As the brief marketing campaign to make Tulsi Gabbard 2020 a thing flares up (but before it dies out in approximately a week) it's as good a time as any to talk about the most glaring weakness shared by all of the factions to the left of the Republican Party: foreign policy. Depending on where you're focusing the spotlight, the foreign policy across the left spectrum today is either nonexistent, totally incoherent, or coherent but terrible. Take your pick.
Broadly speaking, there are three very bad categories.
One, more popular among leftist-progressive types, is essentially a repackaged version of Gilded Age and Interwar isolationism. War is bad (which is true, but not a foreign policy). Any outcome that does not involve the United States engaging in military action is good (usually true, but not universally). Picking sides is bad, because without any real thought about what American goals are – Humanitarian? Strategic? Public relations? – everything gets reduced to Philosophy 101 guy-who-didn't-do-the-readings logic: Who's to say who's right here? There's also an alarming tendency for people of this mindset to be manipulated by obviously bad actors – Jill Stein and Glenn Greenwald and their "What's so bad about Russia Today? It's just like the BBC!" shtick, or Gabbard and her "I went and talked to Assad and he agrees with me" stunt. When no goal or policy beyond "Let's stay out of it" can be articulated, you make yourself pretty easy to manipulate.
The second, represented by center types like Biden or Hillary Clinton (and Bill for that matter), is basically neoconservatism. This strain is a remnant of Democrats old enough to remember the Carter-Mondale-Dukakis era in which Republicans seemed to score endless political points by accusing Democrats of being Weak. Weak on defense, Weak on crime, Weak on everything. So the reaction, spearheaded by Bill Clinton, was to go full hawk to preempt the right. Out-hawk the hawks; brilliant! This kind of "Who will be tougher on the Soviets," put-Dukakis-in-the-tank mindset is out of date by about 30 years and gives live ammunition to the cynical "There's no difference between the parties" worldview.
Finally, there is this younger (Beto, Booker, etc) set that seems not to want to talk about foreign policy at all. They believe, right or wrong, that voters want to hear about the $15 minimum wage or Medicare for All and since nobody cares about foreign policy anyway it is best dealt with as little effort or commitment as possible. Address it in platitudes, say some stuff nobody can really disagree with, praise The Troops, and be done with it. This of course leads to a status quo bias because candidates who don't care about foreign policy have a huge incentive simply to placate the power players and walk away. Kiss AIPAC's ass, promise the defense contractors that you won't mess with the Pentagon budget except around the edges, and say some generic "Let's be strong, also let's end the wars" kind of stuff that you have no intention of thinking about again after getting elected.
Those are three bad options. The first is basically Trumpism, with its underlying belief that authoritarians around the world really aren't so bad. The second is George W. Bush foreign policy, the whole "I voted for the Iraq War but I was also critical in some vague way that affected nothing." The third is effectively punting and admitting that the Pentagon and military-industrial complex can kind of do whatever they want as long as it happens in the background.
I have no answers. If I did I certainly wouldn't give them away for free. The situation seems to boil down to whether the center, liberals, and the far left collectively or individually decide this is important enough to devote time and energy to. Quite a few far-left Bernard Brother types have been writing about this actively since 2016, but it doesn't gain much traction. The mainstream Democratic Party seems content to pull an Obama and basically promise to do what neocons propose but, uh, you know, do it better or nicer or smarter or something. And the young progressive-adjacent mainstream types do not appear to care at all, which I can't imagine working out well in the long run. Because when they achieve some kind of position of power and there's no coherent policy, they will default to "Find some Generals who seem like they know what they're doing and delegate everything."
A good place to start might be to think about what underlying values and principles – big picture stuff – should be at the heart of America's interactions with the rest of the world. What is it we want? What are we trying to do? Those are questions that the left largely has ignored since the end of the Cold War. While the Beto generation is right to point out that the average voter does not care much (and is appallingly uninformed about) foreign policy, that doesn't mean political leaders can share the same attitude.
Collectively the left can advance some pretty compelling domestic policy ideas that appeal strongly to most Americans. But it's time to admit – as the 2020 potential candidates demonstrate all too well – that foreign policy has withered on the vine and become a black hole.