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.”