Donald Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein

Do Democratic candidates aspiring to the White House need experience in dealing with the dangerous world of international politics? Opinions differ.

Recent incumbents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, had limited knowledge and experience in foreign policy when elected. Trump’s experience in real estate abroad hardly prepared him for dealing with China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.

Our most experienced and knowledgeable presidents since World War II were Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. They were ready from the first day to deal with a dangerous Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower had been Allied commander in Europe during World War II, and Nixon was his vice president for eight years and knew most foreign leaders. Both supported a strong military to deter other powers from doing what Japan inflicted on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Ronald Reagan, who forced an end to the Cold War in 1980s, had little experience in foreign policy. But he was a two-term governor of California and brought to Washington a strong national security team that included George Shultz, Caspar Weinberger and William Casey.

While watching the candidates auditioning on NBC on June 27 and 28, one might wonder who among them had serious knowledge about the complexities of international politics. The next round will, hopefully, include questions that force them to show they have more than a rudimentary knowledge of major foreign policy issues facing the the 2020s.

Joe Biden is the only person in the group who has the needed experience. He has been a U.S. senator for many years and served eight years as Obama’s vice president. Pundits and some Democrats say Biden’s too old to serve, but he demonstrated on TV that he’s the moderate among a field of mostly radical leftists. Another candidate, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobushar of Minnesota, has the moderate outlook and demeanor that makes her an attractive candidate. How much she knows about foreign policy remains to be seen.

We have a year before the Democratic National Convention, and it’s too soon to predict which of these 20 candidates will be finalists. They should be asked tough questions soon on foreign policy, to help voters decide whether they have the knowledge and temperament to handle crises without triggering a war.

Here are four questions that ought to be asked:

» How would you protect U.S. interests in the Middle East, specifically in the Persian Gulf area?

» What would you do about China’s militarization of the South China Sea, a major international waterway?

» What would you do about Russia’s pressure on Ukraine and the Baltic States to accept Moscow’s political influence?

» How high a priority will human rights have in deciding your foreign policy?

Answers to these questions will give voters a better idea of who is presidential caliber.

Nuechterlein is a political scientist who lives near Charlottesville. Email him at

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