The Big Split Emerging in the Democratic Party

The candidates agree that Donald Trump has gutted traditional American foreign policy. Where they diverge is in how to respond to that destruction.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren seemed to be arguing about the finer points of troop levels in the Middle East, but what was really in dispute was a much bigger question: whether the world’s most powerful military actually provides stability abroad and security at home when intervening in international conflicts.

In calling for maintaining a small number of U.S. forces in the Middle East during last night’s Democratic presidential debate in Iowa, Biden insisted that there are some problems for which the military might of the United States and its allies is the only solution. “There’s no way you negotiate … with terrorists,” the former vice president stated, in reference to the battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and if America were to “walk away and not have any troops anywhere,” the terrorists would “come to us.”

It’s a case U.S. leaders have long made: We fight our enemies over there so that we don’t have to fight them here. But if Biden’s point seemed routine, Warren’s rebuttal was subtly radical. She implied that even the effort to eradicate Islamic State terrorists was not a job for the American armed forces.

“We should stop asking our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily,” she asserted. Practically, that means withdrawing from the Middle East all U.S. combat troops, who Warren said “are not helping create more safety for the United States or the region,” and instead using economic and diplomatic tools together with allies to counter enemies. The senator from Massachusetts then went even further, declaring that the entire U.S. defense industry and defense budget should be overhauled to root out endemic corruption. (Warren offered few specifics on how she would implement either of those policies.)

The exchange highlighted a profound split within the Democratic Party as it prepares to nominate a presidential candidate. All the candidates generally agree that Donald Trump has gutted traditional American foreign policy, undermining the country’s principles, alliances, and global leadership. Where they diverge is in how to respond to that destruction. One camp aims to painstakingly restore the United States’ position in the world to what it was before the aberrant Trump era—or as Pete Buttigieg said, “send Trumpism into the dustbin of history”—while the other believes that the turmoil of the era only underscores the need to fully renovate America’s role in international affairs.

During the debate, Biden spoke for the “restorationists” in making it his mission to “restore America’s soul,” to reestablish America’s alliances and “standing” in the Middle East following Trump’s confrontation with Iran, and to return to familiar U.S. positions such as not meeting unconditionally with adversarial leaders such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Buttigieg came across as a more youthful emissary of restoration, sprucing up old ideas with proposals such as making any U.S. military deployments authorized by Congress expire after three years to avert endless wars.

Bernie Sanders, who along with Warren represents the “renovators,” stressed his anti-war credentials and articulated a vision in which the United States projects power overseas by shifting its investments from the military to the State Department and the United Nations.

Hours before the debate, at a conference organized by the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., to design a progressive national-security agenda for the next Democratic president’s first 100 days in office, these divisions between restorationists and renovators were already evident. In opening remarks, the former Obama-administration official Kelly Magsamen sought to bridge the gap. She noted the daunting “task to fix all that Trump has broken,” while also stating that “today is not really about Trump, and it’s not about returning to the status quo ante.” She urged attendees to develop an “affirmative agenda” for America’s role in the world and to “revisit some of our assumptions.”

When Denis McDonough, Susan Rice, and Michèle Flournoy, all top national-security officials under Barack Obama, assembled for the first panel, however, the thrust of the discussion was much more about restoration than renovation. Rice, who served as Obama’s national security adviser, said the next Democratic administration would have to find ways to stage “a renewal of our vows” to NATO and provide “extraordinary reassurance” to all U.S. allies, which over the course of Trump’s presidency have come to question America’s commitment to their security and interests. (“You go back to the altar and apologize for your transgressions,” Rice counseled.)

A key challenge for this camp is that restoring the status quo ante will be far more difficult than simply embarking on a global “we’re back and we’re not Trump” tour. Will countries believe that the United States they used to know is really coming back in the form they used to know it, for example, or that any agreements they enter into with a new president will be honored by future administrations? As Samantha Power, Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, noted at the conference, returning to nuclear negotiations with Iran following Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal will be difficult because the Iranians will say, “Won’t this [agreement], too, be replaced the next time someone who doesn’t like the deal takes office?”

For the renovator camp, acknowledging that Trump accurately diagnosed the need for the U.S. to revamp its role in the world, even if it thinks he got the prescription wrong, is a big challenge. So is describing what exactly a progressive foreign policy will look like if it doesn’t look like the American foreign policy of the past, and how the camp will actually achieve the new objectives it’s setting for U.S. statecraft.

What unites all the Democratic presidential candidates is that, so far, they are defining their vision for how the United States will interact with the rest of the world in a more negative than affirmative sense: Whatever it will be, it won’t be Trumpism.