Pete Buttigieg is the first Democratic presidential candidate to actually articulate foreign policy proposals beyond general themes and ideas.
In a high-profile address on Tuesday at Indiana University, the South Bend mayor used the opportunity to lay out his worldview, hewing closely to progressive tentpoles like combating climate change, challenging authoritarianism, and renewing America’s economy. That put him in the same company as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who have released likeminded visions.
What separated Buttigieg from that crowd, though, is that he put some meat on the conceptual progressive skeleton. Specifically, he said he would:
“Not only must America do this in order to prosper,” Buttigieg told the friendly crowd, “but the world also needs America to do these things.”
His speech went much farther than any other 2020 Democratic candidate has so far in terms of policy specifics. But it was far from a tour de force. The Afghanistan war veteran still left out important details, and his words fell short of stirring the crowd.
But as far as Democratic presidential foreign policy speeches go, Buttigieg’s was the most comprehensive of the 2020 cycle.
Buttigieg’s five specific foreign policy proposals, very briefly explained
Here are the key policies Buttigieg outlined in his address:
1. “Repeal and replace” the AUMF
In 2001, Congress passed an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), allowing the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.”
That enabled President George W. Bush to launch the war in Afghanistan, because the Taliban in Afghanistan at the time was harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, who planned the 9/11 attacks. (Congress passed a separate AUMF, in 2002, to authorize the war to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq.)
But because the 2001 AUMF gave the president such broad authority to go after anyone connected to the 9/11 attacks — and didn’t set a time limit for how long the authorization would stand — it opened the door to other conflicts as well. Presidents Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump have used the AUMF to pursue terrorists across the globe in disparate places such as Niger, Somalia, and Syria, often based on flimsy (or even nonexistent) connections to al-Qaeda and 9/11.
Buttigieg says he wants to “repeal and replace” that law to narrow the scope of the president’s authority to use military force around the world. However, he did propose that the US continue to provide “security assistance” to countries who fight terrorists — which often involves the use of US military forces — without specifying if he would do that before or after changing the law.
2. Recommit the US to the Iran nuclear deal
Last May, Trump removed the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which had put tight restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear efforts in exchange for sanctions relief. Since then, tensions between the US and Iran have skyrocketed and Iran has started to renege on its side of the agreement.
Buttigieg worries that leaving the agreement will make the Middle East and the world less safe, in part because it might inspire a nuclear arms race. As a result, the mayor said he would reverse Trump’s decision so America abides by its commitment.
“I will rejoin our international partners and recommit the United States to the Iran nuclear deal,” he said. “Whatever its imperfections, this was perhaps as close to the real ‘art of the deal’ as diplomatic achievements get.”
3. Block US taxpayer funds for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank
In April, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would annex large parts of the West Bank if he won his country’s contentious election.
Officially extending Israeli sovereignty over Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which has long been seen as a critical part of any future Palestinian state, would effectively spell the end of the dwindling hopes of one day achieving peace and creating a real, functional state for Palestinians.
Netanyahu has enjoyed immense and nearly unqualified support from Trump, but he wouldn’t get that from the Indiana mayor. “If Prime Minister Netanyahu makes good on his threat to annex West Bank settlements, he should know that a President Buttigieg would take steps to ensure that American taxpayers won’t help foot the bill,” he said.
It’s unclear how he would do that, though. What is clear is that the proposal surely won’t ingratiate Buttigieg with Netanyahu’s right-wing party in Israel.
4. Rejoin the Paris climate accord
In June 2017, Trump took the US out of the Paris climate accord in, a nonbinding global agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions and slow the pace of climate change. Many, including world leaders, saw that move as an abdication of American leadership and, in the words of one of them, a “brutal act.”
Buttigieg would ensure the US follows that accord again. He also called for American mayors to get together and come up with climate-change-curbing solutions.
5. Invest in renewable energy technologies
Perhaps Buttigieg’s most specific proposal was to quadruple federal government funding for research and development on renewable energy technology, to at least $25 billion.
“It involves empowering rural America to be part of the solution — helping to unlock the potential of soil management and other 21st-century farming techniques — and a new kind of support for cities and towns seeking to reduce their dependence on carbon,” he said.
That’s likely to anger the fossil-fuel industry but delight those that work in solar, wind, and other growing energy sectors.
Buttigieg has set the bar on Democratic foreign policy — but it’s a low one
Ideologically, Buttigieg is right in line with most of the other 22 Democratic candidates on foreign policy, as many emphasize the same general progressive talking points. In that sense, his speech on Tuesday did little to separate him from the pack.
What he did do, though, is lay down specific markers on five important foreign-policy subjects. That may entice others — especially frontrunners like Sanders, Warren, and former Vice President Joe Biden — to offer their own stances on those issues in the coming weeks or months.
That means Buttigieg, in a way, for now is leading the Democratic foreign policy debate. But the fact that he’s doing so while offering so few concrete proposals, in what was his first real foreign policy speech, is an indictment on the Democratic Party.
While it’s still early — and Buttigieg and others may yet supply more concrete ideas — the Democratic foreign-policy primary is off to a very slow start.