Pete Buttigieg
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Mayor Pete is a breath of fresh air in a crowded field of candidates struggling for oxygen. His youth and wholesome demeanor present a clear contrast to today’s Oval Office occupant, while his military service gives him defense and national security credibility. Overall, the South Bend mayor feels comfortable and looks relaxed talking about foreign affairs.

Unfortunately, while his fluid rhetoric is inclusive, expansive, and forward-leaning, his policy ideas are mostly back to the future.

Buttigieg’s future-orientation is undermined by overly focusing on present foreign policy failures, as well as a need to restore previous U.S. policies, rather than presenting new ways and ideas for America to engage and lead the world.

Last week, Buttigieg gave a speech that was supposed to be larger than himself, about global themes that have eluded our current foreign policy discourse. Talking articulately, reflectively, intelligently about foreign policy is in and of itself a refreshing change.

Buttigieg is not taking on Mexican fantasy rapists or threatening to blow nations to smithereens. Whew! In fact, when he spoke on foreign policy this week at Indiana University, the very tone of his speech was in high contrast to a president who uses unlicensed Rolling Stones “walk-on” music before berating Democrats, bureaucrats, and Euro-brats. Instead, the university auditorium was calmed by classical music before he took the stage. The audience may have been so soothed that they failed to respond with sustained enthusiasm for his foreign policy platform—roused much more by his domestic policy stands.

First off, kudos to him for talking about foreign policy at all. It’s conventional campaign wisdom that candidates don’t win elections on foreign policy (remember George H.W. Bush versus Bill Clinton?). It’s also well-known that they can lose elections on foreign policy issues (the infamous Gerald Ford “frees” Poland gaffe).

What did Buttigieg get right?

He wants to succeed where President Barack Obama failed by repealing and replacing Congress’s Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)—a move forcing Congress to take more responsibility over the conduct and declaration of war. As a constitutional lawyer, Obama was not only aware of Congress’s role and power, he tried to return authority (and potential blame) over war. Buttigieg now wants to hand back war powers to Congress.

Congress has not declared war since WWII, but America has fought in Korea, Vietnam, destroyed parts of Laos and Cambodia, invaded Panama and Grenada, bombed Serbia and Libya, and gotten into war with Iraq (twice). America’s longest war in Afghanistan is now in its 19th year. All those conflicts, actions, interventions, engagements, occupations, counterinsurgency and counter-terrorist activities have been taken without a formal declaration of war. Since 2001, wars are conducted thanks to AUMF.

In retrospect, more representatives should have voted with Oakland’s Congresswoman Barbara Lee and heeded West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd’s warnings against the AUMF and the Iraq war.

But, as the popular saying goes, we are where we are. Buttigieg is right to turn his sights on AUMF and demand a repeal-and-replace strategy. This was his strongest, clearest, and best foreign policy proposal.

On other foreign policy topics, Buttigieg did no harm, showed fluency and competence, but disappointingly added neither more heat to the debate nor shed new light on the challenges. On Israel, the Paris Climate Accord, and the Iran nuclear deal, he argued for no more than a restorationist policy. Rejoining deals Donald Trump famously “tore up” is not a plan to renegotiate terms or reformulate conditions. It’s safe, easy, and not exactly bold to tape together and add a new signature to these previous deals. On Paris, for example, the next president must realize that more can be demanded of nations to combat climate change, and that new enforcement teeth need to be added to the accord.

Overall, Buttigieg failed to deliver a ground-breaking, forward-looking, and fresh vision of a 21st century America coming out of a hugely disruptive and volatile foreign policy era. He said “the need for a new foreign policy vision could not be more urgent today.” But he delivered neither on the urgency nor the vision.

Regardless, Buttigieg gets not only a pass for policy, but an A-for-effort.

Applaud him for willingly addressing international issues that pundits and challengers assume belong exclusively in Joe Biden’s wheelhouse. (Disclosure: my wife, the lieutenant governor of California, endorsed Kamala Harris.)

Buttigieg needs to understand, however, that simply restoring America’s place in a dynamic post-Trump world is not enough. It’s not a vision—it’s a look in the rear view mirror.

Any new U.S. president on January 20, 2021, will inherit a scorched earth ignited by the current White House arsonist-in-chief. As a result, the next president will face enormous challenges, but also be given unrivaled opportunities to redefine America’s role in the world.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).