Pragmatism Versus ‘Big Think’ in Democrats’ Foreign Policy Priorities

Pragmatism Versus ‘Big Think’ in Democrats’ Foreign Policy Priorities
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic presidential debate, Las Vegas, Oct. 13, 2015 (AP photo by John Locher).

When you’re a global superpower with worldwide interests and responsibilities, it’s hard to come up with a very short list of priorities that will set the agenda and organize the bureaucracy. But that’s just what presidential candidates—and sometimes policymakers—have to do when trying to convince voters of the wisdom of their national security to-do lists. In recent days, we heard just such an exercise from the Democratic presidential candidates, as well as a variation of it from Secretary of State John Kerry.

At last week’s debate, when asked to name “the greatest national security threat to the United States,” the five Democratic candidates for president offered five very different answers. Jim Webb, a former senator, ranked China as the greatest strategic challenge, with cyberwarfare and the Middle East posing the greatest current operational threats. Martin O’Malley, a former governor, also had a list: a nuclear Iran, the terrorist threat from the self-described Islamic State and climate change. Lincoln Chaffee, both a former senator and former governor, cited chaos in the Middle East as his greatest threat.

Most interesting was the contrast between Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: The former cited climate change and the latter the “continued threat from the spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear material that can fall into the wrong hands.”

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