• Bobby Zitzmann

The Democrats' Internal Foreign Policy Debate, Explained

Much ink has been spilled covering the internal divide within the Democratic Party between the Party’s so-called centrist and progressive wings. The centrists voted for Hillary Clinton, and the progressives voted for Bernie Sanders. The progressives want to charge forward with single-payer health care, and the centrists just want to tweak the status quo. So on and so forth. Heretofore, discussion of this divide has been incomplete.

While there is some talk about social/cultural issues, the intra-Party debate is almost exclusively cast in economic terms. That divide exists, and it was the most salient difference in the 2016 primary election, but it is far from the whole picture. Most notably absent from the discussion has been foreign policy, where there is probably more diversity of opinion within the Party, and which is turning out to be one of the most consequential facets of the Trump administration.

To help fill that void, I have compiled this guide to the foreign policy debates within the Party. Just like the economic divide is cast as a competition between Hillary supporters and Bernie supporters, it is easiest to view this conversation through the lens of the Democrats’ leading foreign policy voices. I count four: President Obama, Senator Chris Murphy, Hillary Clinton, and Senator Tim Kaine.

Here you can find profiles of each figure and their foreign policy views, and a few of each person’s strongest supporters.


Pete Souza, public domain

Barack Obama: Nobel Laureate Warrior

To understand Barack Obama’s foreign policy, you need to understand his rise as a political figure. Perhaps his first national notice came as a result of a 2002 speech he gave in opposition to the invasion of Iraq, calling it a “dumb war” and a “rash war.” If I were feeling particularly bold, I would say that the reason Barack Obama was the 44th President of the United States instead of Hillary Clinton is that he opposed that war, and she supported it. The Iraq War helped make him politically, and it had a substantial influence on his foreign policy outlook.

Specifically, his opposition to the Iraq War reveals what I believe to be the two central planks to his foreign policy: his resentment of the “Washington foreign policy establishment” and his reticent attitude on military force. These two items are heavily interwoven, as the largest problem Obama has with the foreign policy establishment is its attitude on the use of force. Obama explains:

There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.

His distaste for this traditional playbook and the figures who promote it permeates a great deal of his foreign policy. When justifying his response to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, he couched the explanation in a jab at Washington: “And as I recall, because apparently nobody in this town does…” He has stated more broadly that the “traditional” breakdown of foreign policy ideology “doesn’t describe what a smart foreign policy should be.” This distrusted establishment extends to the academics and analysts who inform the foreign policy debate. For instance, Jeffery Goldberg's famous interview of Obama recalled of an administration official calling Washington think tanks “Arab-occupied territory” because of what he views as an overly pro-Saudi bias. The Iraq War, along with other foreign policy failures Obama witnessed in his politically formative years, left Obama with a skeptical view of the establishment that surrounded him in his presidency.

From a bird’s-eye perspective, Obama has described his foreign policy in general by saying “We don’t have military solutions to every problem in the 21st century." Obama had a habit of infuriating all sides of the foreign policy debate, especially with his stance on the use of military force. That doctrine can best be seen in Obama's 2014 commencement address at Westpoint, where he laid out a two-pronged rubric for military action. First, he states unequivocally:

"The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it -- when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger. In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just. International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland, or our way of life."

This principle, or more accurately the frequency with which Obama put events in that "core interest" category, often infuriated progressives like Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy. They gave the President frequent grief for being too militaristic, especially with the use of drone strikes. But at the same time, interventionist voices decried Obama for the philosophy shown by the next line from the same speech:

On the other hand, when issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake -- when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us -- then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law; and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action.

As in many areas, Obama so often found himself straddling uncomfortable contradictions in foreign policy. He won the Nobel Peace Prize and served as a war president for two terms. He resolved to shift US focus to the Asia Pacific, but always kept being pulled back to the Middle East. While his term saw a number of positive achievements, including most notably the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Accord, these contradictions and Obama's often wavery response to them is likely to hold his legacy at a middling level.

Used with permission from Sen. Murphy's office

Chris Murphy: The Precise Progressive

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy begins his analysis by rejecting the foreign policy debate as it currently stands. Murphy sees the conversation divided into three camps: neoconservative interventionists led by John McCain, isolationists led by Rand Paul, and a big tent of liberals following then President Obama. This arrangement leaves no room for “progressives” — non-interventionist internationalists — among whom Murphy sees himself. Indeed, Murphy subtly chastises his fellow progressives for their lack of international focus, saying that they “have become at best, reactive, and at worst, absent, from serious, meaningful foreign policy debates.”

Murphy hopes to fill that void. A member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Murphy is an active voice in the foreign policy public square. The core of his foreign policy is threefold: reduce our reliance on the military, increase investment in diplomacy and aid, and “practice what we preach” about freedom and liberty at home.

First is the military. Upon initial consideration, one might consider the Obama foreign policy exactly what a progressive would want. Obama first ran for president against the hawk Hillary Clinton and the ultra-hawk John McCain, and perhaps his first action on the national political stage was to decry the Iraq invasion as a “dumb war” in a now famous 2002 speech. But to Murphy, Obama is still too militaristic. Murphy would significantly reduce the use of drone strikes, and he was one of the few Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee to vote against Obama’s 2013 plan to intervene in Syria against Assad.

For his part, Murphy has three criteria he often cites that must be fulfilled before he supports military action. First, “U.S. citizens are threatened and we have to know that our intervention can be decisive.” Second, “we need clear goals, exit strategies, and Congressional approval — always.” And finally, “military action is not worthwhile without a realistic political strategy to clean up the mess once the fighting ends.”

Uncommon among Democrats, Murphy willingly calls himself a foreign policy realist, which even the stone-cold Barack Obama resisted. And he doesn’t attempt to hide this realism on even the most hot-button issues. Murphy has said that, “it sounds really good to say that the American objective is to defeat ISIS,” but America’s goal “should be to eliminate the ability of ISIS to attack the United States. Whether ISIS is going to be wiped from the face of the Middle East is really a question for our partners in the region.”

But for all this non-interventionism, Murphy does not oppose the use of military force categorically. He is always sure to say that America’s military needs to be the most capable in the world, and that we should have a unilateral policy of defense against attacks. But he thinks that the range of tasks that the military is suited to handle is much narrower than most suggest, and that we will inevitably lose our military progress in whatever mission if we don’t also work towards a political solution to sustain our success once the military withdraws. The fact that the US has the world’s best hammer, Murphy explains, doesn’t mean that all our problems are nails.

The Senator has given mixed signals about the size of the military budget. He regularly says that he does not want to cut military spending, but he has also listed an “organizing principle for [his] foreign policy” to be “a substantial transfer of financial resources from the military budget to buttress diplomacy and foreign aid.”

But Murphy does not just complain that the US relies too much on the military. He does offer an alternative approach, which brings us to the second prong of Murphy’s foreign policy. Senator Murphy is probably the country’s leading proponent of expanding our diplomatic and developmental capabilities. He regularly makes his arguments by putting numbers into perspective, saying that the military has more employees in military grocery stores than the State Department has diplomats, that China spends so many times more money on whatever facet of aid than we do, and so on.

Murphy has released a very granular, detailed set of proposals for America to boost its non-military foreign affairs capability in a report he called “Rethinking the Battlefield.” Among other things, Murphy calls for a “21st Century Marshall Plan” for America to compete with other major powers on the developmental aid stage, as well as to counter Russia’s use of natural gas dependence in its foreign policy. He also calls for a dramatic expansion of the State Department’s Foreign Service, the Peace Corps, and academic exchange programs, with a renewed focus on good governance for the Foreign Service. Finally, he supports updating and strengthening America’s disaster relief and global health capabilities, both out of a humanitarian instinct and to better ensure global stability.

Finally, the third dimension of Murphy’s foreign policy is better domestic policy. He would reign in the government’s surveillance and covert military capabilities, which he sees as escaping any meaningful degree of oversight. Specifically, he would institute for judicial or “quasi-judicial” control over surveillance and move management of military interrogation and lethal drone strikes from the CIA to the Department of Defense, where they can be subject to Congressional oversight. All these positions are derived from Murphy’s belief that American calls for greater human rights abroad will come off as hypocrisy if the same such rights are waived at home.

Another point that separates Murphy from most Democrats is his cold view towards international trade. Murphy voted against trade promotion authority for the TPP, indicating that he opposed the deal in general. He also voted against a free trade deal with Peru. Murphy is a long-time proponent of "Buy American" legislation, which stop the federal government from purchasing foreign goods. Overall, Murphy has said that the foreign policy benefits of trade should be weighed against, and in the case of Obama's tenure fall second to, domestic economic effects of trade.

US Mission Geneva, Creative Commons

Hillary Clinton: 21st-Century Liberal Hawk

The figure of Hillary Clinton poses a unique challenge to understanding foreign policy in the Democratic Party. She is at once one of the most prominent foreign policy thinkers in the party and someone whose personal views are very rarely aired. Of all the people profiled in this article, she has influenced Democratic foreign policy for the longest, as an influential first lady, Senator, Secretary of State, and two-time Presidential candidate. But all the while, the majority of her tenure has been spent influencing the foreign policy of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, not necessarily making her own. And as a presidential candidate, she is politically constrained to simplify to an unsatisfactory degree.On the other hand, the other three figures on this list have had considerable freedom to set their own courses.

Any discussion of Hillary Clinton in the context of Democratic foreign policy should start with the use of military force. In every instance in the past three decades, Clinton has come down on the hawkish side of foreign policy debates. She “urged” her husband to intervene in Kosovo, in Rwanda, and in Haiti. As a Senator, she supported missile strikes against Al Qaeda in Pakistan, disagreeing with Senator Barack Obama, and of course she voted for the 2003 Iraq War. In her 2014 memoir Hard Choices, she recounts her disagreements with Obama regarding the 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan — Obama wanted the surge to be connected to a withdrawal timeline, which Clinton opposed. She advised Obama to protect Libyan civilians in Benghazi against Muammar Gaddafi, advice that was decisive to the eventual action. She made sure to emphasize in the campaign that she was a strong proponent of the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. In Syria, she has called for bombing Assad’s airfields, creating military-enforced humanitarian safe zones, and sending in some ground troops to reclaim land from ISIS.

All of these instances where Clinton supported intervention are united by a threat to human rights, which is a cause Hillary has always supported. In what is still perhaps her most famous foreign policy declaration, she traveled to a 1995 UN conference on women’s rights and stated that “women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.” And at the State Department, she expanded America’s diplomatic focus on women’s rights and empowerment.

Looking at this record, it is easy to conclude that Clinton is solely focused on humanitarian interventions. But that’s a mistake. There are other aspects of Clinton’s foreign policy that make it a little bit more nuanced than the prototypical liberal hawk.

First of all, Clinton value the political stability of a country when considering a humanitarian intervention. It is for this reason that she opposed Obama’s move to call for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down during the Arab Spring. In Hard Choices, she wrote “His Egypt served as a linchpin of peace in a volatile region. Were we really ready to walk away from that relationship after thirty years of cooperation?”

And she places a high value on actual person-to-person diplomacy as the center of American foreign policy, which might align her with Senator Chris Murphy’s call to expand the State Department’s Foreign Service by 50 percent. This emphasis on diplomatic “boots on the ground” was key in her decision to send more diplomats to multilateral conferences in Southeast Asia as part of the Asia Pivot. “Embed[ding] the United States in the multilateral architecture of Asia,” was a top goal she had as Secretary of State, Clinton explains.

Throughout her career, Clinton has struggled when publicly articulating her trade position. Clinton is generally pro-trade, but her career has been full of nuances and political maneuvering. She ran publicly against the TPP, which was almost certainly a political lie. Although she voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement in the Senate, she voted for agreements with Singapore, Chile, and Oman. In sum, Clinton has said privately that her "dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders" — essentially an American version of the European Economic Area. However, her CAFTA vote shows that she does not necessarily want to take every immediate policy action to achieve that "dream."

As Secretary of State, the Asia Pivot is almost certainly Clinton’s signature achievement. This pivot (or “rebalance,” as some prefer) is a largely non-ideological realignment of American diplomatic, economic, and military focus towards Asia based on its increasing population, economic, and military power. It is also a major plank in the Obama foreign policy, but it is fair to include it in both profiles because of the major hand that Clinton’s State Department had in its development. While certainly among the least controversial moves of Obama’s presidency, it does run somewhat afoul of Senator Tim Kaine’s policy, which would focus more on Latin America.

Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons

Tim Kaine: The Democracy Democrat

Senator Tim Kaine is a man on a hunt. To his dismay, American foreign policy lacks a “grand strategy,” a unified, coherent set of principles and goals to guide our action. We have plans and moves for every circumstance, but we have no broader theme holding them together, like we did for four decades with the Truman Doctrine. While Kaine lays some of the blame for this with President Obama (“don’t do stupid shit”), he believes that this has been a problem brewing since the fall of the Soviet Union.

This lack of a uniting narrative in our foreign policy causes a number of failures. Policymakers, without a strategy to guide them, come up with dithering, contradictory responses. We have a humanitarian intervention in Libya, but none in Syria. No clear signal of intent frustrates our allies and emboldens our adversaries. And the American people get no story of why foreign policy matters. That last shortcoming is a concern shared by many an internationalist. In his final foreign policy speech, Bill Clinton noted regretfully, “I still don’t think I’ve persuaded the American people by big majorities that you really ought to care a lot about foreign policy.” As a matter of policy and politics, a new grand strategy is needed.

For his part, Kaine has proposed a new grand strategy. More than anyone else, Kaine focuses on democracy promotion. Kaine sees the world as divided into three poles of power: democracies, authoritarians (led by Russia and China), and non-state actors (terrorists, gangs, NGO’s, corporations). In a single soundbyte, Kaine’s grand strategy is twofold. First, deepen ties with the democracies to bolster peace and the democratic model of governance, putting pressure on authoritarians to democratize. And second, as democracies, work with the authoritarians to manage the non-state actors (e.g. - preventing terrorism), a shared interest of the two state groups.

To Kaine, democracy is key. He makes frequent reference to the robust democratic peace in the world and hopes that America can play a role in expanding it. This sounds like same old Clinton/Bush liberalism, but Kaine is careful to distinguish himself from past approaches for two main reasons.

First, he believes that past administrations have erroneously put democracies on the back burner, stating, believing that they can “take care of themselves.” But to Kaine’s mind, democracy is under immense strain, and he goes on to list a number of factors currently contributing the the global decline of liberal democracy.

Second, he thinks the US has acted unilaterally too much in the past. Recognizing that the world is much more connected, and power is significantly more diffuse, than in Truman’s time, Kaine calls on America to drop its self-conception as “the indispensable nation.” The United States has a role to play, but going at everything largely alone will backfire for a number of reasons: we don’t have the money, allies will resent our hubris, adversaries will see it as provocation, and so on.

How, then, can we put democracies back in front of our foreign policy and increase our multilateralism? Kaine proposes a new intergovernmental organization specifically for democracies. Whereas NATO helps Western countries bolster their security, and the OECD helps rich countries manage their economy, Kaine’s democratic club would help the world’s democracies (about 70 according to Kaine) improve the quality of their government. It would allow countries to discuss and assist each other in reducing corruption, improving civic participation, and so forth.

At the same time as it shores up existing democracies, Kaine’s policy would put pressure on the authoritarians to democratize by boosting the legitimacy of the democratic model. Kaine is an ardent follower of Bill Clinton’s famous adage: we should lead not with the example of our power, but with the power of our example. When people see such a viable path to freedom and prosperity “in their own neighborhood,” Kaine explains, it will push their governments toward democracy.

And to Kaine, that is where America comes in. While he does not want us to be the “indispensable nation,” taking the central role in every decision around the globe, he does want America to be the world’s “exemplary democracy.” By straightening out our own house, we can perform better as the leader of the democracy movement, the “security partner of choice,” and the world’s most innovative economy.

On the use of military force, Kaine takes a middling view. He thinks that the United States should move away from a policy of military regime change, believing instead that “by being the exemplary democracy, we’ll have more influence in countries’ domestic politics.” He has been a strident supporter of Congressional approval as a requisite for military action, but he does not use that as an excuse to oppose all military operations. He voted to authorize President Obama to take military action against the Syrian government in 2013, which Senator Chris Murphy voted against. And he supported a US military-enforced humanitarian safe zone in Syria, as an alternative to John McCain’s no-fly zone.

Kaine is the most pro-trade figure on this list. He was one of the few Democratic Senators to vote to give trade promotion authority for the TPP. Kaine has also praised the Export-Import Bank, a popular boogeyman among Democrats. Always one for the big picture, Kaine has said, "Global trade is a reality. The question is whether the U.S. wants to write the rules for trade or suffer under rules written by others." His solidly pro-trade record has earned Kaine praise from the US Chamber of Commerce.

Finally, whereas Clinton and Obama focused heavily on increasing our engagement with Asia, Kaine supports more engagement in the Western hemisphere. He notes that while the Americas share a great deal of linguistic, cultural, and commercial ties, it has been neglected by US foreign policy.


Any given politician's views are practically irrelevant if they can't gather a base of power to surround them. Here are each of these four figures' key supporters.

Team Obama

Vice President Joe Biden is tied more than anyone else to Obama's legacy, save Obama himself. According to a number of memoirs and interviews, Biden was among a group of Obama's advisers who would most frequently argue against military force, bringing him in line with the President's instincts. And although Biden originally voted for the 2003 Iraq War, he quickly called that vote a "mistake" and became an ardent critic of the war.

Susan Rice, among other things former UN Ambassador and National Security Advisor, was one of Obama's most trusted foreign policy sounding boards. He initially wanted her to replace Clinton as Secretary of State, but Rice turned it down, citing an overly difficult potential confirmation. But unlike Biden, an early front runner for the 2020 nomination, Rice is unlikely to be very public in the near future.

Murphy's Mates

Senator Bernie Sanders generally stays out of foreign policy discussion, which is part of why Murphy has been able to grab the left's mantle in this arena. But when Sanders does give his thoughts, they are essentially a less detailed version of Murphy's: serious skepticism of military intervention; positive,values-based engagement with the world, and reining in international trade. This might pose a challenge if they both run in 2020.

Miller Center, Creative Commons.

New Mexico senator Martin Heinrich, along with Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz, coauthored an article with Murphy for Foreign Affairs magazine, where they laid out a distilled version of Murphy's vision as I've described it here. Heinrich is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, so his advocacy has focused most on avoiding military conflict.

They're With Her

Samantha Power, most recently Obama's UN Ambassador, comes from the same starting points as Clinton. Her career has largely been defined by her concern for humanitarian crises and her willingness to use military force to protect human rights. It does seem odd to put Power in this section, though, because she had to resign from Obama's 2008 campaign after she called Clinton a "monster."

Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe has only every held domestic-facing political positions, but he is a Clinton loyalist through and through. He was chair of Bill's 1996 campaign and Hillary's 2008 campaign. Of all the 2020 contenders, he is the most clearly Clinton-aligned.

Kaine: One Man is an Island

Tim Kaine is in an awkward position of not having occupied a very visible office, like Obama and Clinton, and also not claiming any large ideological base, like Murphy. For this reason, Kaine lacks anyone prominent who could be called his follower. Perhaps as he grows into the Senate, he will become a sort of Democratic John McCain, widely respected for his foreign policy credentials with a flock of proteges.

Top picture credit Bobby Zitzmann/the American Agora


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