The Democratic Party is adopting a tougher approach to China and moving left on many issues of great consequence to Australia, including trade and defence spending. Since the end of the Cold War, foreign policy centrists have led a party committed to liberal internationalism, alliances, and to some degree, free trade. In this presidential election cycle, more left-leaning ‘progressives’ such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders enjoy enthusiastic support and are pulling the party’s platform to the left on domestic and foreign policy.

Unlike more centrist Democrats such as Joe Biden, progressives are sceptical or even hostile towards free trade agreements and vocal in their calls to cut the defence budget. In this election cycle, centrists and progressives agree on foreign policy positions such as opposing authoritarianism, reducing support for non-democratic allies, and raising the prominence of human rights and climate change in foreign policy.1 The key question for allies like Australia is whether the current move to the left on foreign policy translates into a new and lasting Democratic Party foreign policy consensus, and perhaps a president whose foreign policy is to the left of the Obama and Clinton administrations.

Main points:

  • The Democratic Party’s foreign policy platform is getting tougher on China and simultaneously growing more sceptical of the utility of free trade, high defence spending, and US leadership in the Middle East.
  • Consequently, Australia will likely face more difficult decisions hedging between Washington and Beijing, regardless of which candidate wins the 2020 election.
  • Although Democratic primaries always feature a pull to the left, the trend is more pronounced now than in recent cycles due to the strength of the party’s progressive wing.
  • The leading progressives, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, propose significant changes to President Obama’s foreign policy platform.
  • President Trump is unlikely to achieve major domestic successes before the election, so many of his most notable actions in the lead up to the general election in November 2020 — and what he will see as an electoral strength — will likely be foreign policy.
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