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Refreshing American Priorities: Democrats Offer a 180 on Foreign Policy

By Bartia Cooper, World Organization Analyst


The foreign policy objectives of Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden oppose those of Donald Trump in a variety of contexts. The election of one of these top two Democratic candidates would signal a shift away from utilizing military force in conflict resolution, the treatment of the Russian government as an adversary, a potential re-joining of the JCPOA, and a focus on rebuilding relationships with other democracies.

Bernie Sanders

The Bernie Sanders campaign deems its foreign policy objectives to be “responsible” and “comprehensive,” characterized by an anti-militarist approach.[1] Sanders’ domestic economic priorities bleed into his foreign policy objectives as he intends to shift investment away from war, instead focusing on diplomatic efforts, human rights advocacy, and economic fairness. Specifically, his 2020 campaign promises to limit presidential power when it comes to war-making actions, end U.S. support for Saudi-led interventions in Yemen, rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – more commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal – and rebuild U.S. relationships with pro-democratic forces that he claims the Trump administration destroyed. Some of the Sanders campaign promises on its official support site are vague, such as there being no explanation for how a Sanders administration would force Congress to “reassert its Constitutional authority” and “responsibly end” ongoing interventions.[2] Nevertheless, the campaign promises it will be done.

In the midst of campaign season, the New York Times conducted interviews with each Democratic candidate to gather their opinions on ten policy topics. [3] Instead of using military force as a first or second response, Sanders prefers for it to be a last resort meant to protect civilian interests over government interests. He has a softer approach to North Korean denuclearization, hoping to rely less on sanctions and more on a personal relationship with Kim Jong-un. Concerning Afghanistan and Israel, Sanders promises to have all troops pulled out of Afghanistan by the end of his first term, but argues military aid to Israel is necessary so long as the aid is conditioned on Israel moving toward a peace agreement. He has a less-than-favorable opinion on relations with Russia and China, regarding the two as adversaries for their human rights abuses. Finally, Sanders upholds a devotion to maintaining the U.S. commitment to NATO.

As an overall foreign policy, Sanders’ focus is on rebuilding international cooperation and criticizing the nearly twenty-year war on terror.[4] His administration’s approach would be to take a step back and engage in frequent collaboration with democratic partners to solve global issues.

Joe Biden

The Biden campaign site[5] provides less information on Biden’s foreign policy orientations. Its overall foreign policy objective is to “demonstrate respected leadership on the world stage,” which entails keeping the United States’ position as the global leader and using its power to influence governments toward its democratic ideals. Similar to Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden would like to repair relationships with democratic allies in order to tackle challenges such as climate change, trade wars, China and Russia, and the placement of refugees.

Despite vague objectives on his campaign site, Biden has been open to interviews concerning his 2020 policy views. He takes a more conservative approach on military force, preferring its use to be conditioned on the consent of the American people, other foreign nations, and Congress.[6] With this in mind, Biden finds valid the use of military force in every foreign policy situation asked of him except to carry out regime change. Attitudes on other issues are a bit more hesitant: only considering rejoining the JCPOA if Iran meets certain conditions, wanting no personal relationship with North Korea’s leader and instead seeking tighter sanctions until substantial disarmament, and viewing both Russia and China as adversaries due to their authoritarian regimes. In contrast, Biden believes U.S. assistance to Afghanistan, Israel and NATO allies may still be needed.

How do the foreign policies of the Democratic candidates compare to Trump?

The Trump campaign does not list upcoming foreign policy objectives on its site, rather focusing on past achievements.[7] Trump has made no mention of North Korea or Russia, but has made small mention of demanding that Iran abandon its nuclear weapons program in exchange for U.S. help in boosting the Iranian economy.[8] Unlike the Democratic candidates, Trump has pushed for the military to be globally unmatched in order to use military force in any situation that calls for it. Aside from the fight against terrorism, Trump has not explicitly stated which foreign policy situations would require military force. Troops may be withdrawn from Afghanistan in the future, with the reminder that the U.S., Trump believes, should not act as global law enforcement.[9] Similar to the Democratic candidates, he sees China as a major adversary, though more so for economic reasons than human rights abuses. Overall, Trump has been much less vocal about foreign policy plans for a potential second term, but many of his objectives echo what his campaign claims to be promises kept.[10]

The following chart summarizes many of the views presented by each candidate. An “X” marks the foreign policy topic where a candidate chose not to answer:

Prospects and Implications

As a whole, the two remaining Democratic candidates have foreign policy positions that vary greatly from Trump’s existing policies. The potential election of any of these candidates would signal a significant change in a few foreign policy areas. The use of military force, for example, would be discouraged in most instances but potentially used as a last resort. Beginning conflict resolution with diplomatic approaches would become the new standard procedure. The push toward diplomacy carries itself into the Democratic candidates’ foreign policy focus on rebuilding relationships with other democracies. All argue Trump has weakened or strained previously robust relationships. There also appears to be an opposite view on whether to demand more from NATO allies, with the Democratic candidates choosing to uphold NATO regardless of allies’ low military spending. Where the views of the two Democrats and Trump converge, however, pertains to keeping troops in Afghanistan and viewing China as a potential adversary due to its current regime’s economic practices and human rights abuses. The removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is likely at the very least and all would consider harsher attitudes toward China. The issue without consensus concerns which approach is more appropriate when negotiating with North Korea – a soft, personalistic approach, sanctions until it gives up its nuclear weapons, or a demand for immediate complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament (CVID). Aside from the North Korea challenge, the foreign policy lines between Sanders and Biden versus Trump are rather stark.


[1] Bernie 2020, “Issues: Responsible Foreign Policy,” 2020,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Maggie Astor and David Sanger, “The 2020 Democratic Candidates on Foreign Policy,” New York Times, 2020,

[4] Bernie Sanders, “Ending America’s Endless War,” Foreign Affairs, June 24, 2019,

[5] Biden for President, “Joe’s Vision,” 2020,

[6] Astor and Sanger, “The 2020 Democratic Candidates.”

[7] Donald J. Trump for President, “Trade & Foreign Policy,” 2020,

[8] Michael Hirsh, Amy Mackinnon, and Robbie Gramer, “5 Foreign-Policy Takeaways from Trump’s State of the Union,” Foreign Policy, February 5, 2020, See also, Donald J. Trump, “State of the Union Address,” February 4, 2020,

[9] Ibid.

[10] Donald J. Trump, “Trade & Foreign Policy.”


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