Super Tuesday and the Clash of Foreign Policy Narratives

Mar 5, 2020

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

The "Super Tuesday" contest has now transformed the Democratic presidential primary into a two-person race, but beyond that, Democratic voters are now presented with a clear choice between two different foreign policy narratives and ethical considerations when it comes to U.S. engagement in the international system.

I had the opportunity to speak with Alex Woodson today to give my first impressions of where the race goes from here, but I also wanted to share some overall conclusions:

  1. While most voters did not make their choice based on foreign policy, foreign policy is essential to the domestic platforms of both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Sanders' call for a "domestic revolution" and a restructuring of the American economy requires some degree of an inward turn for America, and a re-evaluation of its international commitments, especially when it comes to creating and maintaining free trade agreements. Biden has argued that Donald Trump's haphazard withdrawal from key agreements has in fact jeopardized the security and prosperity of Americans, and promises to restore a degree of reliability. Populist constituencies may be more responsive to Sanders' critiques—and it was interesting that the day after Super Tuesday, Sanders made his differences with Biden on trade central to his argument—but important agricultural and industrial constituencies who have been damaged by the trade wars with Europe, China, and other key trading partners may welcome a return to normalcy.
  2. Biden and Sanders have clear differences about the efficacy of American power in the international system—and the ethical considerations at stake. For Sanders, American intervention tends to produce negative consequences despite the best intentions, and that America is better-suited to advocate for human rights by pulling back from the use of the military instrument of power, eschewing regime change and retrenching American foreign trade to like-minded states who share American values as well as commitments to labor and environmental standards. Based on what Sanders' surrogates were saying at the Munich Security Conference, Sanders is likely to eschew great power competition as an organizing principle for U.S. foreign policy. Biden focuses on the vacuums that are created when the U.S. withdraws from active engagement, and is more likely to argue that, even when there have been setbacks related to American intervention overseas, the balance sheet shows that pursuing a course of democratic enlargement has generally produced more good than harm. Democratic primary voters now have a very clear choice when it comes to foreign policy.
  3. It will be interesting to see whether foreign policy questions emerge at the next debate in mid-March. Sanders shares many of Trump's critiques of free trade—and Biden may be pressed to defend the Obama administration's record on pushing for free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Whether the 2002 vote to authorize President George W. Bush to use force in Iraq will be resurrected in 2020 as an issue remains to be seen (Sanders, like Obama, can cite his opposition, while Biden might have to explain his own evolution), and the Obama administration's track record on intervention in Libya and Afghanistan may come up. In turn, Biden may challenge Sanders' positions on NATO enlargement and forward engagement.

As of mid-March, we now have three distinct foreign policy narratives emerging among the candidates. Trump, of course, remains committed to an America First/transactionalist narrative, and the Trump administration's push for an agreement to finalize an end to the Afghan operation signals an effort to appeal to populist constituencies that Trump seeks to end interventions overseas. Sanders represents a pulling back to focus on domestic issues and in some cases may echo Trumpian themes in his debates with Joe Biden. Finally, we have seen a coalescing around Biden of the voting groups that would like to reset the country back to where the Barack Obama administration left off in 2016.

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