Foreign policy has been a stumbling block to Democrats for fully 50 years now.  In 1968, the party of Lyndon Johnson was the party of the Vietnam War, and replacing Johnson with Hubert Humphrey at the top of the ticket that November was not enough to get Americans to give the Democrats four more years of war.  Instead, the public went for Nixon, and while Nixon too got mired in the Southeast Asian misadventure, the Democrats overcompensated for their war guilt in 1972 by nominating George McGovern, the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion.”  (Those were not the exact words that fellow Democrat Thomas Eagleton used in describing McGovern to columnist Robert Novak, but the pithier, popularized version was accurate as to his meaning.) 

Since then the Democrats have continued to fail the tests of foreign affairs from both directions: The party has an activist anti-American wing that keeps alive the worst of the McGovern legacy, but it also has a humanitarian-interventionist tendency that represents the worst qualities of Johnson’s attempt to bring the Great Society to Southeast Asia.  The three Democrats to hold the White House since Johnson have all been foreign-policy failures, though none were of the same magnitude as Johnson.  Carter gave us a botched attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran with a small helicopter force.  Clinton bombed sundry Third World countries to no effect in taming Islamist terror.  And Barack Obama unleashed a new wave of Islamism in North Africa by toppling the Libyan state.  These debacles and disgraces are, of course, only a few of the most conspicuous Democratic failures.  Clinton’s war on Serbia could have become the flashpoint for a Third World War, and indeed the tensions between Russia and the West today owe a great deal to Clinton’s follies, which include the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders.

As bad as the Democratic record has been, alas, the record of the Republican Party under the Bush dynasty was worse.  George H.W. Bush, who has lately gone to his reward, initiated the U.S. role as policeman and social worker of the world’s new, post-Cold War order, with armed interventions in Panama, the Persian Gulf, and Somalia.  His son outdid him: The Iraq War he began in 2003 may have killed fewer Americans than did the Vietnam conflict, but it was an even less justified and more strategically calamitous action.  As Americans came to realize that, foreign policy came to be political ground on which Democrats could win, as proved to be the case with the midterm battle for control of the Senate in 2006, and in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.  Only Donald Trump gave Republicans back their standing as the party of strength and peace alike, in contrast to the party of Hillary Clinton as the party of war and weakness.

Now the stage is set for 2020.  President Trump has put the Korean peninsula on a path toward something like peace.  He has waged war successfully against ISIS, while resisting calls from neoconservatives and liberals alike to repeat Obama’s mistake in Libya by toppling Assad in Syria.  He has gone against his own instincts by keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan, however, at the behest of his generals.  He has taken a tough stand against China’s economic abuses, though his critics would prefer that he fight a new Cold War with Russia instead.  Overall, his record is better than any president’s since Reagan.  What, then, is a Democrat to do?

The first 2020 hopeful to give an answer has been Elizabeth Warren, who at the end of November published a foreign-policy manifesto—or a thematic campaign essay, at any rate—in Foreign Affairs.  Senator Warren is not stupid, despite what her self-humiliating quest to prove her nonexistent Indian heritage might suggest.  In the Foreign Affairs essay she positions herself as a left-wing America Firster, excoriating trade deals that “mainly lifted the boats of the wealthy while leaving millions of working Americans to drown.”  She calls, in so many words, for rebuilding America rather than nation-building abroad.  And she makes the most of the gap between President Trump’s stated intentions and what he has achieved so far in office:

On the campaign trail, Trump claimed he did not want to police the world.  As president, he has expanded the United States’ military footprint around the globe, from doubling the number of U.S. air strikes in Somalia to establishing a drone base in Niger.

If that were all Senator Warren had to say, she would be a formidable candidate, and the race could be between a Republican and a Democrat competing to offer the best vision of a foreign policy in the citizens’ interests.  But there is another side to her essay—a commitment to regime change and democratization around the world, supposedly to be conducted by diplomacy rather than through force.  Where have we heard that before?  From many a Democrat, but also from George W. Bush, who, in 2000, disclaimed any interest in nation-building escapades.  Beneath the empty words lies an ideology, and Warren’s is one of globalization on left-wing terms, by any means possible.  And for all her harsh words about a foreign policy that in economic terms puts multinational corporations first and Americans last, she gives the game away when she writes of “Immigration policies to yield a more robust economy and a more diversified work force.”  Corporate America, or post-America, will still get its cheap labor, and identity politics will get its fodder, too.

That Warren concedes as much as she does to the idea of America First is a promising sign, however—not, that is, a sign of the Democratic Party coming around to sense, but a sign rather of how difficult it has become to get Americans to buy into the follies of the would-be global leadership class.


[Image via ElizabethForMA [CC BY 2.0]]