Buttigieg Looks to Truman, Not Obama, on Foreign Policy

The Democratic candidate is trying to reorient his party’s approach, tying international affairs back to the concerns of ordinary voters.

Pete Buttigieg
Brian Frank / Reuters

“Basically, my entire adult life has been one where it’s a little bit illegible where you’re supposed to be as a Democrat on foreign policy,” Pete Buttigieg told me last weekend. He was preparing to give his first speech on the subject, today at Indiana University. So far, most of the Democratic candidates have avoided the question of how they’d conduct foreign policy, and the voters and the press have made that easy for them.

When candidates decide to say something about global affairs, they tend to quarantine their views in a single all-encompassing speech, as if to get the topic out of the way. Elizabeth Warren gave hers in Washington in November. Bernie Sanders has actually given two, in Missouri in 2017 and last fall at Johns Hopkins. None of the other candidates has given even one.

This silence about America’s role in the world is strange. The quest to replace Donald Trump presents the first chance since the end of the Cold War for Democrats to think fundamentally anew about foreign policy. The liberal internationalist approach of the Bill Clinton years aimed to enlarge the sphere of capitalist democracies, manage the world’s chaos, and extend American influence, through free trade, NATO expansion, diplomatic deal making, and occasional military intervention.

The high-water mark was the American-led peace agreement in 1995 that ended the war in Bosnia and repaired damage to the transatlantic alliance. September 11, the Iraq War, and the financial crisis threw this consensus into confusion. Those were the early years of Buttigieg’s adult life, when Democratic foreign policy became “a little bit illegible.” Still, the approach of the ’90s persisted into Barack Obama’s presidency—free trade, diplomacy, ongoing war—even as Obama himself became more and more skeptical of American overreach.

Hillary Clinton, a holdover from the unipolar moment, was the last of the muscular interventionists. Her defeat marked the demise of the old liberal internationalism, and Trump has shattered what was left of it. But this landscape of ruins is also an open field. In his Indiana speech, Buttigieg welcomed “a season for thinking about what comes next with greater urgency and, in certain ways, greater freedom than has been available to a president for some time.”

Most of the energy in the new thinking is on the left. Sanders has called for a foreign policy based on the worldwide struggle against oligarchy and corporate power—a “global progressive movement” for economic equality, democratic rights, and environmental sustainability. In this view, American dominance has been a mixed bag at best, a force for ill as much as good, and it should yield to a transnational movement led by citizens, not just governments.

As Peter Beinart has pointed out, this idea goes back to World War II and the appeal in 1942 by FDR’s Vice President Henry Wallace for a foreign policy of “the common man.” Wallace wanted to extend the New Deal into the postwar period as a worldwide crusade for equality. Sanders wants to take his “political revolution” at home and join it to a worldwide campaign against authoritarians and for “the people.” It isn’t the foreign policy of a nation-state so much as the extension of movement politics across borders, as if President Sanders would be the leader of a global nonprofit organization, not a country.

Where does Buttigieg come down? When I asked him which recent presidents might serve as models for foreign-policy making in his administration, he didn’t single anyone out. “What’s interesting about the period certainly since the Cold War is how hard it is to say there’s been a real alignment that many of us could feel like we’re signed up for,” he said. “Most of what I get out of looking at the past is cautionary tales, and just reminders of how hazardous it is.”

After our interview, he got back to me with the name of an earlier president—Harry S. Truman, the namesake of one of Buttigieg’s dogs. In 1948, Truman defeated Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate, and made liberal anti-communism the doctrine of the postwar Democratic Party.

Buttigieg doesn’t have anything like a doctrine yet, or even detailed policy positions, and he doesn’t speak Truman’s rough-hewn Middle American. When Buttigieg talks about foreign policy, he sounds more like a Rhodes Scholar and McKinsey consultant than like a midwestern mayor or a veteran—“challenges and opportunities,” “You’ve got diplomatic, economic, information, and cybertools in your toolkit in addition to the hard-security assets.”

Buttigieg spent seven months as a Navy intelligence officer in Kabul in 2014, which was supposed to be the last year of the American war in Afghanistan. Five years later, American troops are still there. Buttigieg is a critic of ill-defined military intervention generally. “I believe we should use force when there is a clear and present threat to the U.S.,” he said in his speech, “when it’s necessary to deter and defend against an attack on or imminent threat against the United States, our citizens at home or abroad, or our treaty allies, and when we act as part of a legitimate international coalition to prevent genocide or other atrocities.” Those conditions would have ruled out the war in Iraq, of course, which Buttigieg opposed while he was at Harvard, but also military intervention in the Syrian civil war. When I asked whether he would have ordered missile strikes after the Syrian regime massacred civilians with chemical weapons outside Damascus in the summer of 2013, the answer was no, not without the support of allies and Congress.

That was also Obama’s position. (Buttigieg added that the “deeper problem” was Obama’s original red line, which turned out to be erasable.) But Buttigieg doesn’t see Obama’s foreign policies as useful guides to the future. Both Republican and Democratic presidents since the Cold War have failed to connect events overseas with the lives of ordinary Americans. It wasn’t until his last months in office, just days after the election of Trump, that Obama said, “Globalization needs a course correction.” That failure to see the connection between foreign and domestic policy explains the public’s exhaustion with unexplained commitments and its loss of faith in foreign-policy elites.

Buttigieg is placed by age and experience—a Millennial, a veteran of the forever war, the mayor of a struggling industrial city—to insist on making the connection. “Everything we have to say about foreign policy has to be tied back to what it means at home,” he told me. In other words, every geopolitical move should be evaluated by its effect on American workers, farmers, and citizens.

Ever since the ’90s, for example, America’s relationship with China has generally been more beneficial for elites than for ordinary Americans. “I’m not among the Democrats who think that China’s nothing to worry about,” Buttigieg said. He might have been talking about Sanders, who barely mentioned China in his two speeches, and then described it not as an economic and political threat but as a global partner on climate change. “While I think it’s a real strategic failure to just poke them in the eye with tariffs and see what happens,” Buttigieg went on, “I think it’s not wrong to perceive a real challenge from China.” Under Trump, he admitted, “there’s something about the orientation on China that I think is not completely wrong.”

But where Trump sees a merely economic rival, Buttigieg sees a dangerous ideological model (“the perfection of dictatorship”) whose stability and success look more and more attractive to other countries. To prevail against that competition, America has to be true to its own claims about itself. “If the U.S. is perceived as seeking to dominate the world as a matter of just calculation around our interests, then I think it’s going to be morally suspect, and it’s going to arouse a lot of resentment around the world and ultimately be self-defeating.” But the rising popularity of Chinese-style authoritarianism and Russian-style oligarchy make it all the more important “that American values be vindicated globally … It’s actually a moment that kind of makes me, more than usual, feel patriotically committed to American values, at least American values at our best and what they’re supposed to be.” In framing a picture of the next few decades as a battle of competing ideologies, Buttigieg sounds a bit like Truman at the beginning of the Cold War.

Buttigieg wants to set a generous narrative of national identity against Trump’s cramped and cruel vision, and against the progressive hostility to any national identity at all. It won’t be easy. He speaks of the compassion of his Indiana neighbors toward refugees, their desire to be part of “a greater project” than just America First. But the strongest political emotions of the moment are fear, disillusionment, and hatred. As impressive as he is personally, Buttigieg hasn’t yet found the words, the music, and the policies to make his appeal convincing.