Former President Barack Obama substantially increased U.S. troops in Afghanistan early in his tenure, gave military support to rebels to help them depose the leader of Libya and personally ordered drone strikes to kill alleged terrorists in a number of countries. Liberal Democrats thought he was too hawkish, while foreign policy experts in Washington, particularly Republicans, slammed him for being too much of a dove.
The liberals may have won that debate — at least within the Democratic Party. The next Democratic president may be significantly more anti-war than Obama; that is, wary of deploying or increasing the number of American troops anywhere. That’s at least the general consensus on foreign policy and national security that emerged from the 15 Democratic presidential candidates (both from the party’s left and left-center wings) who responded to FiveThirtyEight’s eight-question survey on their foreign policy stances.1
Before we get to the results, a few brief notes on our questions. Obviously, it’s hard to confine foreign policy to eight questions, so we tried to avoid subjects in which we thought the candidates would all have the same answer. For example, virtually all Democratic candidates would reengage the U.S. in the Paris climate accord. We also tried to avoid topics for which we couldn’t come up with a fairly concise question. It’s a safe bet that any of the Democratic candidates, if elected president, would be more critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin than President Trump has been, but it’s hard to design a question that would illustrate the differences between the candidates on that subject. So there are some major foreign policy issues (like how the U.S. should deal with Russia) that are not represented.2
Here are the results:
The clearest conclusion is that the candidates generally favored four anti-war stances as a bloc; this includes not only more liberal candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but also more center-left figures such as Michael Bennet and Amy Klobuchar:
- Ending the U.S. involvement in Yemen. All 15 would end the Trump administration’s policy of the U.S. military offering logistical and other support to the government in Yemen in the country’s civil war against the Houthi rebels. This is not particularly surprising: Both houses of Congress earlier this year passed a resolution calling for the end of American involvement in the civil war. Democrats on Capitol Hill voted overwhelmingly in favor of the resolution, which was vetoed by Trump.3
- Getting rid of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). All 15 generally support the repeal of the AUMF. That provision was initially passed in the wake of 9/11 as Congress’s way of greenlighting U.S. attacks on al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan. But it has also been used by the George W. Bush, Obama and Trump administrations to justify deployment of U.S. forces anywhere those administrations saw as a terrorist threat — without any additional approval from Congress. Repealing this measure, in theory, would force Congress to pass a new provision authorizing U.S. forces to fight terrorism. (And several candidates said the U.S. should pass a new AUMF if it gets rid of the 2001 version.) A new AUMF would likely be more limited in scope and give more power to Congress in deploying U.S. troops to conflicts abroad.
- Getting all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. Ten of the 15 also said they would look to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan in their first term. This was a bit surprising to me. On the one hand, the conflict in Afghanistan has become known as a “Forever War” — U.S. troops have been there for nearly 20 years. On the other hand, the removal of nearly all troops from Iraq during the Obama years was blamed for creating an atmosphere that allowed for the rise of the Islamic State group.
- Reducing overall defense spending. Twelve of the 15 also support a net decrease in defense spending. The U.S. spent more than $600 billion on defense in 2018, a total that is more than a third of overall global spending on defense and dwarfs the military budgets of China ($250 billion) and Russia (approximately $60 billion) combined. I figured liberal candidates like Sanders would take this stance but was surprised that many of the more centrist Democrats did, too.
“We could cut our spending by a third and still spend more than all of our global adversaries combined,” Tim Ryan said in a statement from his campaign. “I would like to see the money allocated to economic stimulus, reducing our national debt and given back to the states for investments in public schools, infrastructure, and job training programs.”
Many of the campaigns did not respond to our questionnaire, most notably those of Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris. (The Biden and Harris campaigns also did not respond by our publication date to our previous questionnaire on criminal justice reform.) That said, from other reporting, it’s fair to say that Biden, Buttigieg and Harris are part of the general consensus of foreign policy views among the candidates. For example, all three support the end of U.S. military involvement in Yemen, and Buttigieg backs the effort to repeal the 2001 AUMF.
The candidates were also basically unified around four other issues that didn’t necessarily fit into a broader frame (as the questions about military spending and use of force did).
- Keeping the U.S. Embassy in Israel in Jerusalem. Foreign policy experts and some Democrats harshly criticized the Trump administration when it moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem last year. But only three candidates, all long shots — Joe Sestak, Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson — said they would move it back to Tel Aviv. That the candidates were broadly unwilling to reverse Trump’s move is perhaps evidence that the pro-Israel part of the Democratic Party still has some sway, even as Democratic voters are becoming skeptical of Israel’s government. There was a bit of an ideological split among candidates on this question. More moderate candidates like Booker and Beto O’Rourke clearly stated that they would not move the embassy, while liberals like Warren and Sanders were more noncommittal on that issue.
- Being noncommittal on meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without “preconditions.” Most of the candidates emphasized that they wanted to meet with Kim but would want to have some parameters for such a meeting. (So basically “no,” but they likely didn’t want to say “no” and seem resistant to diplomacy.)
- Supporting measures to pressure Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro to leave power but emphasizing that the U.S. should involve itself in a diplomatic process and not deploy forces there.
- Leaving the door open to continuing some kind of tariffs on China. Generally, the candidates attacked Trump for conducting trade policy in a way that is “reckless,” a word invoked by the campaigns of Bennet, O’Rourke and John Delaney. But nearly all of the candidates also criticized China for what they cast as unfair trade practices.
I don’t want to suggest that the Democratic candidates agree on everything in terms of foreign policy. I think it’s clear that a Warren administration would be more favorable to tariffs than that of the more establishment Delaney. Biden has already rejected the idea of a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and would likely be less anti-war and anti-interventionist than, say, Sanders. And maybe different questions would have yielded a bigger spread among the candidates.
That said, at least compared with economic policy (where there is a clear divide between the left and left-center Democrats on issues like “Medicare for All”), foreign policy is an area where the ideological fissures of the party are less pronounced.
I think the unity among the candidates is striking. As a group, they seem to be previewing a more anti-war foreign policy approach than Obama’s.
CORRECTION (Aug. 20, 2019, 3:04 p.m.): The chart and the text in this article have been updated to more accurately reflect the questions we sent to campaigns. In particular, results for the question about Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro have been changed to reflect the fact that we asked whether candidates support using “diplomatic, economic or other means” to pressure him to leave office, as opposed to only military force. We’ve also included those questions in full in a footnote.