Democratic Candidates & Foreign Policy after Iowa, with Nikolas Gvosdev

Feb 5, 2020

With the (incomplete) results of the Iowa Caucus putting the spotlight on Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders, what do we know about their foreign policy platforms? How do they differentiate themselves from Joe Biden? Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev shares his thoughts and touches on voters' possible perception of Sanders as a "socialist" and how climate change could become an issue in this election.

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Weekly. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council in New York City.

Today I'm speaking with Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev. He is also director of the U.S. Global Engagement Program and a professor of national security affairs at U.S. Naval War College.

Nick and I spoke about the incomplete results of the Iowa caucuses and the foreign policy positions of the top candidates. For more from Nick, including blog posts, more podcasts, and public events, you can go to

For now, calling in from Newport, Rhode Island, here's my talk with Nikolas Gvosdev.

Nick, thank you so much for getting on this call. A lot to talk about.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Happy to be here.

ALEX WOODSON: We originally scheduled this call for yesterday. We thought we would have the results of the Iowa caucuses by then. Obviously, that didn't happen until later in the day.

We're now at a point where, last I checked—it's about 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning—about 71 percent of the precincts in Iowa are reporting, and we obviously don't have the full picture yet, but it looks like Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders both did very well. They could switch top spots maybe, but those are the two big candidates that did really well coming out of Iowa; Elizabeth Warren, third place; Vice President Biden, not so good for him.

We haven't talked a lot about Pete Buttigieg and his foreign policy. I want to talk about Bernie Sanders as well, but to start off with Pete Buttigieg, when you think about Pete Buttigieg and foreign policy what comes to mind to you?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That's a really interesting question because Buttigieg can be all over the map in a way. I don't mean this in a bad way; I don't mean to say that it's scattered or that he is not consistent, but he is on the one hand, like Tulsi Gabbard, someone who has served in America's current conflicts in the Middle East, and is like so many other people in those conflicts who come out from their service and will question the efficacy of America's strategies, will question what are we achieving, will question is this the best use of American power, and is the military instrument the best use of military power? I think we see some of that.

We see obviously in his campaign a real focus joining other Democrats. Frankly this is a theme we have seen since the 2016 campaign of really focusing on internal renewal, internal regeneration, and making America's economy more productive for its citizens. This doesn't necessarily mean that you therefore adopt a more isolationist approach, but you focus on matters at home and then use American economic strength particularly at home to be able to reach out overseas.

Because of the generational shift—and we have to mention this—Buttigieg would be considered an early Millennial by most of the ways in which the generations are ranked and really a post-Cold War candidate, someone who did not have formative political experiences in the Cold War in a way that a Bernie Sanders or a Hillary Clinton or a Joe Biden did. He is really someone who comes out in the post-Cold War period, epitomizing both the optimism of the post-Cold War period, that we can move things forward and we can seek global solutions to global problems, but also living through the impact of 9/11 and the aftermath, which illustrates some of the limits of America's ability to singlehandedly or unilaterally reshape global affairs.

I think we see all of that in his approach, which is a more nuanced, cautious approach in some ways, one focused more on achievability, and in some ways it is not a complete repudiation certainly but is more nuanced than the Joe Biden positions, which tend to be, "Let's simply reset to where we were prior to 2016 in terms of how America deals with the world." In that regard, even if foreign policy was not a major motivation of Iowa caucus-goers, the fact that Buttigieg and Sanders are seemingly at the top of the choices explicitly or implicitly is also a rejection of, to some extent, the traditional post-Cold War Democratic Party establishment's approach to foreign policy.

ALEX WOODSON: I guess we should also mention that Iowa is not very representative of the United States. We have seen candidates win in Iowa and then not do so well in places like South Carolina and Nevada.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Exactly, and that I think shows the importance of not overstating this, but what it does suggest is that, at least among groups of Democratic Party activists—because in order to go to a caucus you have to be a bit more committed; it's not just simply casting a ballot, you have to give up time, you have to really be invested—it shows that at least one segment of the Democratic Party electorate is looking for change in a way that they feel that Vice President Biden, as a representative of the "establishment" does not offer them. That again not only divides among parties but divides within parties, and I think this intra-Democratic divide on domestic policy and implicitly on foreign policy is something that will continue to play out as the race continues.

ALEX WOODSON: When you look at Senator Sanders and his foreign policy, what differentiates him from moderates like Vice President Biden or Senator Klobuchar?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That's a great question to ask because again Senator Sanders, at least in his time in the Senate, has not assumed much of a foreign policy portfolio. In other words, he rose to political prominence not because of foreign policy but because of his positions on domestic issues and on very revolutionary change that he would like to see in America's domestic institutions, particularly in how it structures its economy.

Nevertheless, we have a track record, we have a series of statements, we have positions that have been taken over time. They speak to constituencies within the Democratic Party which are suspicious of intervention abroad, which question the efficacy of the use of American power—particularly its military power—to achieve value-oriented results, in other words, the spreading of democracy, the spreading of human rights. In fact, he has traditionally seen American overseas intervention as inimical to those values. This is in contrast to what we saw in the Clinton administration, in the Bush administration, and to a lesser extent in the Obama administration, which was that American power could be used to advance American values. Sanders speaks to a tradition within the Democratic Party that says American power generally exists in contradiction to these values, so on the one hand a certain degree of anti-interventionism.

In the past and certainly during his time as a regional politician in Vermont, Sanders has felt closer to left-leaning regimes in the world. He was more willing to excuse some of their internal difficulties as opposed to saying that as long as a government was anti-communist, it was automatically worthy of American support. We're in a post-Cold War period, so that is less of an issue today, but it speaks again to this suspicion of the use of American power.

Sanders has also been, of all the Democrats—and he has pulled other Democrats in this direction—the most critical of free trade, the most critical of this traditional establishment approach that says Democratic enlargement around the world means bringing more countries into free trade arrangements with the United States, that we use our trade to attract other allies. Sanders has always focused on the potential costs to American workers, the sense that trading particularly with governments that are not democracies does not enhance American values. He is critical of the paradigm that was pushed by the Clinton administration in the 1990s that more trade with China, breaking down trade barriers with China, would lead to greater political change within China, would make China more democratic, and would make China more of a "responsible stakeholder." In that sense he has shared some of the Trumpian criticism of the U.S.-China relationship.

One sees in Sanders' approach a sense that perhaps the United States should refocus who it trades with, who it does business with, to other countries that share its political system, that share its values, and that share some of its goals in terms of environment, definitely reorienting away from a Washington consensus that says expanding free trade is the way to go. Sanders has been the most vocal of the leading candidates because obviously there have been some other candidates, Tulsi Gabbard among them, who have also been critical of what we would call the foreign policy consensus. But Sanders is the only major candidate who has taken stands which would be perceived to be at odds with the foreign policy approaches of both the Clinton and Obama administrations.

ALEX WOODSON: There was a Washington Post article a couple of days ago from Josh Rogin. The headline is "Bernie Sanders' Foreign Policy is a Risk for Democrats Against Trump." This goes into if Bernie Sanders is the nominee, we're going to hear a lot of this over the next several months—of course, his "honeymoon" in the Soviet Union, his comments about Nicaragua and Cuba that some might take in the wrong way or some might take to be complimentary, and of course he calls himself a democratic socialist and is not afraid to say that. Trump obviously is going to call any Democrat who wins the nomination a socialist, but with Bernie Sanders there's a little bit more behind that. What do you think that will mean to voters when they get the full picture of Sanders' background and what his foreign policy positions are?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: It will be an interesting framing. We saw this in the State of the Union. President Trump is trying to frame socialism as the term is used to identify with Cuba and Venezuela and by extension to say, "Look at how terrible these countries' domestic economies are, look at the poverty, look at the authoritarianism, and therefore by extension Senator Sanders would try to reform America on Venezuelan lines." Of course, Sanders' rejoinder has always been: "My lodestones are the Scandinavian countries. Who wouldn't want a Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, or Finnish standard of living and educational system?" So I really think it's going to be that war of the paradigm of Finland versus Cuba, Sweden versus Venezuela.

But it also has implications for foreign policy because Sanders would say: "What has American intervention in Latin America produced? You've either produced conditions which create Cubas or Venezuelas, or our efforts to change those regimes has never brought about anything good. So why not simply leave these countries alone and let them make their own choices, let them make their own mistakes, and the United States should really not be intervening in their domestic affairs."

Again, the irony here is that there are echoes of Donald Trump's own critique of Republican foreign policy, which is to say, "Look around the world and point to me the case where American intervention has produced better results." He, of course, was pointing to Iraq and Afghanistan, but Sanders in theory could turn it around and say: "What has the embargo on Cuba brought? What has this effort to try to unseat Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela brought? No success there, and why wouldn't we want a different approach?"

Some of this again is also going to depend on how it resonates with different groups of voters, and this is why the generational question matters. To anyone who is over 50, referencing 1980s Nicaragua, the Cold War, and honeymooning in the Soviet Union means something different than to a 25-year-old voter born after the Soviet Union had disappeared from the map. So in some ways this is also going to resonate differently with different groups of voters, and it depends on who comes to the polls. If Senator Sanders is able to bring more Millennials and Generation Z voters to the polls for whom Soviet Union, Cuba, Castro, Nicaragua, and Daniel Ortega are things that they may or may not have read about in a high school history class but simply don't really resonate, then those arguments don't fall flat.

On the other hand, for people who still remember the Cold War, these arguments may have more traction and they may say, "Well, Senator Sanders wasn't on-board with fighting the Cold War and securing a Western triumph in that titanic struggle with the Soviet Union." Some of it is just going to depend on where these arguments land for the generational cohort of voters.

ALEX WOODSON: I think it's worth mentioning that among Millennials and Generation Z, Bernie Sanders, from what I have seen, is by far the preferred candidate but I guess that's probably more among Democratic voters. But still I think it shows that a lot of these young voters as you said may not know too much about the Soviet Union, Nicaragua, or it just doesn't bother them so much.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: The foreign policy community has this tagline: the "post-Cold War world" and then the "post-post-Cold War." But for most of the American foreign policy and political community, the Cold War is still a defining lodestone. We're only seeing now the beginnings of what happens when the Cold War recedes as a marker for how people think about foreign and domestic policy.

You mentioned the support that Senator Sanders has among younger people. We have also seen polling data that suggests that the "socialism" word doesn't carry the same connotations the younger that people are. Some of this may be idealism, some of it may be that socialism sounds good on paper and the like. But the reality is that as people emerge into adulthood in conditions in the world in which there is no Soviet Union, there is no Cold War; then the idea that our politics is still defined by Cold War markers becomes less relevant.

So whether it's Sanders and his appeal, whether it's younger candidates like Buttigieg who again as they look at things are saying: "I'm in a post-Cold War environment. I look at the world and I don't see the big red menace in the Kremlin seeking to take over the world in the same way." That was a seminal event in Joe Biden's career. He came to the Senate in 1974. It was something that, for two decades of his political career, mattered a great deal. For other candidates now, younger candidates, this is not the issue or the way that they think of politics.

How this continues to evolve forward will be interesting to see because the 2020 election is only the beginning of this shift, and afterward, whether it's 9/11, whether it's the financial crisis of 2008, or whether it's something that happens in the 2020s that becomes the defining event for how we think of politics, the Cold War paradigm is really on its last legs.

ALEX WOODSON: That leads into something else I want to speak about, and maybe we can close with this as well, which is climate change. That could very well—in fact, I think it probably will—be the defining force of the 2020s. I haven't heard too much about it on the campaign trail, definitely not in the debates that we've seen. I guess we should first say that Governor Jay Inslee from Washington wanted to run his presidential campaign on climate change, but he dropped out fairly early on. Are you surprised that no other Democratic candidate has really made this an organizing principle for their campaign?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: It is interesting, and it's interesting that no one has as of yet developed a foreign policy platform that takes climate change as one of its central organizing principles. Rhetorically, everyone nods their heads and says, "Climate change is the great issue moving forward, we must all deal with it, we must address it," but there is no sense of, "Well, how would that impact not simply domestic but foreign policies? What would you be prepared to do?"

This is opposed to, immediately after 9/11, when for a period of time anti-terrorism shifted to become the central organizing principle. We saw how that had impacts in the U.S. relationship with China, the U.S. relationship with Russia, the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, in which case human rights violations in Russia and China became less important than getting their help to crack down on extremists in Pakistan, and getting their help in antiterrorism supplanted questions about nuclear proliferation. When you do put something as a central organizing principle, it does act as a center of gravity and then other policies move into place.

We haven't yet seen how a climate change-based foreign policy would play out in how the U.S.-China relationship should be structured—energy consumption, sharing of technologies, for instance. I do find it interesting that we have an aspirational discussion of climate change that, yes, this should be a priority, the United States should re-enter the Paris climate accords, but not a sense of really thinking forward over several decades what does adjusting for climate change mean in terms of domestic policy and domestic spending but also in terms of foreign policy.

Also, because there is a very important question that we are going to face in the 2020s and moving forward, which is: Do we want to mitigate climate change because we think that's good for the world, or do we want to use climate change—if we all now are parroting the line that we're in an era of great-power competition, it's clear that some of the great-power rivals of the United States are likely to be more negatively impacted by climate change than others.

So do we have a climate change foreign policy agenda which is about promoting a cooperative global agenda, which is one direction, or do you have an agenda on climate change which says, "We want to use the negative impacts of climate change as a tool in great-power competition to potentially knock down challengers to the United States by exacerbating the problems that they are going to face from climate change, whether it's energy, flooding, food production, access to fresh water, and so on"?

So a climate change approach could take you to two very different directions in how you see the world, whether you see it as a force for promoting cooperation or you see it as a force for promoting competition and division. Right now I have not yet seen, from anyone on either side of the aisle, a real appreciation for how climate change changes foreign policy. When climate change is discussed it's always discussed as a discrete separate issue rather than seeing it as fully integrated into foreign policy.

Of course, that raises value questions. For the United States moving forward, as the global climate changes, is the obligation of the United States to the world as a whole, or is it to prioritize the interests of its citizens first? This is a question that other countries facing climate change issues are also beginning to discuss. This is why I can see this moving in two very different directions: cooperation or confrontation.

ALEX WOODSON: There are a lot of unknowns right now just in climate change and how that's going to affect the world, and this political discussion is really going to have to take place and be a lot more serious I think in the next few years.

Thank you so much, Nick. This has been great.


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