Why the Democrats Aren't Talking About China or the Middle East

The first ever virtual Democratic National Convention has barely touched on China so far, despite a pandemic that originated there being the reason that delegates did not travel to Milwaukee to officially nominate former Vice President Joe Biden as the party candidate to take on President Donald Trump in November.

The Middle East too has been given scant attention, though the list of speakers included former presidents and secretaries of state whose careers and legacies were partially defined by America's many interventions in the region.

Former President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Biden himself will speak in the closing days of the convention, though will likely also avoid in depth discussion of American policy in East Asia or the Middle East, even though all three have been pivotal in guiding U.S. foreign policy in recent decades.

It may be that these Democratic grandees don't wish to rake up their controversial foreign policy legacies. Democratic leaders have been accused—like most other liberal democracies—of being too soft on China in past decades, blinded by globalizing and commercializing zeal allowing China to expand its influence and continue vast human rights abuses.

There is a growing realization in the West that the collective approach to China has failed. Capitalism has not prompted the Chinese Communist Party to liberalize and open itself to the world. Rather, Beijing has used its new found riches and technological prowess to entrench its authoritarian regime while growing investments and influence worldwide.

In the Middle East and Afghanistan, clumsy American interventionism has arguably caused more problems than it ever solved. U.S. troops remain deployed across the region fighting seemingly unwinnable wars, while the body count for local civilians continues to swell. None of this makes for inspiring convention speeches.

Biden has accused Trump of leaving America's reputation abroad "in tatters," vowing to revitalize the U.S. diplomatic corps and revive the multilateral diplomacy that the Trump administration has largely spurned.

His draft policy platform, which will be adopted at this week's convention, has some similarities with Trump's foreign policy. Biden has vowed to stand up to and outperform China, continue to push for North Korean denuclearization, and maintain U.S. presence in the Middle East—though with a reduced footprint and with an end to the war in Afghanistan.

Biden and his vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris have also vowed continued support for Israel despite its civil rights abuses of Palestinians and the continued expansion of settlers into the Palestinian West Bank.

But Biden breaks with Trump in several key foreign policy areas. He promised to end U.S. support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen and rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—i.e. the Iran nuclear deal. He will also rejoin the Paris climate accords and push to extend the nuclear New START treaty with Russia.

But Biden and his senior centrist Democratic allies will be wary of opening up foreign policy rifts within the party during the convention. The progressive wing disagrees with the establishment's stance on a range of issues, and Biden won't want to fritter away his national lead over Trump by engaging in internecine bickering over issues that will win over few American voters.

Ultimately, foreign policy plays second fiddle to domestic issues. The November election will pivot on the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, a collapsing economy, civil unrest over systemic racism, and allegations of corruption and criminality inside the Trump administration.

Leslie Vinjamuri of the British Chatham House think tank told Newsweek that the DNC is about "injecting energy into the electorate at home."

The Democrats are going for a "play it safe" approach, according to Thomas Gift—a political scientist at University College London in the U.K. "In general, there's just much more within-party disagreement among Democrats over salient foreign policy topics," he told Newsweek.

China is a good example, Gift said. "While many establishment Democrats would prefer to see an end to the U.S.-China trade war, many progressives are equally skeptical of the costs that free trade has imposed on the economic livelihoods of average workers."

"Because Biden holds a healthy lead in the national polls, there's limited reason to delve into the intricacies of foreign policy controversies," Gift explained. "That's especially true when the Democratic party speaks with a much more unified voice in expressing dissatisfaction with how Trump is handling the two main domestic policy challenges facing the country: COVID-19 and a struggling economy."

Foreign policy is still on show, as shown by appearances from former President Jimmy Carter, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and former Sen. John McCain's late wife, Cindy McCain. "They're signaling that they're not only competent at home, they're definitely going to be competent beyond America's borders," Vinjamuri said.

But technical debates over foreign policy specifics are more suited to debates and other events further down the line, not at the DNC where Biden and his colleagues are seeking to present a unified image and message that hurts the Trump campaign.

For American voters, China, Russia, Iran and other foreign policy talking points are not the salient ones. "They don't say: 'What are you going to do about Iran?' They say: 'How are you going to open up my local schools?'" Vinjamuri said.

"So much of this right now is about domestic reckoning," she added. "It is about giving Americans the sense that there is an alternative that's going to make it worth their time to get out and vote."

There is a certain irony in this, Gift noted. "It's well-established that executives historically have more power over U.S. foreign policy because they're less constrained by institutional checks," he said.

"Particularly if the next president again confronts a divided Congress, either a President Trump or a President Biden will face roadblocks at every step of the way in trying to implement his domestic policy agenda."

DNC, 2020, Joe Biden, foreign policy, China
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez stands at the podiumon the second day of the Democratic National Convention, being held virtually amid the coronavirus pandemic, at its hosting site in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 18, 2020. BRIAN SNYDER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images/Getty