6 Foreign Policy Takeaways from the 2020 Democratic Party Platform

August 13, 2020 By John Glenn

As the election approaches, foreign policy observers are starting to examine the state of the world the President will face in January 2021 and ask what the next Administration would or should do (as Foreign Affairs does in its fall issue). The draft Democratic platform, recently approved and to be ratified during the convention, offers a glimpse into how foreign policy might figure into a Biden Administration’s vision to “build back better.”

Where do 2020 candidates stand on diplomacy, global development, and America’s role in the world?

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Ongoing risks of COVID-19 upended plans for the in-person party convention, including the traditional days of debate among delegates surrounding the party platform, which took place, not in person in Milwaukee, but virtually. Following a competitive primary, the platform was informed by recommendations from six “Unity Task Forces” appointed by Vice President Biden and Senator Sanders (although interestingly, the task forces did not focus on foreign policy).

The platform commits to “renew and reinvent” America’s engagement in the world by elevating diplomacy and building multinational coalitions to address global challenges.  America’s alliances, it says, “multiply our influence, spread our reach, lighten our burden, and advance our shared interests and priorities much farther than we could ever do on our own.”  It praises the system of international institutions built since World War II for generating “an enormous return on our investment” while noting that, “in today’s more competitive world, its renovation is a critical diplomatic priority.”

Below are several take-aways on principles and priorities from the 2020 Democratic Platform:

  • Diplomacy First: The 2020 Platform leads with diplomacy as the “tool of first resort” in foreign policy – a contrast to the 2016 Platform, which lead with defense and refers to diplomacy as one of tool of many. The 2020 Platform contains 39 references to diplomats and diplomacy, compared to just six in the 2016 Platform. In addition to calling for rebuilding and properly resourcing the State Department, the platform calls for a broader rebalancing of America’s foreign policy toolkit – noting that the United States spends 13 times more on the military than on diplomacy. The platform calls for “ending forever wars” and says the United States must lead with “more effective and less costly diplomatic, intelligence, and law enforcement tools” in the Middle East, drawing down our military engagement and enabling local partners.

  • Linking Leadership Abroad to Renewal at Home: While Democratic leaders since Bill Clinton have linked the global economy and domestic prosperity, the 2020 Platform is framed around the argument that the “reinvention of American leadership abroad prioritizes and accelerates our renewal at home.” It focuses on ensuring that foreign policy is rooted in “the needs and aspirations of the American middle class” (echoing a fascinating project at Carnegie). Much of the platform focuses on international trade policy and fair labor practices abroad in this area, but the platform sets a standard of evaluating how foreign policy decisions can ensure a “fair and resilient” society at home.

  • Global Health and Pandemics: The platform’s discussion of transnational threats leads with global health and pandemics, saying that COVID-19 has shown the “urgency of strengthening the global public health system—and the consequences of America’s disengagement from the world.” It highlights the vulnerability of the developing world and commits to assisting Latin America and Africa’s recovery from the impact of COVID-19, “while expanding efforts to improve the resiliency of health systems across the continent.” It promises to expand and revitalize commitments to the Global Health Security Agenda, remain the leading funder and technical partner with the World Health Organization (WHO) while supporting reform efforts for the organization, and continue supporting initiatives like PEPFAR to eradicate preventable diseases.

  • Rising Authoritarianism: Following Freedom House’s observation of 14 consecutive years of decline in freedom in the world, the platform addresses the impact of rising authoritarianism on America’s strategic interests and values. It asserts that “the reinvention of American leadership demands we put democratic values at the core of our foreign policy.” More specifically, it elevates a focus on the rights of women and girls and leadership on LGBTQ+ issues, supporting civil society around the world, defending press freedom, and combating human trafficking, among many issues. In the case of China, the platform promises to mobilize and lead “international efforts to push back on malign behavior while also pursuing cooperation on issues of mutual interest like climate change and nonproliferation.”

  • Alleviating Humanitarian Crises: In 2016, the Democratic platform warned of the humanitarian challenge of 60 million refugees around the world; sadly, the 2020 platform warns that today “almost 170 million people are going to need humanitarian assistance.” It highlights America’s “urgent, moral obligation and strategic interest to help alleviate suffering around the globe” and promises “not just more aid, but better aid.” The platform notes the protracted and politically driven nature of today’s crises and calls for re-evaluating assistance traditionally focused on disaster relief to “deliver on the health, education, and protection needs of populations devastated by conflict and displacement.”

  • Restoring USAID as World’s Premier Development Agency: To address the global challenges above, the platform acknowledges foreign assistance and development as powerful tools with an “extraordinary” return on investment and calls for restoring USAID’s position as “the world’s premier development agency,” elevating the agency’s efforts to support vulnerable populations and tackle challenges from poverty to hunger. It calls for reaffirming America’s commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals, fully leveraging the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, and incorporating local voices in all aspects of programming.