” and then by the 9/11 wars, have gotten out of the habit of making arguments to the American people about our country’s unique and indispensable role in the world. Maybe the American people have gotten out of the habit of expecting candidates to have articulable visions for American foreign policy.
Or maybe there’s a tacit agreement in both parties that the United States of America should only be, as George H. W. Bush put it, “another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe.” But if that’s the case, they should at least say it out loud.