As Donald Trump jetted off to Japan this week for an international conference, airing his many grievances with the U.S. allies he was about to meet, 10 Democratic presidential candidates were back in Florida with a message for America’s old friends: Your long nightmare could soon be over.
And they seemed particularly keen on making things right with European countries that Trump claims are not spending enough on defense and are taking advantage of the United States on trade.
Asked during night two of the first round of Democratic debates which relationship abroad they would first reset as president, half of the candidates said they would reach out to Europe. “NATO will fall apart if [Trump] is elected for four more years,” said former Vice President Joe Biden. “It’s the single most consequential alliance in the history of the United States.”
Trump has repeatedly criticized NATO members for failing to hike military spending and has suggested that he wouldn’t come to the defense of those who weren’t paying as much as he would like.
Senators Kamala Harris and Michael Bennet, the author Marianne Williamson, and Representative Eric Swalwell all took positions similar to Biden’s, with Swalwell getting in an additional dig at Trump’s obsequiousness toward Vladimir Putin. “We’re breaking up with Russia and making up with NATO,” he declared.
Others mentioned China, which also came under fire from the candidates as a top economic threat, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand vowed to “engage” Iran to avert the war that she claimed Trump was “hell-bent” on starting with the country over its suspected nuclear-weapons program and other activities.
But whatever the specific answer, the consensus message was that a Democratic president would revert to treating America’s friends as friends and foes as foes. “We have no idea which of our most important allies [Trump] will have pissed off worse between now and” 2020, Mayor Pete Buttigieg joked in answering the question.
Bennet noted that ahead of his Japan trip, Trump had complained about America’s defense treaty with the country that was about to host him, about having to spend money on defending Germany, and about India’s trade practices, while voicing no displeasure with autocratic adversaries such as Russia and North Korea. “We’ve got to restore the relationships that he’s destroyed with our allies, not just in Europe.”
The flip side of that pledge, of course, is that if a Democrat isn’t elected and Trump’s deeply disruptive presidency clatters on for four more years, these relationships could be forever transformed.