Democrats’ Foreign Policy Agenda

Kevin Drum would like to see his party’s candidates get beyond the talking points and focus on the Big Picture when it comes to foreign policy.

I already know that every Democratic candidate thinks we should withdraw from Iraq, but what I don’t know is what they want to do next. What do they think are the biggest threats facing us? Are they willing to repudiate preventive war? (More to the point: Are they going to continue to insist that if all else fails, they’ll wage preventive war against Iran?) Do they agree that democracy promotion ought to be our primary foreign policy goal? If not, what is? What’s the role of the military in the war on terror? In fact, do they even think we’re at war? If so, is it a war on “terror” or something else? What’s the best way to prosecute it? Etc.

Beyond a few platitudes, this shift is highly unlikely to happen. Proposing actual policies that can be nitpicked is a political minefield. Decrying the failures of the Bush administration, by contrast, will draw loud cheers and large donations. Even intramurally, it’s far more lucrative to bash Hillary Clinton than to go out on a limb with your own agenda.

Even aside from the politics, presidential candidate pronouncements on foreign affairs are nearly worthless. Candidate George W. Bush vigorously opposed nation-building but we’ve been doing it (granted, poorly) in Iraq for years. Candidate Bill Clinton lambasted George H.W. Bush for being too soft on China and too hard on would-be Haitian immigrants; President Bill Clinton pursued the identical policies. I don’t think either candidate was lying about their intentions, it’s just that there are far more moving parts to foreign affairs than most realize.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. With the domination of two parties in American politics, one might expect a more consistent approach to governing.
    The GOP has been neutered and the new direction is looking for one.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    There’s really little need for leading Democrats to speak out on their foreign policy preferences. We already know what they are: basically a re-play of the Carter Administration foreign policy i.e. extreme reluctance to use force (particularly when it furthers American interests), emphasis on human rights. Expect an emphasis on “fair trade”, tying treaties to human rights improvement, etc. Who does the the NYT or Washington Post trot out when they’re looking for a foreign policy assessment that’s an alternative to whatever the Bush Administration is peddling at the time? Zbigniew Brzezinski.

    BTW, I’m not nuts about the Bush Administration’s program of democracy promotion, either.

    I think we should stick to what we’re actually good at: emphasizing economic liberalization and capital investment. Millions of Chinese, Indians, and people in dozens of other countries are leading better lives because of economic liberalization and capital investment. Will that lead to political freedom and increased human rights? Beats me but it’s certainly worth a try.

    Let’s shame the devil and cut (or eliminate) agricultural subsidies here. That would be a good start.

  3. LJD says:

    Hard for them to say… not knowing.

  4. Tano says:

    I didnt get the impression that Kevin Drum was asking for “actual policies’, but rather for big-picture foreign policy principles.

    That is a distincition this i think is being clouded over here. Being tougher or softer on China and Haitians are specific policies. Being for or against nation-building or preemptive war is more of a big picture / philosophy of fp governance.

    I think that most people understand that the next president will face challanges that we really cant forsee now. So voters tend not to focus too much on specific policy options that a candidate might put forth, but rather try to get a sense of what their underlying principles are, so that at least some confidence can be had in ones predictions of how they will react to future crises. I agee with Kevin that the Dems need to articulate that.

    I dont quite know what to make of Dave’s comments. It doesnt seem quite right to me to claim that future Dem policies will be something like Carterism. And focusing on Zbig seems odd as well. Personally, I think Zbig is a brilliantly insightful fp observer, who has been right on the issues of the day far more often than almost anyone else. I dont see much “carterism” in his analyses. Fact is that the human rights concerns of Pres. Carter were unambiguously a good thing that helped to redefine the relationship with the Soviet Union. And Carter’s disinclination to the use of force was his personal take – Zbig was the acknowledged hawk in that administration.