Democratic candidates should counter Trump's foreign policy

Democratic candidates should counter Trump's foreign policy
© Getty Images

All the Democratic Presidential candidates agree the Trump foreign policy is a disaster, shattering alliances while alienating allies, embracing authoritarian dictators, substituting bluster and bluffing for strategy.

This critique ranges from policies toward Russia and China to Iran and NATO to climate change.

Yet national security — apart from Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump says he doesn't want NYT in the White House Warren to protest with striking Chicago teachers Schiff punches back after GOP censure resolution fails MORE stressing his experience and third-tier candidates, Reps Seth MoultonSeth Moulton2020 Presidential Candidates Rep. Joe Kennedy has history on his side in Senate bid Mass shootings have hit 158 House districts so far this year MORE (D-Mass.) and Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardSanders: 'Outrageous' to suggest Gabbard 'is a foreign asset' Clinton attacks on Gabbard become flashpoint in presidential race Saagar Enjeti: Clinton remarks on Gabbard 'shows just how deep the rot in our system goes' MORE (D-Hawaii) — seems largely AWOL in the Democratic presidential contest. It's early, and foreign policy doesn't register much with voters. Still, it's a mistake not to join the issue.


“As attractive as are so many domestic issues, it's really important for candidates to focus on national security,” says Denis McDonoughDenis Richard McDonoughFormer Obama officials willing to testify on McCabe's behalf: report Trailer shows first look at Annette Bening as Dianne Feinstein 2020 Democrats fight to claim Obama's mantle on health care MORE, a top foreign policy adviser and then chief of staff to President Obama. He puts China at the top of the list. That list includes:

China — Trump’s tough talk and tariffs against Bejing may be questionable policy, but this resonates with voters. He's seen standing up for American interests and jobs. Ohio's Mahoning Valley, once a Democratic stronghold, remains an industrial wasteland, but according to a New York Times report, it's Trump country in no small part due to China.

Democrats have yet to figure out how to counter Trump on China without appearing soft. “The  Chinese are bad actors on  trade,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren to protest with striking Chicago teachers Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Four companies reach 0M settlement in opioid lawsuit | Deal opens door to larger settlements | House panel to consider vaping tax | Drug pricing markup tomorrow On The Money: Trump dismisses 'phony Emoluments Clause' after Doral criticism | Senate Dems signal support for domestic spending package | House panel to consider vaping tax MORE says while criticizing Trump's policy as centered on his tweets; “The best way to fight back is with strength and and with a coherent plan.” Trump has a plan: high tariffs. China is not a big deal in the primaries; it will be in the general election, and today Democrats are on the defensive.

Climate change — This is a big deal among Democrats and all are advancing aggressive proposals led by another third-tier candidate, Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeOvernight Energy: Farmers say EPA reneged on ethanol deal | EPA scrubs senators' quotes from controversial ethanol announcement | Perry unsure if he'll comply with subpoena | John Kerry criticizes lack of climate talk at debate John Kerry calls out lack of climate questions at debate CNN catches heat for asking candidates about Ellen, Bush friendship at debate MORE. State and local governments are trying to fill the void caused by the national administration.

But the climate peril is a global crisis. Rejoining the Paris accords is essential, but those targets, set three years ago, need to be updated. There's an opportunity for a candidate to lay out a more comprehensive global plan.


North Korea — In 2007 candidate Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaUK judge denies Assange bid to delay extradition hearing Trump's eye-opening scorecard on border security Why Americans should look at the Middle East through the eyes of its youth MORE was derided by the foreign policy establishment, including rival Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders: 'Outrageous' to suggest Gabbard 'is a foreign asset' Clinton attacks on Gabbard become flashpoint in presidential race Saagar Enjeti: Clinton remarks on Gabbard 'shows just how deep the rot in our system goes' MORE, for saying he would meet with evil regimes without preconditions. He was right. Trump's problem in his two inconsequential meetings with Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnUS proposed helping North Korea build tourist area amid nuclear talks: report Kim poses for photos on white horse on sacred mountain, plans 'great operation' Beware the 34th month of Trump's presidency MORE was not the lack of conditions but lack of preparation and a considered strategy.

Democrats won't beat the war drums on the Korean peninsula. But it's unlikely North Korea will give up all its nuclear arsenal. Is there any plan to deal with that, while intensifying pressure on Pyongyang and getting China to play a more constructive role?

Middle East — All major candidates call for rejoining the Iranian nuclear deal. McDonough notes the irony of an American policy that provides “maximum pressure” on Iran, not a nuclear power and abiding by the deal and “minimum pressure” on nuclear-armed North Korea, whose program is not in check.  

Trump has pandered to Israel's right wing leader, Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE, and Saudi Arabia's crown price, Mohammed bin Salman, who orchestrated the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Democrats need to specify how they will change these policies. And since the best bet is the Administration's Palestinian plan will meet the same failure as earlier efforts, does anyone seriously believe there's a way to change this?

Ending endless wars — The last three presidents have vowed to minimize American interventions abroad. Yet 18 years after 9-11 there still are 20,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Everyone will promise to bring these Americans home but how quickly and are there any caveats or conditions? 

The corollary is laying out conditions for the use of force. For Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren to protest with striking Chicago teachers Sanders: 'Outrageous' to suggest Gabbard 'is a foreign asset' Democratic strategist: Sanders seeking distance from Warren could 'backfire' MORE, it may be almost never. For the others, it's a more difficult question.

Foreign policy is not a priority for voters; however, the candidate that cogently addresses these matters, may create a breakout moment.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for the Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.