The United States currently finds itself in the most complex and challenging geopolitical environment at least since the end of the Cold War. Liberal democracy is backsliding from Poland to the Philippines. Violence and instability from Syria to Central America are creating millions of refugees. A resurgent Russia and rising China are increasingly willing and able to challenge the status quo. Climate change threatens to wreak untold environmental havoc. And all this was true before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
In response to these challenges, a vigorous and important debate is happening within Washington regarding what America’s foreign policy should be. Should the United States continue to fill the leadership role it has inhabited since World War II? Does the United States still have the ability to do so?
Enter Joaquin Castro. The congressman from San Antonio currently serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he was previously vice chair, as well as the House Intelligence Committee. Castro also previously had a seat in the Armed Services Committee, making him the only member of the House with experience in all three of the bodies that oversee national security and foreign policy matters.
Given his experience, it’s no surprise that he’s become a major voice on national security amongst progressives. Last year, Castro ran for chair of the Foreign Affairs committee, a bold move considering that such positions are usually determined by seniority and there were a number of other members in consideration with more years under their belt. Although he ultimately lost to Rep. Gregory Meeks, a congressman from New York who has been in office since the 1990s, Castro was able to garner 78 votes. That’s a surprisingly good result considering the unconventional nature of Castro’s bid.
Castro ran for Chair on the idea that America needs a new generation of foreign policy leadership and he’s continued to work toward developing a fresh approach toward dealing with the challenges facing the world. Here are some of the issues that he discussed with the Signal in an exclusive interview on Wednesday.
Going to war is the most consequential decision in international affairs and Castro has expressed concern that U.S. foreign policy has been too reliant on military force in the past.
Castro told the Signal that Congress was looking at “repealing and perhaps replacing the existing AUMFs,” referring to the Authorizations for Use of Military Force. Congress is given the power to declare war by the Constitution, but in recent years presidents from both parties have used open-ended AUMFs that were passed years ago to deploy the military without a congressional vote. For example, the AUMF that Congress voted to pass after 9/11 has since been invoked for deployments not just in Afghanistan but also in countries like Somalia, Yemen, and the Philippines.
Castro said that future AUMFs could look different, citing geographic restrictions and sunset clauses as examples of limitations that Congress is looking into. “It’s a conversation that we have started to have in the Foreign Affairs Committee.”
Castro has listed climate change as one of the top two geopolitical challenges facing the United States in the 21st century. Since it’s a global issue, the United States cannot tackle climate change alone and needs to get the rest of the world to work together. Unfortunately, many nations are failing to meet the goals laid out by the Paris Climate Agreement, even France itself.
When asked about this, Castro said that he believed the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement made other countries less likely to take necessary action on climate. “When the United States under President Trump got out of the Paris Climate Agreement, I think the world lost a leader on the climate issue,” Castro said. “I do think nations tended to view the agreement differently because the United States was not part of it.”
However, he expressed optimism now that the United States was back in the Paris Agreement, while also adding that the policymakers should look for additional ways to incentivize nations to do their part. “Now that the United States has recommitted a pair of climate agreement under President Biden, I think the United States will be helpful in pushing other countries to meet their commitments,” said Castro. “But I think that we should continue to look at ways where we can offer incentives or carrots to encourage countries to meet their obligations.”
Competition with China is the other top geopolitical challenge, according to Castro. Tensions between the world’s two most powerful nations have been rising, and there’s a growing bipartisan consensus that China is now a serious competitor, although there is still much debate about the nature of the competition and how the United States should approach it.
“The United States, particularly under President Trump, didn’t have a comprehensive approach to China ,it was very scatter shot,” said Castro. “Foremost, the United States has to determine what it means for China to fairly compete around the world versus what it means for China to cheat, and drawing that distinction and flushing out that distinction will help us guide our response to China in different scenarios.”
Castro listed currency manipulation, the Belt and Road Initiative, and human rights violations in Xinjiang as areas of concern for the United States regarding China. He also called for Congress to partner with the Biden administration in delineating between fair and unfair competition from China. “Until we can make that distinction and flush out that distinction, I’m concerned that our response is not gonna be as comprehensive or as well thought out as it should be.”
“Cyber issues are extremely important right now and going to become even more important as the years go on,” said Castro. Given recent events, it’s not hard to see why he feels that way. Cyberspace is a relatively new arena in geopolitics, so international norms and institutions regarding cyber issues are underdeveloped and much risk remains.
“My concern for the United States is that our cyber alliances around the world, I believe, have lagged, especially considering the threats that we’re dealing with from nations like Russia,” Castro said. He added that the next few years presented a critical opportunity to develop cyber alliances, citing his past support for a “cyber NATO” and saying that the current cyber component is “underdeveloped.”
“We really need to figure out, I think develop a more robust framework for alliances around the world on cyber,”
American leadership post-Trump
Multilateralism is a major part of Castro’s approach to international relations, and it’s been a staple of American foreign policy for decades. Unfortunately, Trump decided to buck this consensus in favor of “America First”. Even with a new administration, the trust that existed between the United States and the rest of the world has been severely eroded.
Castro acknowledged the damage done by Trump’s foreign policy while also expressing hope that the United States would be able to get back on track. “The Trump administration’s approach was one I think of on many levels disengagement, and also sent the worst kind of signal to authoritarian leaders around the world that they could have used their people or neighboring peoples and get away with it,” said Castro. “Under President Biden, in this new Congress, things are gonna be quite different.”
“The United States has work to do in becoming a leader again and being perceived as a leader among nations when it comes to things like international development. I would say the same with respect to things like freedom and democracy and human rights.”
Castro said the tone and agenda set forth by the Biden administration as well as Congress would be important to rebuild America’s relationships. “For example, it’s very promising that in this COVID relief package, there’s $10 billion in foreign assistance, to combat COVID-19,” he told the Signal. “That is a demonstration by the United States that we’re actively re-engaging in the world and that the United States intends to be a leader among nations again.”
Castro offers a different paradigm on foreign affairs, wanting to address areas that traditionally haven’t received as much attention from the United States. “Our foreign policy has to take a very inclusive approach,” he said. “There are places around the world like Latin American and Africa where the United States government and the committees in Congress haven’t always attended issues there, and I think we should and we could.”
In addition to refocusing on other regions, Castro would like to see foreign policy address new things that were previously considered outside its scope. “A lot of the issues that we’ve considered domestic issues, we need to look at them as global issues and look at them through a foreign affairs lens,” he told the Signal. “When we think of labor rights, the rights of women, the rights of the indigenous, the LGBTQ community, we should look at those as foreign affairs issues as well.”
Castro’s foreign policy vision offers a unique take as the United States struggles to define its role in the world. It continues the establishment consensus that the United States should continue to be a leader on the world stage, but also acknowledges that the United States’ old way of conducting foreign affairs has sometimes been counterproductive. With the Democrats now in control of both Congress and the White House, there’s an opportunity for Castro’s vision to have real influence on reshaping American foreign policy in the post-Trump era.
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
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Correction: a previous version of this article said Joaquin Castro was the current vice chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is no longer serving in that role due to term limits.