Centrists also hope to make cuts to the defense budget, but from a different perspective, by first asking whether the right kind of military is in place. They believe that modernization and reform may result in savings if done correctly. Faced with a trade-off between cost and effectiveness, centrists will choose effectiveness every time. They find the concept of military sufficiency fuzzy and inadequate, especially when considering competition from China in new technologies. The United States, they say, must always seek and maintain a significant edge over its rivals. Don’t be surprised if centrists maintain defense spending at Obama-era levels or even a little bit higher.
Centrists are much more likely to keep a modest troop presence in parts of Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS. They are also more accepting of the need for drone strikes against terrorist networks. And they are willing to use the threat of force in negotiations with Iran or North Korea, just as President Barack Obama did.
Progressives argue that the United States must end the shadow war against terrorist networks and treat fighting these groups more as a matter of law enforcement with deep and structured cooperation with allies. If rare strikes are required, the president should consult with Congress and treat the decision as the exception rather than the rule. Sanders would take the threat of force off the negotiation table; Warren would keep it as a last resort.
The final substantive area of difference is geopolitics. Progressives have generally avoided discussing security competition with Russia and China, preferring to focus on economic and political domains, including fighting disinformation, corruption, and the erosion of liberal norms. Centrists agree with all that but would place a greater emphasis on maintaining a favorable balance of power in Asia and Europe, including deepening security cooperation with allies such as France, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia. Centrists also have a higher tolerance for risk in deterring Chinese expansionism at sea, whereas progressives are more likely to be risk averse.
All of these foreign-policy differences are important to note, but they do not add up to a fundamental clash of worldviews. One could easily imagine a centrist president accommodating progressive voices by adopting some of their priorities, particularly on fighting corruption. Similarly, a progressive president could take a pragmatic approach to the use of force against terrorists and may even champion a new use-of-force authorization through Congress.
So, then, will candidates pursue similar policies? Not so fast.
The reason the foreign-policy platforms are so alike is because the candidates’ advisers have deliberately sought to make them so. How much the candidates truly believe what they have written and said in set-piece speeches is unknown. Interviews like the one The New York Times recently conducted are helpful, but the campaigns carefully craft responses to avoid political controversy.