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The 2020 Democratic Field and Foreign Policy

Tom Friedman worries that Democratic candidates aren’t talking enough about foreign policy [1]:

But one issue has been largely absent: foreign policy — the potential use of force, great-power competition and the management of alliances that will be more important during the next presidency than it has been in three decades.

Maybe I missed it, but I haven’t heard any of the Democrats running on the argument that he or she is the best person to answer the White House crisis line at 3 in the morning.

Friedman definitely missed a lot, because several of the declared Democratic candidates have had plenty to say about foreign policy and their ideas for how to improve the way the U.S. engages with the rest of the world. I can only assume that Friedman hasn’t been paying attention for the last two years. Elizabeth Warren wrote an article [2] for Foreign Affairs and delivered a speech outlining her ideas, and Bernie Sanders has spent the last few years leading on a number of important issues, especially U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen. His speeches were the subject of a Jamelle Bouie column [3] last month. No matter what one thinks of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s views, there is no question that she has been deeply engaged in thinking about U.S. foreign policy and has made the rejection of what she calls regime change wars a central theme of her candidacy. The other candidates may not have been quite as vocal as these three, but I doubt they have been mute. If Friedman’s column were a real effort to analyze the foreign policy platforms of various Democratic presidential candidates, this would be a huge oversight. Since the column is really just a glorified press release for his friend’s new book, I suppose we shouldn’t expect very much.

The problem that Friedman has with the Democratic field is that they aren’t talking about the things he thinks they should. For example, he warns about supposedly “resurgent” regional powers, and he weirdly groups Iran with major powers Russia and China, but since he hasn’t paid any attention to what the candidates have been saying he doesn’t know that Sanders and Warren have both addressed this question in different ways in their public remarks. Indeed, they have talked about it so much that some progressives are concerned that they are framing their foreign policy views too much in terms of a Cold War-style clash. Daniel Bessner and Udi Greenberg write [4]:

Most alarmingly, Warren and Sanders’s dualistic understanding of international relations uncomfortably echoes the Manichaean vision of the Cold War, the same framework they hope to replace.

If Sanders and Warren hadn’t already been talking about these issues for months, there would be nothing for others to criticize. Friedman can’t engage with any of this because he seems genuinely unaware that it exists. That tells us that he doesn’t have a very good read on what Democratic candidates and activists are talking about, and he has no idea that they have been working on crafting a progressive foreign policy agenda for at least the last two years. Then again, why would he? Friedman has been too busy making excuses for Saudi war criminals and recycling tired cliches to notice any of this.

The problem here isn’t just that Friedman does his usual poor job as an analyst, but that he is also doing a huge disservice to his readers and to the broader foreign policy conversation by being completely oblivious to a very active debate among Democrats on these very issues. According to Friedman, Democratic candidates aren’t ready to answer the proverbial 3 a.m. phone call, and he claims they “all prefer to let it ring and hope that it’s a wrong number.” That’s not just insulting and dismissive, but it is also lazy and simply false. Perhaps if Friedman spent more time researching the candidates he ignorantly disparages, he wouldn’t end up making such silly arguments.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "The 2020 Democratic Field and Foreign Policy"

#1 Comment By Kasoy On March 14, 2019 @ 3:53 am

Foreign policy is way down the list of Democrat voters. Their main issues are taxing the rich, increase welfare (free college, free healthcare, unemployment benefits, reparation for past abuses of minorities, etc), social transformation (LGBTQ, abortion, marijuana, euthanasia, diversity, total eradication of religion from public life esp Christians), green new deal, open border & unrestrained immigration, SCOTUS liberal judges packing.

The only reason Democrats talk about foreign policy is to counter whatever position Trump is taking at the moment.

#2 Comment By Christian Chuba On March 14, 2019 @ 7:59 am

‘Resurgent Iran’
So what was Iran supposed to do while ISIS and Al Qaeda were sweeping through Iraq, Syria, and into Lebanon, sit on their hands and patiently wait for the U.S. to ask the Saudis how to handle it?

Friedmand and people like him are sociopaths, they are unable to see things from anyone else’s perspective. We drove the gasoline truck off the cliff in the first place.

#3 Comment By James from Durham On March 14, 2019 @ 8:23 am

Kasoy, I don’t want to be too judgemental here because leftists write stuff just like you have (just change the nouns and adjectives but the structure is the same). But do you actually talk to any Democrats? Are you sure about this? Or is it just what you think about what they must want?
Trouble is we all tend to meet with our own people and we assume we know what the other guy wants.

#4 Comment By Tony On March 14, 2019 @ 8:43 am

They should all state that they will not recognise US withdrawal from the INF treaty unless Trump gets a two-thirds majority in the Senate for such a move.

#5 Comment By Anne Mendoza On March 14, 2019 @ 8:52 am

Why does Tom Friedman, first class bloviator and metaphor mangler, still have space at the New York Times? I sense a consensus that his columns are stinkers and, thus, a unique punishment visited on New York Times readers.

#6 Comment By Uncle Billy On March 14, 2019 @ 10:12 am

Why is the Middle East our problem? Get the US out of the entire Middle East now. The Chinese and the Russians are welcome to that septic tank.

#7 Comment By rayray On March 14, 2019 @ 11:09 am

I think the point of the article is that this is not the case.

Traditionally, Democrats have leaned into domestic, or what you might call “America First” issues. But the irony is that, (until now with folks like Sanders and Warren), Democrats have been strikingly similar to Republicans in their blind acceptance of the industrial/defense complex and America’s role as the world’s military meddler.

I think it’s encouraging that it’s changing on the Democratic side, and I think we should not only support that, but we should support those candidates that are pushing this agenda.

#8 Comment By Andy Bathgate On March 14, 2019 @ 11:35 am

That Friedman has not disappeared from sight after his rapturous love song to the Saudi murderer MbS is a testament to his total absence of shame. The only thing bigger in the world than Friedman’s ego is his cluelessness.

#9 Comment By a spencer On March 14, 2019 @ 12:19 pm


Thankfully the Republicans have a strong, courageous voice like Ilhan Omar to upset the proverbial foreign policy establishment apple cart.

#10 Comment By SteveK9 On March 14, 2019 @ 8:29 pm

Mr. Larison, you answered your own question: Friedman is an idiot and always has been. For hilarious takedowns of numerous Friedman mixed(mangled?)-metaphors, non-sequiturs, and downright incoherence, try searching on Friedman and Taibbi (Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone).

#11 Comment By Collin On March 15, 2019 @ 11:11 am

Other places on this website assumes Ds will simply be Hawks but it is good to see you note some of the Ds foreign policy discussions here.

1) It is clear Bernie took notes both on his 2016 ‘failures’ against HRC and spent a lot of time with Matt Duss here. Although it is clear Warren campaign is not going well so far, it is good to see she is talking Foreign Policy.

2) I do think Gubbard has good stuff to say and long term be a positive for the D Party although her opinions of Assad are concerning and her past social conservatives will create other concerns.

3) For whatever reason, it appears the Primary is heading down of Biden v Sanders with likely Beto and maybe Harris playing spoiler. (Don’t ask how the Ds ended up with Primary with three front runners are three white males.) Anyway, I do think Liberal Hawk Biden is ‘leading’ so Sanders is going to have pursue Foreign Policy hard.

4) Although Omar has lots of issues, her concerns on Abrams are important for Democrats to understand. It still feels like Pompeo & Bolton are leading Trump into military action in Venezuela.

#12 Comment By Fastjimmy On March 15, 2019 @ 1:11 pm

It seems to come down to this:

Democrats plan to do the hard, messy work of diplomacy and will take note of the often lethal consequences of our actions. There is evidence that they may slow down the worlds headlong rush to decouple the U.S. from its irresponsibly managed position of leadership.

On the GOP side you have the same loudmouths, chicken hawks, incompetents and their cheerleaders running the ship of state into the ground.

Does anyone even notice that for all the billion dollar hardware we buy, our navy ships and sailors can’t steer or maintain their equipment. The focus is on shiny high tech hardware and impossible mission tempos- not training

#13 Comment By rayray On March 15, 2019 @ 5:32 pm

Good eye. The acquisitions process in the military favors the flash and dazzle of new stuff, that’s where the money is for most defense contractors, and that’s also what plays well in a Pentagon budget room.

Maintenance? Training? Not so much.