It’s hard to fault the moderators of Wednesday night’s Democratic primary debate for not devoting much time to foreign policy. The format and large number of candidates didn’t allow much time for any particular topic. Not surprisingly, every candidate pledged to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal with the exception of Cory Booker, who said he wants to keep his options open to negotiate a better deal. More surprising was an extended but not particularly illuminating argument over Afghanistan between Reps. Tim Ryan and Tulsi Gabbard.
What I think moderator Chuck Todd can be faulted for was the lightning round he set up in which each candidate was asked to name the “greatest geopolitical threat” to the United States “in one word.”
Todd probably had in mind the famous moment from a 2012 debate in which Barack Obama mocked Mitt Romney for giving Russia that designation. “The 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Obama said, in a zinger that hasn’t aged well.
This time, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee got the biggest applause for answering “Donald Trump,” followed by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said Russia, and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who said climate change. Other answers included China, nuclear proliferation, and Iran.
The first and most obvious problem is that the format of this question leaves no room for nuance; it tells us nothing about what these candidates would do to meet these threats. Climate change and Russian interference are both major concerns, but they’re very different types of problems and require very different policies. (Update, June 27, 2019, 12:00 a.m.: As if to underline the apples-and-oranges problem here, MSNBC subsequently “fact check[ed]” the argument that climate change is a geopolitical threat, saying “it’s difficult to quantify how much of a threat it is relative to adversarial countries or global concerns.”) Nevertheless, Todd was pleased with the results of his question, pronouncing the wide variety of answers to be the “best part of a debate like this.”
The question’s bigger problem is its assumption that the best way to assess a potential president’s foreign policy is by finding out what he or she is most afraid of, as if the only way the U.S. interfaces with the rest of the world is to confront danger. To be sure, confronting foreign threats is a big part of what a president does, but there’s no sense here that foreign policy ever presents any opportunities—be they economic, strategic, or moral. We now know something—though not very much—about what these candidates hope to prevent, but we know little to nothing about what they hope to accomplish.
Both draconian immigration policies and America’s over-reliance on military force are rooted in part in a sense of the rest of the world as sinister, dangerous, and best kept at a safe distance. Questions like this one don’t help.