Of the 23 candidates running for president in the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary, few have distinguished themselves in terms of thinking through foreign policy as much as Pete Buttigieg. His specificity concerning policy, though, still has some hurdles to cross. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s service in the Obama administration and as a longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is one hurdle; the way voters don’t prioritize foreign policy is the other.
However, it’s worth noting that only Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been as forward leaning on foreign policy as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has already laid out a vision on what a new era for American national security would look like in a speech at the Lugar Center at Indiana University. Buttigieg framed his policies in generational terms and has not shied away from injecting the language of faith into his speeches. As a result, he has attracted some serious foreign policy thinkers to his vision and is worthy of Providence’s attention.
Mayor Pete (as he is known) frames his foreign policy into three categories on his campaign website: freedom, security, and democracy. There are foreign policy topics in each of these categories that overlap throughout; first and foremost, he wants to address what he describes as the gap between America’s interests and values abroad. While he is critical of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy and rhetoric, Buttigieg is not content to return to the Obama era. He began his recent speech at Indiana University praising late Senator Richard Lugar for his bipartisan approach while also critiquing the Democratic Party for not having a “consistent foreign policy” in his lifetime. By drawing these contrasts with the current set of party leaders along with his own message of generational change, Buttigieg promises to be the candidate of change within his party but does not quite explain what that change will consist of, as many critics have pointed out. This early in the campaign, the fact that he is even trying to discuss foreign policy should be seen as a plus.
By his own admission, Buttigieg is not interested in boxing himself into any foreign policy corners or laying out a “Buttigieg Doctrine” like that of his presidential inspiration, Harry Truman. Yet he lays out a fairly coherent argument that tries to connect the dots for the average voter:
Security means a foreign policy that puts the values, goals, and national security interests of American citizens above personal political interests.
His foreign policy walks a tightrope between America’s values and interests without arguing for greater foreign intervention, pointing out his opposition to the Iraq War and the use of force in Syria unless explicitly authorized by Congress. He criticizes President Trump’s foreign policy for embracing and emboldening autocrats and for alienating democracies and allies around the globe:
It has undermined America’s alliances, partnerships, and treaties. It has employed tariffs as tantrums, provoked trade wars while disinvesting in the education, health care, and infrastructure fundamental to our nation’s long-term strength.
The assumption is that Buttigieg would restore America’s position in the world by starting at home. He has avoided the weeds of what a proactive American foreign policy would look like, but he has identified the two gravest threats as climate change and China, both of which he believes are challenges to America’s national security. Many foreign policy wonks might find Pete’s fluency on international affairs refreshing, even more so given his Midwestern sensibilities.
Buttigieg’s tone on foreign policy, like his overall campaign, conveys an openness and willingness to engage that is not ideologically driven but morally grounded. Like his discussions on his Christian faith, he is opening the door to a set of needed conversations, both in the Democratic primary and beyond. Regardless of whether or not Mayor Pete gets the nomination, he is already a force for change in the Democratic Party and by extension America, where he is leading by example and putting foreign policy front and center. Therefore, even if he is not president, he could easily serve as a vice president or in the cabinet with a portfolio focused on foreign policy, such as in the Defense Department or State Department. The fact that he has kicked off this conversation on America’s foreign policy is a sign of the times and a welcome development as far as this voter is concerned.
Joshua W. Walker, PhD (@drjwalk) is Global Head of Strategic Initiatives and Japan at Eurasia Group, the world’s leading geopolitical risk consultancy, and a fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program focused on Japan.
Photo Credit: Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaking with attendees at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the George R. Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, California. By Gage Skidmore, via Flickr.