The Democratic candidates need to ask themselves a fundamental question: Is the minimalist foreign-policy message that has been used repeatedly since 1992 appropriate for a moment defined by political and technological upheaval around the world? Is there an opportunity for a candidate to offer a more comprehensive message about why Trump is failing abroad and how it matters to Americans in their daily lives?
As long as he avoids war and recession, Trump’s political Achilles’ heel is not his aggressiveness or ignorance, but his focus on the past, not the future. He is obsessed with the industries of the 1950s—steel, aluminum, cars, and dishwashers—and never speaks about the industries of tomorrow. He talks about the unfairness of old security commitments but never about how the United States must work with others on the challenges of the future. He never even mentions the central message of his administration’s own national-security strategy, that the United States is in a new great-power competition that supersedes terrorism and rogue states.
The problem is that, on foreign policy, many Democrats are also stuck in the past. They talk about the liberal order from the 1940s, NATO’s shared past, territorial disputes that date back decades, and an intervention debate that began in the 1990s. But voters don’t want to embrace the past or abstractions. They care how the world challenges their lives and those of their children, not just now but also in the years to come. Americans have always been motivated by threats and challenges to liberty and prosperity at home, rather than grand projects to promote democracy. This was even true of the liberal order itself—Americans rejected the project in 1945 and 1946, only turning to it as a necessary tool to confront communism.