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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.

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Learn more about how carbon created life on Earth in the second episode of Eni's Story of CO2 series.

On September 23, GZERO Media — in partnership with Microsoft and Eurasia Group — gathered global experts to discuss global recovery from the coronavirus pandemic in a livestream panel. Our panel for the discussion Crisis Response & Recovery: Reimagining while Rebuilding, included:

  • Brad Smith, President, Microsoft
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  • Jeh Johnson, Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP and former Secretary of Homeland Security.
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Special appearances by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde, and comedian/host Trevor Noah.

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Watch here at 11am ET: https://www.gzeromedia.com/events/town-hall-ending-the-covid-19-pandemic-livestream/

Our panel will discuss where things really stand on vaccine development, the political and economic challenges of distribution, and what societies need to be focused on until vaccine arrives in large scale. This event is the second in a series presented by GZERO Media in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Eurasia Group.

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The long-simmering conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over a region called Nagorno-Karabakh erupted over the weekend, with more than 50 killed (so far) in the fiercest fighting in years. Will it escalate into an all-out war that threatens regional stability and drags in major outside players?

What's the background? For years, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at odds over the rugged highlands of Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies between them. In the dying days of the USSR, the two sides fought a bloody six-year war to control the enclave, which was part of Muslim-majority Azerbaijan but mainly populated by ethnic Armenian Christians.

The conflict ended in 1994 with over 30,000 dead, more than one million displaced, and a fragile truce that left Nagorno-Karabakh as a de facto independent state, recognized and supported by Armenia but not by most other countries, including Azerbaijan. Low-level clashes have persisted ever since — including deadly skirmishes in 2016 — and both governments often use the conflict to stoke nationalist flames at home.

Although the trigger for the latest violence is still unclear, bilateral tensions have been rising since mid-July, when 16 soldiers died in border clashes. That violence sparked an uproar in Azerbaijan, where thousands of Azeris took to the streets calling for the army to "recapture" Nagorno-Karabakh. Now, both sides are accusing each other of throwing the first punch, and have declared martial law.

A war over the enclave would resonate far beyond the region. The South Caucasus, where Armenia and Azerbaijan are located, has enormous strategic importance because it is crossed by two major energy pipelines that carry Azeri oil and Caspian Sea gas to Turkey and Europe.

Two outside players — Turkey and Russia — are on opposite sides of the conflict. Turkey has close relations with fellow Turkic Azerbaijan, and historically there is little love lost between Ankara and the Armenians. Moreover, Azerbaijan is Turkey's main oil supplier. Turkey has denied reports that it has sent 4,000 Syrians to fight on behalf of the Azeri army, but Turkish President Recep Erdogan's moves here merit close attention.

Russia is the dominant player in the region. But although it sells weapons to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, Moscow keeps troops garrisoned in Armenia and is, technically, treaty-bound to defend the country. If things escalate further, Vladimir Putin will have to decide whether to honor that obligation. Doing so could quickly put Ankara and Moscow on opposite sides of another nasty war (they already back different sides of the civil war in Libya.)

Finally, Iran also as a stake. It borders both countries, and Azeris are Iran's largest ethnic minority. Although Tehran has traditionally backed Yerevan, and often bickers with Baku over energy and security in the Caspian Sea, the Iranians offered to mediate when the latest tensions began two months ago. Will they try again now?

62: In a referendum over the weekend, nearly 62 percent of Swiss voters said they wanted to preserve freedom of movement between the European Union and Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU. The right-wing Swiss People's Party had proposed imposing migration quotas at the border, saying that the current frontier is basically a... (okay, they didn't actually say it's a "Swiss cheese" but still).

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