The Democratic debate: finally, foreign policy!

The Democratic debate: finally, foreign policy!

Foreign policy played a bigger role in last night's Democratic presidential debate than in previous ones, in part because of events that came on the heels of President Trump's surprise, and disastrous, withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria. Some candidates used the opportunity to play up their foreign policy bona fides, but not all of their punches landed cleanly. Here are some key takeaways.


Everyone agrees Trump betrayed American allies: Predictably, most candidates hammered home that Trump's drawdown in Syria – paving the way for Turkey, Russia, Syria's Bashar al-Assad, and maybe ISIS to move in – was a major betrayal of America's Kurdish allies, who bore the brunt of the fight to defeat ISIS's self-proclaimed caliphate. Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said that this was a major blow to US credibility on the world stage, a sentiment echoed by senators Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris. Former housing secretary Julian Castro also said that the way to regain trust from allies "is to boot Donald Trump out of the Oval Office." Former Vice President Joe Biden agreed, too, saying it "was the most shameful thing any president has done in modern history in terms of foreign policy."

No one had a plan to disentangle the US from Syria: Most of the candidates think US troops shouldn't be in that country indefinitely, but no one had a clear plan of how to deal with the shambolic consequences of a withdrawal. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, well-known for her strange affinity for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, criticized the US presence in Syria, arguing that the slaughter of Kurds was a consequence of the American "regime change war." But she missed the mark. If there's one thing neither Presidents Obama or Trump had any interest in doing, it was overthrowing the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, when asked about Syria, Biden – the foreign policy heavyweight of the bunch – did what he's done on many recent debate stages – he demurred, obfuscated and bumbled: "I'd let him [Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan] know he's going to pay a heavy price for what he has done. Now pay that price." How? No answer.

Did the front runner run from foreign policy? With the exception of Biden, foreign policy isn't the pack's strong suit – and it showed. Front runner Elizabeth Warren, who welcomed opportunities to speak about other signature policy proposals, such as on taxes and jobs, didn't raise her hand to weigh in during the foreign policy round, and spoke less during this discussion than any other part of the debate.

No more foreign wars: Senators Warren and Sanders, both populist Democrats, have long opposed American intervention in foreign conflicts. But while they lumped criticism on Trump for the abrupt troop pullout, they both remain closer, in fact, to Trump's stated ideas than to their centrist Democrat rivals in the view that US troops really shouldn't be fighting in far-flung conflict zones at all: "I don't think we should have troops in the Middle East," Warren said. And the Horseshoe theory comes full cir–– er, horseshoe..)

No surprises on Russia: Russia was criticized across the board for interfering in America's democracy, and that of its allies. The candidates blamed Trump for failing to hold Vladimir Putin to account.

There was one glaring omission: Despite weeks of controversy about the NBA's response to Chinese censorship, months of Hong Kong protests, and more than a year of the US-China trade spat, there wasn't one question about China, arguably the most consequential foreign policy issue of our time.

CORRECTION: We have added more detail on Julian Castro's views on foreign policy.

Demography is destiny. That ominous-sounding pronouncement, credited to French philosopher Auguste Comte, is today taken to mean that a nation's fate depends on the youthfulness of its population. For a poor country to become rich, it needs lots of young people ready to work, to support those too old or too young to work, and to pay taxes. This is called the "demographic dividend."

That's an important part of China's success story. Over the past 40 years, more than one billion people have emerged from poverty in China. Waves of young people surged from the countryside into cities to work in factories. The state invested in education, and wages helped young workers, and then their children, go to school. The state also began a drive to develop the technologies of the future, by any means necessary. In China, once dirt-poor, hundreds of millions have created a middle class.

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Not everyone thinks that President Biden's decision to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by 9/11/21 is a good idea. Conservative Congressman Mike Waltz (R-FL), a combat-decorated Green Beret with multiple tours in Afghanistan, thinks that the US still needs to maintain a small presence in the country to avoid incurring "massive risks." In a spirited discussion with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, Waltz, who served as counterterrorism advisor in the George W. Bush administration, argues, "The next 9/11, the next Pulse Night Club, which is right on the edge of my congressional district, the next San Bernardino, that's now on Biden's watch. He owns it with this decision." Their conversation is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, which airs on US public television starting Friday, April 23. Check local listings.

Vaccines are the best hope to end the COVID-19 pandemic. But rich countries are hogging most of the doses, with more than 83 percent of shots administered to date having gone to residents in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Most poor countries will have to wait years to achieve widespread vaccination, according to one study.

To address this inequity some stakeholders are pushing hard for waivers to intellectual-property (IP) rights through World Trade Organization trade rules so that manufacturers in poorer countries can make their own vaccines locally. India and South Africa have been leading the charge, which would essentially mean that deep-pocketed pharma companies like New York-based Pfizer, for instance, would have to hand over the keys to the kingdom, allowing local companies in New Delhi and Johannesberg to make generic versions of their vaccines.

Unsurprisingly, the debate has gotten fiery, with passionate arguments emerging both for and against.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective on Europe In 60 Seconds:

What are the Russians up to against Ukraine?

We simply don't know, except the fact that they're concentrating a huge amount of military forces. And you don't do that for nothing or for fun. They are there for a purpose, to have pressure or to undertake limited to larger operations. We simply don't know. And when Putin delivered his State of the Union speech the other day, he didn't say a thing about this. They are now talking about withdrawing the forces. But let's wait and see. They have talked about withdrawing forces from Syria for a long time, but we haven't seen that as of yet.

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Australia rips up Belt & Road deal: Australia cancelled two 2018 deals signed between Victoria, Australia's wealthiest state, and the Chinese government, that committed the two sides to working together on initiatives under China's Belt and Road infrastructure development program. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that the agreements "were adverse to our foreign relations." Similar deals between Victoria and institutions in Iran and Syria were also abandoned by the Australian government this week, under a 2020 law that allows Canberra to nullify international agreements struck at local and state level. (Australian universities say the "foreign veto bill" amounts to "significant overreach.") Meanwhile, Beijing hit back, calling the move "unreasonable and provocative," and accusing Canberra of further stoking divisions after a series of escalatory moves by both sides that have seen China-Australia relations deteriorate to their worst point in decades. Chinese investment in Australia dropped by 62 percent last year, a massive blow for Australia's export-reliant economy.

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50: The US will aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by the end of the decade. The Biden administration's commitment, double the goal set by Barack Obama almost six years ago, was announced to coincide with a virtual Earth Day climate summit attended by dozens of world leaders.

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Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday threatened an "asymmetrical, rapid, and harsh" response for anyone that dares to cross a "red line" with Russia.

What's the red line? Putin says he'll decide on a case-by-case basis. And the cases at the moment are growing: the US has sanctioned Russia over cyber crimes; Putin critic Alexei Navalny is near death in a Russian prison; the Czechs say Russia blew up a Czech munitions depot; and as many as 120,000 Russian troops are reported to be massing along Russia's border with Eastern Ukraine.

Which is to say: there's potentially a Sol Lewitt's-worth of red lines to ponder now.

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