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Reading the US Presidential Tea Leaves: Do the Candidates Even Care About the UN?


The Democratic presidential debate in Iowa, Jan. 14, 2020, Drake University. Few of the candidates have uttered the words “United Nations,” but a close reading of their speeches and other sources reveals a range of positions on “how they would operate in the international system,” the author writes. The unifying topic for the candidates is mitigating climate change.

President Trump was at the United Nations last fall telling world leaders that “the future does not belong to globalists” when Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the United States House of Representatives would launch an inquiry into his possible impeachment. It was the same General Assembly whose derisive laughter at Trump’s boast a year before of his unprecedented accomplishments would feature in a 2019 ad by the campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden.

That may be about as much direct attention as the UN will receive in the 2020 US presidential campaign. Despite the Trump administration’s bristling hostility toward international law and organizations, the many candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination have said little about the international system through which Americans might advance their interests and values. The candidates have been asked about it even less before the hectic schedule of voting that starts Feb. 3 with caucuses in Iowa.

The candidates’ muffled voices do not bespeak an embrace of Trump’s “America First” agenda. The 45th president has done far more than merely threaten to withdraw from NATO if other member states did not increase their military spending. He has actually withdrawn the US from Unesco, the UN’s educational, scientific and cultural organization; abandoned the US seat on the UN Human Rights Council; shut down the World Trade Organization’s adjudication of trade disputes; and paralyzed international peace operations by nonpayment of peacekeeping dues.

Trump has renounced both the Paris climate accord and the nuclear arms control agreements that eliminated intermediate nuclear forces in Europe and rolled back Iran’s nuclear program. He warned of “fire and fury” from a US military that was “locked and loaded” and ready “to totally destroy North Korea.” He repeatedly threatened to destroy Iranian cultural heritage sites even after allies warned such targeting would be a war crime. He threatened Iraqis with “very big sanctions” that would “make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.” His administration has revoked visas from International Criminal Court officials and blocked Iran’s foreign minister from attending UN meetings in New York.

Virtually none of these flashpoints has entered into the campaign debate so far, except for the climate pact, which all the Democratic challengers pledge to rejoin. Even the Council on Foreign Relations, in seeking candidates’ responses to a lengthy questionnaire about international issues facing the US, did not ask about the multilateral frameworks for effective action. Nor did any of the three leading Democratic candidates who submitted essays laying out their vision of America’s international relations to the Council’s journal, Foreign Affairs — Biden and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — mention “United Nations” even once.

The low salience among voters of global affairs generally, much less of international institutions like the UN and NATO, is evident in the questions that they have been posing at candidates’ town halls or other interactive events. Until the US drone strike killing senior Iranian and Iraqi officials at the start of 2020, fewer than five percent of questions asked by Iowa voters dealt with foreign policy, climate aside. Polling finds a similar modest priority for international concerns in the electorate at large.

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Still, the leading candidates have offered tantalizing clues as to how they would operate in the international system, and a careful reading of the tea leaves finds clear differences among them. Perhaps more important, the candidates all provide a stark contrast to Trump.


The prospect of imminent escalation to war with Iran in the first days of 2020 did bring foreign policy urgently to the forefront. Nearly all the Democratic candidates had already signaled, with slight variations among them, that they would rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, which the UN Security Council had ratified, entailing a suspension of the sanctions it had mandated on UN member states.

“If Iran resumes implementing its commitments, then I would rejoin,” Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., told the Council on Foreign Relations. Biden stipulated the same condition and described re-entry as “a starting point to work alongside our allies in Europe and other world powers to extend the deal’s nuclear constraints.”

“I would re-enter the agreement on Day One of my presidency and then work with the P5+1 and Iran,” wrote Vermont’s Senator Sanders, “to further block any path to a nuclear weapon, restrain Iran’s offensive actions in the region and forge a new strategic balance in the Middle East.”

But amid the war jitters after the US killing of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, which Sanders and Warren of Massachusetts did not hesitate to call an “assassination,” Sanders saw an opening to draw a larger lesson about military adventurism. “The American people are sick and tired of endless wars which have cost us trillions of dollars,” he said at the January 2020 debate in Des Moines.”The biggest blunder is the war in Iraq, which I strongly opposed,” Sanders emphasized, drawing a pointed contrast to Biden’s role in shaping and passing the Congress’s 2002 authorization for war against Iraq.

Going to war

The Iraq war has been a particularly fractured lens for understanding Biden’s attitude toward US use of military force. Waving aside the reports by UN weapons inspectors that they found no evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Biden told CNN in early 2003: “The Security Council’s on the line here. They’re either going to prove they are relevant or irrelevant, because I don’t think any open-minded person could argue that Saddam is not in material breach of the U.N. resolution 1441.” Four months after the fall of Baghdad, Biden told an audience at the Brookings Institution: “Contrary to what some in my party might think, Iraq was a problem that had to be dealt with sooner, rather than later. So I commend the president. He was right to enforce the solemn commitments made by Saddam.”

Nonetheless, Biden also lamented President George W. Bush’s impatience. “We went to war without the world, when we could have had many with us, and we’re paying the price for it now.” Two years later, though, Biden acknowledged that his vote for the Iraq war resolution was “a mistake.” Still, he had bridled at UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s insistence that the Iraq invasion was illegal under international law, as “only the [UN] Charter provides a universally accepted legal basis for the use of force.”

“Nobody in the Senate agrees with that,” responded Biden. “There is nothing to debate. He is dead, flat, unequivocally wrong.”

During the current campaign, Biden has not repeated his dismissal of the Charter’s relevance to regulation of force, and he has volunteered circumstances where he would turn to the UN. Should China crack down militarily on Hong Kong, “the first thing I’d do is go to the United Nations. I would introduce resolutions to condemn them for their actions,” he told the New York Times editorial board. “I would get the rest of our allies in the world to join us in dealing with sanctions against China.”

Of course, such a scenario presupposes that the US has already ruled out a military confrontation. Where a crisis might warrant military conflict, Biden told Foreign Affairs in January 2020: “The use of force should be the last resort, not the first. It should be used only to defend U.S. vital interests, when the objective is clear and achievable, and with the informed consent of the American people.”

Buttigieg, the only presidential candidate to have served in a war — Afghanistan — authorized by the US Congress and the UN, said the US must “maintain the ability to project force in a way that will protect the homeland and meet our core security and national objectives.” He would “set a high bar on the use of force, and an exceedingly high bar on doing so unilaterally.” Concerned by open-ended Congressional authorizations of use of military force — “there are a lot of troops deployed around the world right now, pursuant to an A.U.M.F., that was passed to deal with 9/11” — he called for Congress to limit future such authorizations to no more than three years. [AUMF stands for “authorized use of military force.”]

At the Des Moines debate, Warren insisted: “We need an authorization for the use of military force before we take this nation into combat. That is what the Constitution provides and that is what as commander-in-chief I will do.” On the same stage, Sanders added another contingency for resorting to military force (except to repel a direct attack): “What we need to do is have an international coalition. We cannot keep acting unilaterally.”

US Marine Corps patrolling in Afghanistan. The war there “remains a live issue for all the candidates,” the author notes, although no one has mentioned the international community’s investment in it, including the UN’s political mission as well as NATO allies’ troops. 


Afghanistan remains a live issue for all the candidates, though none has referenced the broader international community’s human and financial investment in Afghanistan, including NATO allies’ troop contingents and a substantial UN political mission. Most candidates have vowed to bring home US combat troops, whose withdrawal President Obama had announced in 2014.

Today, candidates presumably have in mind drawdowns of the troop trainers, air support and special operations units that have remained in Afghanistan. Biden, who was the principal voice inside the Obama White House opposing a large “surge” of troops into the country in 2009, allowed that “any residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would be focused only on counterterrorism operations.” The late-entry candidate, Mike Bloomberg, a former Republican mayor of New York City, said he would leave “a small, residual force in Afghanistan focused solely on intelligence-gathering and counterterrorism.”

At the same time, most candidates also attach to their withdrawal plans a call for some sort of “agreement.” As Biden affirmed, “The Afghan government and people must be empowered in any negotiations with the Taliban insurgency, and the rights of Afghan women and girls must be protected.” Buttigieg called for “a negotiated peace agreement in which we maintain a relevant special operations/intelligence presence but bring home our ground troops.”

Warren insisted her vow to end US military operations “doesn’t mean we are abandoning Afghanistan,” saying she would “redouble efforts to support the Afghan government and civil society” and — a rare acknowledgment that many other countries have been part of the long international effort to stabilize the country — “enlist our international partners to encourage a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.”

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar told the New York Times editorial board that while “we need to bring our troops out of Afghanistan,” she hoped, “working with our allies,” to see “an agreement that as much as possible keeps the democratic reforms in place in Afghanistan, that respects the progress that’s been made on women’s rights and civil rights.”

Sanders, who said his vote in 2001 to authorize military action in Afghanistan was a mistake, intended to combine a troop withdrawal with “a serious diplomatic and political strategy which helps deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid.”


Another window into candidates’ thinking on armed intervention, now largely in a rearview mirror, has been Syria’s civil war, on which the UN Security Council has been deeply divided. As vice president, Biden had encouraged Obama’s refusal to be drawn militarily into supporting antiregime rebels.

Sanders too had opposed calls for US air strikes against the Damascus government, which he warned would lead to “a quagmire in a quagmire.” Warren voted against funding US training and arming of rebel militias. By contrast, Klobuchar said she had urged Obama to use US air power to carve out a “no-fly zone” in Syria — “some kind of humanitarian zone opening to help there.”

The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria prompted Obama to deploy special forces and air power in parts of Syria outside the government’s control, but strictly focused on defeating ISIS in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions, not on overthrowing the Bashar al-Assad government. Trump’s decision to abruptly withdraw these units drew sharp criticism from most of the Democratic candidates, with Biden calling it “shameful” and Buttigieg a betrayal of local Kurdish allies. Sanders and Warren, who themselves had called for a phase-out of US troops in the Middle East, faulted Trump for sudden and capricious action, suggesting their withdrawal would be prudently paced.

Climate change

Democratic candidates have taken issue with the Trump administration’s abandonment of painstakingly negotiated international accords on what the international community has long recognized, at least rhetorically, as the two areas where humankind’s very survival is arguably at stake: climate change and nuclear weaponry.

All candidates commit to returning the US to active compliance with the Paris climate agreement, the 2015 road map to achieving greenhouse gas reductions under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. “On Day One,” Klobuchar said, for example, “I will rejoin the international climate change agreement,” and she set a goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Setting a similar zero-emissions deadline, Buttigieg added that he “will work through global institutions to reduce and end global fossil fuel subsidies, many of which have unfairly favored coal, starting at home.”

For Sanders, just committing to Paris “doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “You got to go far, far, far beyond where the Paris agreement was.” That means, he said, “we should orchestrate a multilateral campaign — a ‘Green New Deal for the World’ — to coordinate investment in green technology and make that technology widely available through long-term financing for the poor countries that currently depend on coal and other fossil fuels.”

Warren vowed to tie trade policy to prospective partners’ actions combating climate change. She has called for a “Green Marshall Plan” to support poorer countries’ purchase of US clean-energy technology.

Biden, who described Trump’s renunciation of the Paris accord as indubitably “the biggest mistake” in America’s international relations since 1945, pledged that his administration would “recommit to the [accord’s] Green Climate Fund and work with international financial institutions to pursue shared debt relief for countries that use those funds for climate-friendly development.”

Also supporting the UN Green Climate Fund is Bloomberg, until recently a UN envoy for climate action. Uniquely, he has donated considerable personal funds to climate mitigation efforts but dismisses other candidates’ Green New Deal plans as unrealistic.

Nuclear weapons

Few of the candidates have said much on the other existential threat that has spawned high-stakes international treaty regimes: nuclear weapons. True, they all insist they will demand full and verifiable compliance with the nuclear nonproliferation treaty by Iran and North Korea. Beyond that, most candidates have volunteered little.

Biden is an exception, saying he will “pursue an extension of the New START treaty,” the bilateral 2010 treaty slashing US and Russian nuclear arsenals that expires in 2021, and will “use that as a foundation for new arms control arrangements.” And he promised unspecified “other steps to demonstrate our commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons” — language similar to that of the Clinton campaigns in 2008 and 2016.

By contrast, Warren reprised Obama’s commitment to “create a world without nuclear weapons,” promised “a reinvestment in multilateral arms control” and would establish no-first-use of nuclear arms as US policy, something Obama proved unable to impose on the nuclear weapons establishment.

“Donald Trump keeps expanding the different ways that we have nuclear weapons, the different ways that they could be used [that] puts us all at risk,” Warren said at the first candidates’ debate. “We don’t expand trust around the world by saying, ‘You know, we might be the first ones to use a nuclear weapon.’ . . . We have to have an announced policy that is one the entire world can live with. We need to make that clear. We will respond if someone else does, but not first.”

Human rights

Defense of human rights has been another controversial issue on the international agenda, with a growing web of international treaty law and monitoring bodies under frequent, persistent pressure from repressive governments. Most of this year’s Democratic candidates have criticized the Trump administration’s remarkable retreat from human-rights advocacy.

On the campaign trail, human rights have usually been raised in the context of China. Buttigieg, for instance, would mobilize “our alliances in order to put collective pressure on China” to end its human-rights abuses. Biden likewise would “build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations.” But Biden has a wider vision: reviving America’s campaign of democracy promotion, kicked off by “a global Summit for Democracy to . . . bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda.”

Similarly broadening the aperture, Sanders said he would not, “as the Trump administration has done, abandon our role in promoting human rights, whether at the United Nations or as part of our ongoing trade negotiations with China. My administration will work with allies to strengthen global human rights standards.”

Warren added specificity: “I will embrace a multilateral approach to support LGBTQ+ rights, including by returning the U.S. to the United Nations Human Rights Council and recommitting to the Global Equality Fund to support LGBTQ+ movements in other countries.”

Both Warren and Sanders had defended the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty appointed by the Human Rights Council, Philip Alston, when the Trump ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, denounced his report for criticizing inadequate support for the poor in the US. Both Warren and Sanders also called for the US Senate to consent to ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, from which the US remains the lone holdout.

Gbolié Desiré Wulfran Ipo, deputy envoy of the Ivory Coast (seated) and his delegation before a Security Council session, Dec. 19, 2019. Only Senator Sanders has openly praised the UN so far of the candidates, referring to it as a crowning achievement of US world leadership. RICK BAJORNAS/UN PHOTO

International trade

A favorite bête noire of the Trump administration, international trade remains a fault line within the Democratic Party. The capriciousness of Trump’s tariff wars draws rebukes from all the Democratic candidates, but Trump’s success in overturning the Republican Party’s free-trade heritage has inspired caution even among Clinton-era advocates of trade liberalization like Biden.

He defended “the idea behind” the Trans-Pacific Partnership “to unite countries around high standards for workers, the environment, intellectual property, and transparency, and use our collective weight to curb China’s excesses.” But he charitably acknowledged it was “not perfect.”

Buttigieg rejected the Pacific trade pact outright, saying, “It lacks critical trade provisions on labor, environment, and the digital economy, and does not align closely enough with the needs and interests of American workers.” Klobuchar too noted, somewhat vaguely, that “there were some real issues with that agreement.” Sanders denounced not only the TPP but all the “other unfettered free trade agreements” before it.

Acknowledging the altered mood, in January 2020 Biden declared, “I will not negotiate new deals without having labor and environmental leaders at the table in a meaningful way and without including strong enforcement provisions.” For her part, Warren’s “preconditions” for any trade agreement include combating climate change, respecting basic labor standards and human rights enshrined in international conventions and cracking down on tax evasion.

Yet the global institution for overseeing international trade, the World Trade Organization, is oddly absent from the candidates’ radar screens. To date, they have not taken aim at Trump’s shutdown of the WTO’s statutory panels for adjudicating trade disputes, nor suggested they see the potential reconstitution of the panels as leverage for inclusion of the labor, environmental and rights compliance in the adjudication process.

International organizations

To the extent international institutions have surfaced at all in the Democratic campaign discourse to date, mention is most made of two — the United Nations, founded in 1945, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Western alliance created in 1949. American public support for both institutions has fluctuated over time, with the divergence between adherents to the two American political parties widening during the Trump years.

Both organizations seem to be politically “safe” for Democrats to embrace. While a Pew poll found that 62 percent of Americans have a favorable view of NATO, support among Democrats has jumped twenty points, to 78 percent, since Trump began his campaign to discredit it; among Republicans, it has fallen five points, to 47 percent. The UN, which deals with a much wider range of often-controversial issues and is markedly more independent of Washington’s control, is favorably rated by nearly as many Americans (59 percent), but the divergence between the two parties is wider: 77 percent favorable among Democrats (and 60 percent among independents), compared with just 36 percent among Republicans.

“I’ll renew our commitment to the U.N. and other international organizations, such as NATO,” Klobuchar told the Council on Foreign Relations, faulting Trump for bashing NATO allies and shrugging off NATO’s mutual defense obligations. She vowed to win back the seat on the Human Rights Council that Trump abandoned, but she has vehemently opposed UN Security Council resolution (2334), green-lighted by President Obama and adopted 14-0 in December 2016, condemning Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories as a “flagrant violation” of international law.

In Biden’s view, Trump “has taken a battering ram to the NATO alliance, treating it like an American-run protection racket.” Biden too would press Europeans to increase their military spending, but unlike Trump he hails NATO’s indispensability in countering Russian aggression. He also proposed “expanding its capacity to take on nontraditional threats, such as weaponized corruption, disinformation and cybertheft.”

As to the UN, Biden has criticized the Republicans’ failure to fund the US share of peacekeeping expenses. He was, however, a sponsor of the Helms-Biden conditionality on US payment of its UN assessments in 1999, which demanded an array of changes in UN assessments and practices in exchange for partial payment of a decade’s multiplying arrears.

In what is surely a sly allusion to his youth relative to his septuagenarian rivals, Buttigieg averred that “the world needs America to update the institutions through which we engage with the world, ensuring that they reflect the fact that our world is closer to 2054 than to 1945.” He has, though, given scant indication of what needs updating. At NATO, he said, “we must repair the strained relationships with our European allies.” If this seems like thin gruel, Buttigieg has said even less about the UN.

For Warren, the biggest success of American foreign policy since World War II rests on “the alliances and structure of collective security developed after the war and refreshed after the Cold War,” apparently alluding to NATO and the UN, respectively. She affirmed her “rock-solid commitment” to NATO and emphasized vaguely that the US “should work with its partners in multilateral forums such as the United Nations.” She is the rare politician in Washington who confronts the feverish passions over immigration with a vow to join the UN compact on migration, which the Trump administration voted against in late 2018.

While Sanders has been more restrained in his enthusiasm for NATO than other candidates and had opposed its expansion into former Soviet republics, he affirmed America’s obligation to mutual defense under Article 5 of its founding treaty. He attaches far greater significance to the UN, whose creation he sees as the crowning achievement of US world leadership, which he noted  “former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt called ‘our greatest hope for future peace.’ “

Sanders’s paean to the world organization is so unusual in the current presidential field and was so startling to the Council on Foreign Relations where he delivered it, that it is worth quoting in full:

“It is fashionable to bash the U.N., which can be ineffective, bureaucratic, too slow or unwilling to act, even in the face of massive atrocities. But to see only its weaknesses is to overlook the enormously important work the U.N. does in promoting global health, aiding refugees, monitoring elections and doing international peacekeeping missions, among other things. All of these activities contribute to reduced conflict, to wars that don’t have to be ended because they never start.”


Jeffrey Laurenti was senior fellow at the Century Foundation on international affairs for eight years. He is the author of numerous monographs on subjects such as international peace and security, terrorism, UN reform and international law and justice. He was executive director of policy studies at the United Nations Association of the United States until 2003, and then served seven years on the association’s board of directors. He also served as deputy director of the United Nations Foundation’s UN and Global Security initiative.

Laurenti is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and was candidate for the US House of Representatives from New Jersey in 1986. He has co-edited and contributed to “Breaking the Nuclear Impasse: New Prospects for Security Against Weapons Threats” and “Power and Superpower: Global Leadership and Exceptionalism in the 21st Century.”
His articles and analysis have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and on National Public Radio, the BBC, France24, Al Jazeera, Russia Today and other international media and policy journals.

Graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude in government from Harvard University, he earned his master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He speaks Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese.

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Reading the US Presidential Tea Leaves: Do the Candidates Even Care About the UN?
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