Executive summary

  • The Democratic Party’s foreign policy platform is getting tougher on China and simultaneously growing more sceptical of the utility of free trade, high defence spending, and US leadership in the Middle East.
  • Consequently, Australia will likely face more difficult decisions hedging between Washington and Beijing, regardless of which candidate wins the 2020 election.
  • Although Democratic primaries always feature a pull to the left, the trend is more pronounced now than in recent cycles due to the strength of the party’s progressive wing.
  • The leading progressives, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, propose significant changes to President Obama’s foreign policy platform.
  • President Trump is unlikely to achieve major domestic successes before the election, so many of his most notable actions in the lead up to the general election in November 2020 — and what he will see as an electoral strength — will likely be foreign policy.
DownloadThe frontrunners: Foreign policy and the Democratic Party in 2020


The Democratic Party is adopting a tougher approach to China and moving left on many issues of great consequence to Australia, including trade and defence spending. Since the end of the Cold War, foreign policy centrists have led a party committed to liberal internationalism, alliances, and to some degree, free trade. In this presidential election cycle, more left-leaning ‘progressives’ such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders enjoy enthusiastic support and are pulling the party’s platform to the left on domestic and foreign policy.

Unlike more centrist Democrats such as Joe Biden, progressives are sceptical or even hostile towards free trade agreements and vocal in their calls to cut the defence budget. In this election cycle, centrists and progressives agree on foreign policy positions such as opposing authoritarianism, reducing support for non-democratic allies, and raising the prominence of human rights and climate change in foreign policy.1 The key question for allies like Australia is whether the current move to the left on foreign policy translates into a new and lasting Democratic Party foreign policy consensus, and perhaps a president whose foreign policy is to the left of the Obama and Clinton administrations.

Concurrently, the shift to a more confrontational tone towards China is highly noteworthy and driven by concerns over economic issues, human rights and to a lesser extent, geopolitics. Democrats lament job losses due to Beijing’s economic policies and criticise China’s record on intellectual property. The increasingly authoritarian nature of the Chinese Communist Party, especially its influence operations overseas and conduct in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, are animating issues for Democratic candidates who speak about China in strong, often ideological terms. The China hardening is not a Trump-specific or a Republican-only phenomenon. Rather, getting tough on China is a rare example of bipartisan consensus between President Trump and Democrats in highly polarised Washington. Democrats broadly support President Trump’s confrontational approach towards Beijing, though not all of his methods. Moreover, Democrats use tough talk on China to build a greater sense of domestic unity in a fractured polity. Yet there are striking inconsistencies in Democrats’ approach to China, particularly that they are calling for a tougher approach to China while remaining hesitant, at best, about supporting high defence spending and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

If a Democratic president is sworn in on 20 January 2021, they will likely have won the Oval Office on a platform that is far more assertive towards China than the Obama administration’s, and to the left of the last two Democratic presidents on most foreign policy issues. Joe Biden, President Obama’s vice president, is adopting a more competitive tone towards China and seeking to mollify criticism from progressives on issues such as the TPP. The leading progressives, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, propose major changes to President Obama’s foreign policy platform. For this wing of the Democratic Party, the 44th president tolerated a rigged global economy and authoritarian regimes, and spent far too much on defence.2 The other major candidates at this point — California Senator Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg — are responding to the prevalent political winds by talking tough on China, but seeking to distance themselves from the Obama administration’s role in the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and trade agreements that are perceived as overly favourable towards big business. With a field that at one point numbered 25 candidates, and the vast majority of Democratic voters yet to decide on their preferred candidate, the outcome of the Democratic primary is highly uncertain.3 But the foreign policy contours are becoming clear, and they will help shape the 2020 election, the Democratic Party and US foreign policy.

Australia, and other US allies and partners, must start considering the implications of these shifts. First, as the needle on China policy swings in a more competitive direction across the American body politic, Australia and indeed most countries in the Indo-Pacific will likely face more difficult decisions hedging between Washington and Beijing. The increasingly ideological and adversarial tone towards China means Washington will put more pressure on Canberra to stand shoulder to shoulder on issues that are highly sensitive for the Chinese Communist Party, including Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Second, the foreign policy platform of the Democratic Party is no longer dominated by centrist figures who are well known to Australia, such as Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and John Kerry. There is the very real prospect that a Democratic candidate relatively unknown to allies and partners, with limited experience in foreign policy, or promising wholesale changes to foreign policy, triumphs in the general election. Indeed, this is the norm in recent presidential politics. All four US presidents elected after the Cold War — Presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — won their first presidential term with a very thin foreign policy resume.

Third, as Democrats move to the left and Donald Trump continues to remake the Republican platform, the gap between the United States’ two political parties is widening on all major foreign policy issues except China and trade policy.4 In turn, the United States will be a less consistent ally, with bigger shifts between administrations of different political persuasions and lower prospects that foreign policy initiatives from one administration will carry over, just as President Trump walked away from the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accords and the TPP.

Foreign policy: Rarely the dominant issue in US presidential elections

Foreign policy rarely determines who wins the Democratic or Republican Party nomination or the general election because it is far less important to American voters than more immediate concerns such as healthcare, the state of the economy, taxes or immigration. Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump all campaigned for their first term in the Oval Office by promising to focus on nation building at home and do less in the world, regardless of how they governed. Public opinion surveys, Democratic candidates’ stump speeches and party debates all suggest this trend is continuing in the 2020 election cycle.5 A May 2019 survey by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive think tank in Washington, found that American voters across both parties want US foreign policy to focus on two key objectives: firstly, protecting the homeland and American people from external threats (particularly terrorism), and secondly, protecting jobs for American workers.6 Perhaps the most significant finding of this poll and several others is that a majority of Americans see China as the United States’ main competitor, ahead of other countries such as Russia, Iran or North Korea. Moreover, many of the key phrases used by foreign policy experts — the ‘liberal international order’, ‘fighting authoritarianism’, ‘working with allies and the international community’, and ‘promoting democracy’ — all fell flat among a representative sample of voters, who “simply did not understand what any of these phrases and ideas meant or implied”.7

Unsurprisingly, the Democratic candidates are at this point devoting relatively limited speaking time to complex foreign policy matters. At this point of the cycle, they are jostling with each other, trying to make an impression with the electorate on the most important domestic issues. When Democrats do speak directly about foreign policy, they tend to pivot back to their domestic platform,8 or craft soundbite-length interjections to land blows on fellow candidates or President Trump.9 For foreign policy to be a major issue in primaries or the general election, it generally needs to be a single, relatively clear-cut issue such as whether a candidate supported the Iraq War.10 More broadly, foreign policy plays a role insofar as all frontline candidates face the ‘Commander-in-Chief’ test: whether Americans would trust the candidate to be the commander in chief of the US military. However, in the 2016 election, polls showed voters trusted Hillary Clinton more than Donald Trump to be commander in chief, yet Trump was effective in neutralising this gap by using Clinton’s extensive record against her, painting her as the latest incarnation of a foreign policy establishment that had plunged the United States into endless wars and unpopular trade deals.11

There are significant differences on foreign policy in the Democratic field, and a wide gulf between the worldview of major contenders Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

There are significant differences on foreign policy in the Democratic field, and a wide gulf between the worldview of major contenders Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Yet, absent a war or major international crisis in the next year, Democrats’ intra-party differences and their debates with President Trump are likely to focus on domestic issues.

Democrats are currently spending most of their time and energy debating a suite of major domestic policy changes, including universal healthcare, the ‘green new deal’, and major immigration reform. Although Democratic primaries always feature a pull to the left (and Republican primaries to the right), the trend is more pronounced now than in recent cycles due to the strength of the party’s progressive wing. Some but not all Democratic presidential candidates are embracing previously untouchable positions such as abolishing private health insurance, far higher taxes for the rich and softening immigration policies.

The lack of focus on foreign policy relative to domestic policy is anything but commensurate with the fact that foreign policy is the area in which the US president has greatest capacity to implement their vision. In all likelihood, the winner of the 2020 presidential election will be elected on a domestic platform that will be partially or mostly stalled in Congress and perhaps the courts. President Trump’s record on domestic and foreign policy implementation is instructive. With some notable exceptions, the Trump administration’s domestic agenda and key campaign promises have so far been partially or entirely frustrated.12 By contrast, President Trump has a strong record of implementing his central foreign policy pledges from the 2016 election campaign, including putting tariffs on China, withdrawing from the Iran and Paris agreements, and recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

One major difference in the Democratic Party on foreign policy this election, relative to previous cycles, is the influence of outside groups, particularly National Security Action (NSA). Founded in 2018 by Ben Rhodes, former Deputy National Security Adviser to President Obama, and Jake Sullivan, former National Security Adviser to Vice President Biden, NSA provides Democratic candidates with talking points and policy expertise to oppose President Trump. It sits at the centrist end of the Democratic Party, dedicated to “advancing American global leadership”.13 Rhodes has said its objective is to disband in 2021 if the Democratic nominee wins the election.14 If a centrist wins the election, it is likely that NSA’s network of more than 60 former senior officials from the Obama and Clinton administrations, academic experts and think tank leaders such as Tom Donilon, Susan Rice, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dennis McDonough and Samantha Power, will comprise much of the key foreign policy team of the incoming administration. Similarly, groups such as CAP and Middle East-focused J Street are also providing intellectual energy and talking points to Democrats.

The presidential election cycle

The presidential cycle can be conceptualised in four phases. First, Democrats will be positioning until the Iowa caucus (3 February 2020), with the remaining candidates competing for attention and the field narrowing as candidates drop out. Second, the primary phase will winnow the field to one nominee. The primaries commence with the first vote in Iowa and last several months as all states hold staggered votes including 15 states on Super Tuesday (3 March 2020), and the candidate to be formally nominated at the Democratic Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (13-16 July 2020). Third, the Democratic nominee will directly compete with President Trump in the general election phase from the convention until election day (3 November 2020). Fourth, if a Democrat wins the election, they will be in transition phase until they take the oath of office on 20 January 2021. As we get further into the election cycle, the remaining Democratic candidates and then the single nominee will likely offer more fleshed-out foreign policy proposals

The frontrunners

At this stage, the five major candidates, from centre to left on foreign policy, are Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. These candidates are well ahead of their fellow aspirants on all the key metrics, including polling, fundraising and name recognition. Each has a growing bench of foreign policy advisers. Moreover, all bar Harris have thus far issued at least one major foreign policy speech to bolster their commander in chief credentials, and Warren and Sanders have complemented their speeches with detailed essays and policy proposals. It is unlikely but not impossible that another candidate such as Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker or Beto O’Rourke captures the nomination, though at this stage these three and their fellow ‘outsider’ candidates each consistently receive less than 5 per cent support in polls of Democratic voters and trail far behind the frontrunners on fundraising.15

There is a wide array of similarities in Democrats’ approach to foreign policy. If elected, a Democratic president would immediately alter the style and much of the substance of President Trump’s foreign policy. To varying degrees, all candidates mention the need to rebuild strained ties with US allies and partners. Given President Trump’s affinity for generals, and the state of civil-military relations, Democrats are in favour of using the military as the tool of last resort, instead emphasising the non-military tools of US international engagement, including diplomacy, trade, aid and people-to-people links. Where President Trump often admires authoritarian leaders, the Democratic candidates are critical of authoritarian regimes. All candidates champion re-entry to the Paris climate agreement. Similarly, Democrats widely support re-entry to the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, though there would be significant hurdles involved in bringing Iran back to the negotiating table and winning renewed buy-in from the other parties to the deal.

The differences between the candidates’ foreign policy positions are subtle but significant and will shape the Democratic Party’s debates over coming months. Although there is growing consensus on a tougher China policy — despite candidates also acknowledging the importance of co-operation with Beijing on shared challenges such as climate change and nuclear proliferation — Democrats diverge in their relative emphasis on various aspects of the Chinese Communist Party’s behaviour and key focus for US policy towards China. Aside from the need to wind down the ‘forever wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are notable differences in their approach to Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia. There is a spectrum on defence spending, from a flat budget top-line with greater focus on modernisation, to calls for lower or far lower spending. On trade agreements, some progressives exhibit outright hostility, whereas centrists call for trade agreements such as the TPP to pay greater attention to environmental and labour provisions.

Joe Biden

Joe Biden has an extensive foreign policy record from his 44-year career in government, including as vice president during the Obama administration for eight years, and three separate stints as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.16 The Democratic frontrunner is seeking to portray himself as an elder statesman; a reliable and experienced choice for commander in chief. In July 2019, Biden’s campaign posted a 90-second video lambasting Trump’s admiration for autocrats, warmongering towards Iran, withdrawal from the Iran and Paris accords, and trade wars.17 The advertisement coincided with Biden’s first significant foreign policy speech of the campaign, at the City University of New York, where he told the audience, “the world sees [President] Trump for what he is: insincere, ill-informed, and impulsive. Sometimes corrupt. Dangerously incompetent, and incapable, in my view, of world leadership and leadership at home”.18 If elected, Biden would revert to many Obama-era policies, pledges to renegotiate TPP to include stronger environmental and labour protections, and views it as a key plank of US leadership in Asia.19 However, re-entering the TPP would require the agreement of the 11 other signatory nations (including Australia) and passage of the bill through Congress would depend largely on Republican votes due to the weak pro-trade constituency in the Democratic Party.20

As a major foreign policy figure in the Obama administration, Biden has little capacity to make a significant break from its policies. The two key differences between Biden’s comments in this campaign thus far and his record as vice president are his pledge to get tough on China and endorsement of a ‘global summit for democracy’. The goal of the summit would be to inspire a “renewal. . . of shared purpose” among the world’s democracies at a time when autocracy seems on the march.21 Relatedly, he views greater unity of action among democracies as helpful for competing with China and his key advisers believe that multilateral rather than unilateral pressure is the way to shape and change Beijing’s behaviour.22 During the speech, Biden explicitly declared that “we need to get tough with China”, with the unsubtle suggestion that the United States build a “united front” of “friends and partners to challenge China’s abusive behaviour”.23

US Vice President Joe Biden
US Vice President Joe Biden on board HMAS Adelaide in Sydney, July 2016Source: Getty

Allies, partners and adversaries alike would view Biden as a stable and reliable foreign policy president. Part of Biden’s pitch is that he personally knows most foreign leaders and can restore a global system that President Trump has attacked. At the Munich Security Conference in February 2019, Biden promised, “this too shall pass. We will be back”.24 He is also the candidate who knows Australia best, having visited Melbourne and Sydney and addressed the United States Studies Centre and Lowy Institute in 2016, and developed relationships with many former Australian prime ministers and foreign ministers.25 Relative to the other candidates, Biden enjoys a deep bench of foreign policy advisers and has many of President Obama’s foreign policy team behind him. Consequently, Biden’s key advisers are well known to Australian officials. Ely Ratner, a leading Democrat Asia hand, China hawk and former adviser to the vice president, would likely be a key figure on Asia policy in a Biden administration. Moreover, Biden’s campaign will also receive advice from staff at the think tank established in his name after he left the office: the Penn Biden Center at the University of Pennsylvania.26

However, Biden’s extensive public record from a lifetime of public service is also shaping as a vulnerability in a Democratic Party. Rivals seek to portray Biden as old and out of touch with America in 2019. On foreign policy, he faces the formidable challenge of defending his long record and simultaneously showing that he understands today’s realities.27 Biden’s vulnerabilities with the Democratic base include his support for TPP in the Obama administration, and votes as a senator in favour of the Iraq War, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and to establish permanent normal trade relations with China. In coming months, Biden will invariably seek to mollify these concerns from the left.

Where Joe Biden currently stands on foreign policy issues


"We are in a competition with China. We need to get tough with China. They are a serious challenge to us, and in some areas a real threat."

"The United States should push back on China’s deepening authoritarianism, even as we seek to cooperate on issues where our interests are aligned."[^28]


"I would not rejoin the TPP as it was initially put forward. I would insist that we renegotiate ... Either China’s going to write the rules of the road for the 21st century on trade or we are. We have to join with the 40 per cent of the world that we had with us and this time make sure that there’s no one sitting at that table doing the deal unless environmentalists are there and labor is there."

"President Trump may think he’s being tough on China. All that he’s delivered as a consequence of that is American farmers, manufacturers and consumers losing and paying more."[^29]

Defence spending

"Our military is one tool in our toolbox — along with diplomacy, economic power, education, science and technology. We must invest in and strengthen all elements of our power. And, we must modernize our military to prepare for the wars of tomorrow, while ensuring that we only deploy American troops into harm’s way when it is in our vital national security interest."[^30]


"Two of America’s vital interests in the Middle East are preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and securing a stable energy supply through the Strait of Hormuz … Trump is failing on both counts."

"If Tehran returns to compliance with the [JCPOA] deal, I would rejoin the agreement, and work with our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s destabilizing activities."[^31]

Major foreign policy address/essay

Speech, 11 July 2019: "The Power of America’s Example: The Biden Plan for Leading the Democratic World to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century"

Speech, 1 November 2017: "Global Engagement in an Age of Uncertainty"[^32]

Pete Buttigieg

‘Mayor Pete’ Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, is an unlikely top-tier candidate in the Democratic primary. His political identity is very different to the other frontrunners: he governs a town of 100,000 people in the Midwest, is just 37 years old, gay, a veteran from the war in Afghanistan and a Rhodes Scholar.33 Strong fundraising and decent polling have attracted a number of high-profile foreign policy advisers to the Buttigieg campaign, led by Doug Wilson, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration and the first openly gay Pentagon official confirmed by the US Senate.

Buttigieg frames the China challenge as a battle of competing ideologies. His proposals rest not on a geopolitical ambition to remain the pre-eminent power in the Western Pacific, but rather on the basis of a values-based scepticism of the Chinese Communist Party.

Buttigieg’s practical experience of international affairs is limited, but he has started to thoughtfully engage in foreign policy. In a June 2019 speech at Indiana University, ‘National Security for a New Era’, Buttigieg sought to allay fears that a young midwestern mayor was unfit to serve as commander in chief. He started with a thinly veiled criticism of Biden and the Democratic foreign policy establishment: “For the better part of my lifetime, it has been difficult to identify a consistent foreign policy in the Democratic Party.”34 Buttigieg is also unsparing in his words on President Trump’s foreign policy, but contends, “much was already broken when this president arrived”. Where policy has erred, Buttigieg argued in a long-form interview, is that “everything we have to say about foreign policy has to be tied back to what it means at home”.35 This sort of rhetoric, adopted by Buttigieg and his more progressive counterparts, is increasingly in vogue because many voters hold the Washington foreign policy establishment responsible for long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, trade agreements identified with job losses, and rising nuclear threats posed by North Korea and Iran.

Buttigieg frames the China challenge as a battle of competing ideologies.36 His proposals rest not on a geopolitical ambition to remain the pre-eminent power in the Western Pacific, but rather on the basis of a values-based scepticism of the Chinese Communist Party.37 He has called out China’s “techno-authoritarianism”, which is “being held up as an alternative to ours [democracy] because ours looks so chaotic compared to theirs right now because of our internal divisions”. Consequently, he says, the United States must invest in its own domestic competitiveness and revitalise its democracy to improve its position relative to China.38 He views allies and partners like Australia as central to conducting this emerging ideological struggle with China.

Pete Buttigieg
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (R) with his husband Chasten Buttigieg after announcing his presidential candidacy for 2020 during an event in South Bend, IndianaSource: Getty

On other foreign policy issues, Buttigieg is firmly in line with the prevalent political winds in the party. He plays up his opposition to the Iraq War while he was a student at Harvard, drawing an implicit contrast with Joe Biden,39 and promises to block American funding for Israeli annexation of the West Bank, an increasingly common stance among Democrats who are likely to face criticism from Republicans for being insufficiently supportive of Israel. Moreover, Buttigieg frequently mentions his service in uniform in Afghanistan in 2014 as a sign that he has “seen first-hand the costs of our long conflict[s]” and argue that it is time to end endless wars.40

Where Pete Buttigieg currently stands on foreign policy issues


"I’m not among the Democrats who think that China’s nothing to worry about ... There’s something about the orientation on China [under Trump] that I think is not completely wrong."

"The challenge of China presents perhaps the most pressing example anywhere of the need to stand for American values amid the rise of a potent alternative."[^41]


"Quick reminder: a tariff is a tax. On Americans."

"It’s also a fool’s errand to think you will be able to get China to change the fundamentals of their economic model by poking them in the eye with some tariffs."[^42]

Defence spending

"To shape this young century to our advantage, we must renew our national security architecture — our military, certainly, but also our intelligence, communications, diplomatic, and development institutions ... It begins with taking a hard look at our defense. To adequately prepare for our evolving security challenges, we need to look not only at how much we’re spending on our military but what we’re prioritizing."[^43]


"I will rejoin our international partners and recommit the United States to the Iran nuclear deal. Whatever its imperfections, this was perhaps as close to a true “art of the deal” as it gets."[^44]

Major foreign policy address/essay

Speech, 11 June 2019: "America and the World: National Security for a New Era"[^45]

Kamala Harris

Senator Kamala Harris has the most limited foreign policy record of the major candidates. She was elected to the Senate in 2016 and her prior career was as the District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California. In Washington, Harris’ involvement in international issues has been on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and as an outspoken voice on trade and intellectual property issues, typically adopting a narrow law-based approach. Unlike the other frontline candidates, Harris has not yet made a major foreign policy speech or published an essay. From a political perspective, Harris’ limited foreign policy record is to some extent a strength, because she is at liberty to choose her positions.

During the 2016 election, Harris argued against the TPP on the basis that it would invalidate California’s progressive climate change and environmental laws.

Harris’ most notable comments on foreign policy issues centre on criticism of China’s economic practices and her frequent calls to protect American democracy. As a senator from California, the home to many of America’s tech giants, Harris has urged the Trump administration to protect American technology from China.46 She has accused China of engaging in “unfair industrial policies and outright theft of American intellectual property”, and said America should address “the threat [China] presents to our economy, the threat it presents to American workers”.47 During the 2016 election, Harris argued against the TPP on the basis that it would invalidate California’s progressive climate change and environmental laws.48 Much of her criticism of the Trump administration has focused on its insufficient defence of democracy and inappropriate links to authoritarian regimes: “We have foreign powers infecting the White House like malware.”49

Should Harris continue to be among the Democratic frontrunners, she will likely publish an essay or make a speech laying out her foreign policy platform. At that point, outsiders will gain a far better sense of how she would govern if elected President.

Where Kamala Harris currently stands on foreign policy issues


"China’s abysmal human rights record must feature prominently in our policy toward the country … Under my administration, we will cooperate with China on global issues like climate change, but we won’t allow human rights abuses to go unchecked."[^50]


"Because of the so-called trade policy this president has, that has been nothing more than the Trump trade tax, that has resulted in American families spending as much as $1.4 billion more a month on everything from shampoo to washing machines."[^51]

Defence spending

"As a senator from the state with the largest number of military personnel in the country, I support providing them with the necessary tools to keep our country safe in a world of growing national security threats … They deserve to be outfitted with tools that offer protection to all of us. They deserve research that will allow them to provide a safe and secure nation for decades into the future. It is deeply unfortunate that we cannot vote on a clean bill to reauthorize all of those programs and more, and that reflects our shared support for our Armed Forces."[^52]


"I would plan to rejoin the JCPOA so long as Iran also returned to verifiable compliance. At the same time, I would seek negotiations with Iran to extend and supplement some of the nuclear deal’s existing provisions, and work with our partners to counter Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region, including with regard to its ballistic missile program."[^53]

Major foreign policy address/essay

None to date

Elizabeth Warren

As a former Harvard Law professor, Massachusetts senator and presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren has built a reputation as a progressive policy wonk who champions fundamental changes to American society and foreign policy. The central thrust of Warren’s domestic message is that corporate power plays too large a role in public policy. This has important ramifications for her approach to trade policy, defence spending and management of the Pentagon.54 Warren has a very extensive record of speeches, essays and policy proposals, calling for a more progressive, less interventionist foreign policy with a reduced role for the private sector. If she wins the nomination, Warren would represent a wholesale break from Democratic Party foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.

Warren’s message rests on a rejection of the Washington foreign policy establishment, support for democracy and opposition to authoritarians, and very explicitly connects international issues with pocket-book issues for American voters. These themes permeate Warren’s November 2018 Foreign Affairs essay, “A Foreign Policy For All”, which opens with an overt attack on recent decades of foreign policy: “From endless wars that strain military families to trade policies that crush our middle class, Washington’s foreign policy today serves the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of everyone else.”55 If she is elected president, Warren would, like President Trump, enter office with a very clear set of foreign policy priorities and a worldview unlikely to shift.

Economic policy is the key focus for Warren’s domestic platform and her vision of America’s role in the world.

Economic policy is the key focus for Warren’s domestic platform and her vision of America’s role in the world. She would pursue “an agenda of economic patriotism, using new and existing tools to defend and create quality American jobs and promote American industry”.56 She envisages a bigger role for the US government in the economy, championing an industrial policy to invest in key technologies where Chinese system may have an edge.57 American trade policy, Warren charges, has “worked gloriously well for elites around the world”, but it has “left working people discouraged and disaffected”.58 Warren opposed the TPP in 2015, calling it “a rigged process” producing “a rigged outcome” and suggesting it would “tilt the playing field even more in favour of big multinational corporations and against working families”. More recently, she voted against President Trump’s renegotiated trade deal with Mexico and Canada (the United States Mexico Canada Trade Agreement), calling it “NAFTA 2.0”.59

At this stage, it is unclear how, exactly, Warren would implement her vision of “trade on our terms and only when it benefits American families”, which has been likened to President Trump’s approach.60 The plan would apply nine very strict criteria to both new and existing trade deals, including “upholding and enforcing the labor rights laid out by the International Labour Organization, eliminating all domestic fossil fuel subsidies, fulfilling commitments from the Paris Climate Agreement, not running afoul of the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights, and not being on the Treasury Department’s monitoring list for manipulative currency practices”.61 As Warren has conceded, the United States does not currently meet these criteria, and nor do many US allies.62 If Warren is elected president, there is likely to be a major overhaul of US trade policy, a grinding slowdown to existing free trade agreements, few or no new trade agreements, and increased protectionism.63

Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren
Democratic presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren, July 2019Source: Getty

Additionally, Warren is vocal on defence issues, and endorses a significantly smaller budget and an overhaul to how the Pentagon does business. A few years ago, Warren joined the Senate Armed Services Committee, which bolsters her credentials to serve as commander in chief. She has argued that “the Pentagon’s budget has been too large for too long” and proposes an audit of the Pentagon to try to separate effective defence acquisitions from those “which merely line the pockets of defense contractors”.64 It is less clear how Warren would approach defence policy on issues ranging from deterrence to support for NATO. That said, Warren has been an outspoken proponent of ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons, a position that would represent a major change in US defence policy and arguably weaken American extended deterrence for allies, including Australia.65

Where Elizabeth Warren currently stands on foreign policy issues


"China is on the rise, using its economic might to bludgeon its way onto the world stage and offering a model in which economic gains legitimize oppression."[^66]


"I think that our trade deals have been negotiated for a very, very long time now to benefit large, multinational corporations, not to benefit the American worker."

"What I’d like to see us do is rethink all of our trade policy. And, I have to say, when President Trump says he’s putting tariffs on the table, I think tariffs are one part of reworking our trade policy overall."[^67]

Defence spending

"If more money for the Pentagon could solve our security challenges, we would have solved them by now. It is time to identify which programs actually benefit American security in the 21st century, and which programs merely line the pockets of defense contractors — then pull out a sharp knife and make some cuts."[^68]


"Our intelligence community told us again and again: The Iran deal was working to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. If Iran continues to abide by the terms of the deal, you bet I will support returning to it."[^69]

Major foreign policy address/essay

Essay, January 2019: "A Foreign Policy for All: Strengthening Democracy — at Home and Abroad

Speech, 28 November 2018: "A Foreign Policy that Works for All Americans"[^70]

Bernie Sanders

An independent senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders is setting the goalposts at the progressive end of the Democratic field by proposing radical changes to domestic and foreign policy. Since his 2016 Democratic primary loss to Hillary Clinton, Sanders has started to lay out a more comprehensive foreign policy vision that he has espoused in a range of essays and speeches starting in 2017. Although he has engaged on issues such as the Chinese Communist Party’s human rights record, unlike fellow Democratic candidates Sanders has largely avoided discussing China policy and US-China competition.71

Sanders proposes a fundamental restructuring of US foreign policy. He has called for a worldwide struggle against oligarchy and corporate power — a “global progressive movement” for economic equality, democratic rights and environmental sustainability.72 Moreover, Sanders says he will be both “commander in chief and organizer in chief”,73 who will “reconceptualize a global order based on human solidarity”.74 This language is somewhat tempered by his belief that the United States should “lead the struggle to defend and expand a rules-based international order in which law, not might, makes right”.75 Sanders explicitly rejects isolationism — yet his conception of the international order is nonetheless very different to the Obama and Clinton administrations’.76

Sanders has been outspoken in his opposition to authoritarian regimes and has consistently championed greater emphasis on climate change in foreign policy. He laments the “rise of a new authoritarian axis” in the world, arguing that it is interwoven with income inequality.77 His major foreign policy initiative since the last presidential election was championing a congressional resolution invoking the War Powers Act of 1973 to suspend the Trump administration’s support of Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen. The bill passed the House and Senate in the aftermath of the Saudi Arabian government’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but was vetoed by President Trump.78 And, among the major Democratic candidates, Sanders vows to give climate change the most prominent role in foreign policy.79

Like President Trump, Sanders has the politically potent ability to frame issues in simple, short soundbites to criticise rivals. He has particularly lambasted Joe Biden on foreign policy: “I helped lead the opposition to what turned out to be the worst foreign policy disaster in the modern history of America. Joe voted for it [the Iraq War]” and “Joe voted for NAFTA and permanent trade relations, trade agreements with China. I led the effort against that. Joe voted for the deregulation of Wall Street, I voted against that”.80 But Sanders’ diagnosis of the issues afflicting the United States do not necessarily translate into easily deliverable foreign policy governance.

Where Bernie Sanders currently stands on foreign policy issues


"My administration will work with allies to strengthen global human rights standards and make every effort to let Beijing know that its behavior is damaging its international standing and undermining relations with the United States."

“But what we have to say about China in fairness to China and its leadership is if I’m not mistaken they have made more progress in addressing extreme poverty than any country in the history of civilization, so they’ve done a lot of things for their people."[^81]


"Yeah of course [I would use tariffs], it is used in a rational way within the context of a broad, sensible trade policy. It is one tool that is available."[^82]

Defence spending

"So what I would be prepared to do is to understand that we are now spending more than the next 10 countries combined — we are spending over $700 billion a year. At the same time, you have veterans sleeping out on the streets, major crisis after major crisis in affordable housing, infrastructure. I think we have to get our priorities right, and our priorities should include not spending more than the 10 next nations on earth. As president, I would certainly look at a very different military budget."[^83]


"By withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement, a move opposed by his own top security officials, Trump has isolated the US from its closest allies and put us on a dangerous path to conflict. We should rejoin the deal and work with allies to effectively enforce it."[^84]

Major foreign policy address/essay

Essay, 24 June 2019: "Ending America’s Endless War: We Must Stop Giving Terrorists Exactly What They Want"

Speech, 9 October 2018: "Building A Global Democratic Movement to Counter Authoritarianism"

Speech, 21 September 2017: "John Findley Green Foundation lecture"[^85]

The key issues for Australia

Australia should be paying close attention to the shifts in the Democratic Party’s debate on China and the related questions of trade policy and Asia policy, as well as the Middle East and defence spending.

China, trade and Asia policy

The extent of China hardening in the Democratic Party, and across the United States, towards a less co-operative and more competitive policy is highly significant.86 US voters across the political spectrum overwhelmingly view China as America’s top competitor.87 According to recent polling by Pew Research Center, just 26 per cent of Americans have a favourable view of China, compared to 60 per cent with an unfavourable view, the highest level since Pew began asking the question in 2005.88 As Thomas Wright has written, unlike every other country or foreign policy issue, China and the US-China relationship “directly affects the economy, the financial system, technological innovation, values, and national security”.89 Notably, outside Washington, Democrats’ tough language on China is not especially motivated by Asia-focused geopolitical concerns such as China’s rapid military modernisation, island-building in the South China Sea or potential threats to US allies. Rather, whether a candidate cares about labour, trade, currency manipulation, technological competition, intellectual property, human rights, Beijing’s influence operations overseas, or democracy versus authoritarianism, Democrats see the Communist Party as presenting an ‘embarrassment of riches’ for criticism.

The refrain that the United States should get tough on China will be a mainstay of the primary and the general election campaign. The Democratic frontrunners all adopt tough language, with subtle differences between the relative importance of different aspects of the China relationship. However, they vary in their emphasis on the right balance between competition and cooperation in the relationship with Beijing, the right domains of competition, and how sharply the United States should compete. The major candidates all suggest that the best way to compete with China is by investing in the United States’ domestic strength, code for investing in infrastructure, research and development, and greater economic resilience.90

Economic threat and Trump’s tariffs

The perceived threat to American jobs posed by the Chinese economy and Beijing’s trade practices is the China issue that resonates most with voters, especially in ‘Rust Belt’ states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that will be key battlegrounds in 2020. Democrats tend to support President Trump’s tougher approach to China on trade and economic policy, even if they do not necessarily support the style or some of the substance of his policies. The state of the Democratic Party, writ large, and emerging bipartisan consensus on China economic issues is best summarised by Senator Chuck Schumer. Where the leader of the Senate Democrats constantly lambasts President Trump on a wide array of domestic and foreign policy issues, Schumer supports Trump’s China hardening: “We have to be really tough on China. They’ve taken advantage of us… America has lost trillions of dollars and millions of jobs because China has not played fair. And being tough on China is the right way to be.”91 These views are broadly shared by the field of Democratic candidates.

The Democratic Party frontrunners have a mixed approach to President Trump’s tariffs on China. They call his trade war reckless, but, when asked, none of the leading Democratic presidential contenders said they would immediately drop the tariffs if elected president.

The Democratic frontrunners have a mixed approach to President Trump’s tariffs on China. They call his trade war reckless, but, when asked, none of the leading contenders said they would immediately drop the tariffs if elected president.92 Progressives are most favourably disposed to Trump’s tariffs: Sanders says he “strongly supports” tariffs against China but thinks “Trump gets it wrong in terms of implementation”, and Warren says that “tariffs are one part of reworking our trade policy”.93 However, more centrist candidates view Trump’s tariffs as a “fool’s errand”, a tax on American consumers, who are paying hundreds of dollars more per year for ordinary products like “washing machines and shampoos”.94 Buttigieg, Harris and Biden argue and vow to put far more emphasis on different tools in the trade relationship. There is widespread agreement among Democrats that President Trump’s approach to China is counterproductive because it has alienated US allies and partners who could help build a wider coalition to try to shape Chinese behaviour. A Democratic administration will want Australia’s support for its trade policy towards China.

A centrist Democratic administration would likely enter office focused on making substantive wins on intellectual property and technology transfer, as well as potentially re-joining an amended TPP. Technology would also be a key focus for Democrats, who have criticised President Trump for focusing on the industries of the past — such as steel and autos — without sufficiently engaging with future technologies. A Democratic administration would also focus more bandwidth on building up cyber defences and making government investments in technologies that will be critical in the ongoing technological competition with China.

Ideology and values

Democratic candidates are also adopting an increasingly ideological and values-based tone towards the Chinese Communist Party. Earlier this year, Biden said that the United States finds itself in “an ideological struggle… a competition of systems [and] a competition of values” with Beijing.95 Buttigieg’s language is stronger, singling out “The Chinese Communist Party’s shocking treatment of the Uighurs and other minorities and growing pressure on Hong Kong” as “symptomatic of a broader, and intensifying” ideological competition in which “Beijing seems committed to consolidating and legitimating authoritarian capitalism as an alternative to the democratic capitalism embraced by the United States and its closest allies and partners”.96 For all the Democratic candidates, criticising the Communist Party’s behaviour in Xinjiang simultaneously serves many beneficial political objectives. It plays to the narrative that a candidate is tough on Beijing, compassionate towards minorities, and carries implicit criticism of President Trump’s approach to minorities, immigration policies (especially towards the border with Mexico), admiration for authoritarians and reluctance to speak about human rights. Given Democrats’ focus on the role of allies and partners vis-à-vis China, Canberra can expect Washington to ask Australia to take a stronger unilateral stance towards Beijing and join multilateral statements that criticise the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

All criticism no strategy

At this early stage in the campaign, Democrats’ tough talk on China has not translated to a coherent China policy or Asia strategy. The candidates lack an overall framework for whether they view China as a rival, a partner, or both.97 All candidates pay some lip service to the need to cooperate with Beijing on shared global priorities such as climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and peacekeeping, but these comments are overshadowed by their loud criticisms of the Communist Party. The emerging bipartisan consensus on China, Democrats’ language on the campaign trail, and the increasingly authoritarian and uncompromising nature of Xi Jinping’s regime all suggest the US-China relationship will continue to move in a more competitive direction no matter who wins the election.

Finally, from the perspective of allies and partners, the absence of discussion of broader Asia policy is notable but not surprising at this early stage of the campaign. There is little indication so far of how tough talk on China would translate into the projection of US military power across the Pacific. Many Democrats hold the contradictory preferences for competing with China while cutting the defence budget. Even if a candidate such as Joe Biden wants to re-invigorate US force posture in the region, it is unlikely that he would ask Congress to significantly increase defence spending in a difficult political and budgetary environment or meaningfully shift military assets out of the Middle East. . Regardless, any Democratic administration would likely ask Australia and other allies to do more to complement US force posture and help counterbalance China’s growing power and assertiveness in the region. China aside, the candidates have spent little attention discussing how they would approach other issues in Asia, not least North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, competition in Southeast Asia and alliances.

The Middle East

There are deep, emotional, intra-party divides on Middle East policy. Progressives are coalescing around a very different approach to those taken by the Obama or Clinton administrations.

Iran policy is shaping as a significant foreign policy issue in this election. The major candidates all suggest re-joining the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, but often with different conditions. Their language features variations of the theme that the deal is imperfect, but better than the alternatives. For example, Biden has promised to “strengthen and extend it [the Iran nuclear deal]”.98 Harris “would also look toward expanding [the deal]” and “would like to see it also cover ballistic missile testing”.99 Unlike her more centrist colleagues, Warren’s statement indicates less concern about other aspects of Iran’s behaviour, promising that if Iran abides by the terms, her administration would support returning to it.100 Re-negotiating the deal will be highly complex, requiring buy-in from the regime in Tehran and other parties to the deal, amidst likely opposition from Republicans, some powerful Democrats and Israel. Whether President Trump is re-elected or defeated by a Democrat, Washington will want to enlist Australian support for an Iran policy that will feature military pressure, sanctions, or both.

Democratic candidates are also re-evaluating long-standing US policy towards Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel has become a divisive issue within parts of the party, defined by the differences between older, powerful pro-Israel members of Congress and those who argue that the United States should reduce its military and political support for Jerusalem. In the presidential race, for example, Buttigieg has taken a firm line against Israeli annexation of the West Bank,101 and Sanders has said US policy “cannot just be pro-Israel, pro-Israel, pro-Israel”.102 Similarly, following the Saudi Arabian government’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Sanders and Warren called for the United States to “thoroughly re-evaluate” the United States’ relationship with the Saudis.103 Biden and Buttigieg have been critical of the Saudis’ behaviour but have not gone as far in proposing changes to the long-standing alliance.

Defence spending

The Democratic frontrunners exhibit significant differences in their approach to defence spending, an increasingly important issue given the eroding balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. The size and relative allocation within the US defence budget has major implications for Australian interests. As argued in a recent United States Studies Centre report, ‘Averting Crisis’, “America no longer enjoys military primacy in the Indo-Pacific and its capacity to uphold a favourable balance of power is increasingly uncertain”.104 Even sustained increases to defence spending — which are unlikely in a highly polarised Congress — would not preserve the current balance of power with China amidst a range of budgetary pressures such as spiralling operations and maintenance costs and a military modernisation backlog. Put another way, a major cut in the defence budget would crowd out the space available for investments required to compete with China.

Many of the Democratic frontrunners propose a re-evaluation of the Pentagon’s budget.

Many of the Democratic frontrunners propose a re-evaluation of the Pentagon’s budget. Sanders and Warren favour cuts to the US defence budget and hew towards proposing military sufficiency rather than superiority.105 Sanders lambasts the US$700 billion defence budget “when our infrastructure is collapsing and kids can’t afford to go to college”,106 and Warren has argued “the Pentagon’s budget has been too large for too long”, proposed to invest money saved for other forms of international engagement and domestic programs, including a detailed plan to ‘Rebuild the State Department’.107 Neither Buttigieg nor Biden calls for higher defence spending despite the deteriorating global security outlook, but instead make the case to modernise the US military to deal with future threats. However, top-line defence spending is determined by Congress, following a request from the president, and defence has a strong political constituency across the United States that makes major cuts or reallocations of funds politically challenging.

Regardless, if a Democrat wins, they will invariably continue President Obama and President Trump’s calls for allies to do more burden-sharing because of the United States' political and budgetary constraints. Australia and other US allies and partners in Asia will face calls to increase defence expenditure and do more to complement US forward deployed forces.

Other issues

Finally, US policy towards Europe and Russia, immigration and climate change are set to feature in a predictable way in the Democratic foreign policy debate. Democrats are making a lot of noise about the Trump administration’s links with Russia, the oligarchic nature of Vladimir Putin’s regime, and threat of Russian interference in the 2020 election. Moreover, given Russia’s role in the 2016 election and President Trump’s vacillations on NATO, Democrats are adopting a tougher position towards Russia, including calls for more extensive sanctions, and greater support for European allies. All candidates can be expected to support NATO, while repeating the regular bipartisan refrain that European NATO allies need to spend more on defence. Climate change will receive plenty of attention, particularly from progressives such as Sanders. Moreover, young people and the Democratic base show widespread support for the federal government doing more on climate change, and the Pentagon is also focused on the risks climate change poses to low-lying military bases and global security.

Foreign policy in the general election

Absent a new war or international crisis, foreign policy is unlikely to be a key issue in the 2020 election. However, it will play a role, and President Trump will see it as an electoral strength: he will argue that he has been successful where Obama was not. This narrative might be surprising to foreign policy professionals in Canberra, but it enjoys support from a majority of the American electorate. National Security Action released a survey late last month that found voters had a net positive view of Trump on national security: 55 per cent approval compared to 45 per cent disapproval, far higher than President Trump’s historically low overall approval rating.108

During his campaign to ‘Keep America Great’, President Trump will argue that he has reasserted America’s military strength, forced allies to spend more on defence, that North Korea is no longer a threat, Iran is under pressure, he has been the most pro-Israel president in recent memory, withdrawn from Afghanistan and “100 percent” defeated ISIS.109 Trade will also play a prominent role in his pitch for another four years: he will ask voters to give him more time to reach major trade deals with China and renegotiate other agreements to benefit American workers. Moreover, with a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives until the 2020 election, President Trump is unlikely to achieve domestic successes before the election, so many of his most notable actions in the two years leading up to November 2020 will likely be in foreign policy.


At this stage, Australian political leaders and officials need to understand these trends, consider their implications, and meet the candidates and key advisers who would staff a Democratic administration. The China hardening in the Democratic Party is now and will likely continue to embolden President Trump in his approach to Beijing up to the 2020 election and perhaps beyond. Moreover, the contours of China policy in a potential Democratic administration are becoming clear. Regardless of who wins the election, Canberra will need to prepare to be called on by the United States for a tougher approach to China. On defence spending, Democrats’ positions presage a plateau or cut to top-line spending. If nothing else, Australia must build sufficiently deep connections to the Democratic campaigns so that, if a Democrat wins, the Australian prime minister will not be relying on golfer Greg Norman to tee up a congratulatory phone call with the president-elect.