Ballot Box

The Worldview of John Edwards

His instincts on foreign policy and national security.

Slate is running several series of short features explaining who the 2004 presidential candidates are, what they’re saying, and where they propose to take the country. The first series summarized their personal and professional backgrounds. The second series analyzed their buzzwords. The third series outlined what each candidate would focus on as president. This series sketches how they would manage America’s role in the world.

After communism collapsed, American voters lost interest in defense and foreign policy. But those subjects can consume most of a president’s time, and 9/11 returned them to the forefront. It’s difficult to anticipate which hot spots a candidate would have to deal with as president, but it’s possible to get a sense of how he approaches war, diplomacy, trade, and other challenges abroad. This series pieces together a picture of each candidate’s instincts based on his words and his record. Today’s subject is John Edwards.

War and unilateralism: Edwards is more hawkish than all the Democratic candidates except Joe Lieberman. In October 2002, Edwards declared that if the U.N. Security Council failed to disarm Iraq, “The United States must be prepared to act with as many allies as possible to address this threat.” After the war, Edwards criticized President Bush for failing to plan or involve allies in postwar peacekeeping and reconstruction. But Edwards repeated that he “supported and celebrated Iraq’s liberation” and that the war “still might prove a victory for people everywhere who respect human rights, cherish freedom and seek to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction.”

Bureaucracies: Edwards was relatively quiet on security issues until 9/11. He tends to favor bureaucratic reorganization to fix what he sees as structural flaws in government. Domestically, he has pushed for a new homeland intelligence agency to absorb the FBI’s information-gathering (as opposed to enforcement) duties. Overseas, he has advocated new offices within the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to help “Directors of Reconstruction” supervise nation-building and humanitarian assistance.

NATO: When Edwards entered the Senate in 1999, Kosovo was the hot spot of the day. He immediately supported NATO airstrikes to force Serbia to remove its troops from Kosovo. Edwards eschewed the more aggressive option (sending in ground troops) and the less aggressive one (continuing to rely on diplomacy rather than force). President Clinton likewise settled on this middle option and pursued it for more than two months, amid criticism from both the right and the left, until the Serbs agreed to withdraw.

Edwards’ subsequent foreign policy ideas show a continued preference for NATO. Under his plan for a more formalized peacekeeping bureaucracy, NATO forces would supplement U.S. personnel. And in May 2003, Edwards argued that postwar Iraq should be run not by the United Nations but by a NATO-led multinational coalition.