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Dishing on the Democratic Debate

Five Fletcher School professors provide insights, advice and expertise ahead of the October Democratic primary debate.

With the fourth Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and The New York Times nearly upon us, we’ve called upon a few Fletcher experts to weigh in on some of the issues that are both top of mind for the candidates, and squarely in our professors’ wheelhouses. Read on to get a sense of what they’re looking for in tonight’s debate.

When it comes to energy and climate, Director of Fletcher’s Center for International Environment & Resource Policy, Professor of Energy and Environmental Policy, Kelly Sims Gallagher has real bona fides. As senior policy advisor in former President Barack Obama’s White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and as senior China advisor in the Special Envoy for Climate Change office at the U.S. State Department, Prof. Gallagher was instrumental in bringing China on-board with the Paris Agreement.

Headshot of Kelly Sims Gallagher

Tonight, she’ll be keeping that global perspective on climate change while listening to the candidates’ comments on how they plan to manage the issue while keeping an eye on American competitiveness and job creation:

“Ohio is not only a ‘bellwether’ state in electoral politics, but it epitomizes the challenges that the United States faces in a successful energy transition to a low-carbon economy.  Ohio had a renewable portfolio standard of 12.5% by 2027 but the standard was recently repealed, halting the shift from fossil fuel sources towards renewables energy and redirecting revenues raised from utility bill surcharges towards keeping Ohio’s older nuclear and coal plants open.  This move will hinder renewable energy job creation in the state.  More generally, a recent report from IRENA [International Renewable Energy Agency] showed that the United States is now lagging behind other countries in renewable energy jobs, coming in third overall behind China and the EU. In solar jobs, the U.S. comes in third behind China and Japan.  In wind, the U.S. also comes in third behind China and Germany. How will Democratic candidates improve American competitiveness in the clean energy industry globally and specifically ensure U.S. job creation in this industry of the future?"

As the former Undersecretary for Energy for the state of Massachusetts, Barbara Kates-Garnick, now a Professor of Practice at The Fletcher School, brings her knowledge, experience and expertise in guiding energy policy to bear regularly for both the media and for her students as they grapple with these most challenging issues.

Professor Kates-Garnick also served as the co-chair of Massachusetts’ Global Warming Solutions Act Implementation Advisory Committee that oversees the implementation of the Commonwealth’s Global Warming Solutions Act. Her knowledge about and passion for the subject, as well as her keen political eye meant she was another shoe-in for providing her assessment of the Democratic field’s climate change and clean energy plans:

Headshot of Bobbi Kates-Garnick

"The Democratic candidates find the climate/energy nexus to be a good way to distinguish themselves from Trump whose deregulatory environment clearly has harmed the environment, reduced the U.S. leadership position in international organizations, and de-emphasized science. For each individual candidate, it presents the opportunity to build upon their own basic issues agenda and to connect with a range of voters across the income, age and environmental divide. For the Democrats, the Green New Deal (GND) sets the aspirational goal and a mobilization towards a fossil free country. Setting a price on carbon as either a cap and trade or a tax is controversial but will create real change.

It is clear to many of these candidates the best approach is to embrace the challenge of climate change, set a date for 100 percent clean economy and to tie the challenge to innovation on a major scale. Of course, the devil is in the details. One key issue for all of them going forward will be to strengthen the job discussion. They all need to tie in how clean energy builds innovation into the future and emphasize how environmental harms to communities both on the air and water front will have long term consequences for a healthy America and for their children and grandchildren."  

Shifting gears somewhat, our Dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School Bhaskar Chakravorti, head of Fletcher’s Master of International Business program and director of our Institute for Business in the Global Context is our go-to expert on how the digital world is going to impact everything from politics to social change to world economies. His latest research fills the gap left by the enormously influential World Bank’s report on Doing Business by looking at the Ease of Doing Digital Business in a way that produces real insights for policymakers, diplomats and the business community.

On the subject of the Democratic debate, Dean Chakravorti has some advice for one of the newly minted front-runners, Elizabeth Warren. If she wants to win the nomination – and eventually the presidency – he believes she should focus on one thing… for now:

Headshot of Bhaskar Chakravorti

“Here is something every Democratic aspirant needs to know. Very quietly, Facebook changed the rules governing number 13 out of the 32 categories of prohibited content that it had committed not to carry. This is the category labeled “misinformation” and it will now allow such content as long as it is from a politician. Yes, you read that right. Needless to say, here is an example of misinformation paid for by the Trump campaign: 'Joe Biden promised Ukraine $1 billion dollars if they fired the prosecutor investigating his son's company.'

It is carried by Facebook. 

Facebook is not running such ads against third party fact checkers before publishing them, which means whoever remains in the race on the Democratic side has to prepare a robust de-bunking campaign. Of course, it complicates matters that the current Democratic frontrunner, Elizabeth Warren, is running not only against Donald Trump, but is also campaigning against Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. If I were her advisor, I would encourage her to focus on a single opponent – Trump – and co-opt her other nemesis, Zuckerberg, so she can use his omnipotent platform to win the most important contest.  Besides the need to focus on a single opponent, I also think she needs to re-consider her overly simplistic proposal for busting Facebook [more on Dean Chakravorti’s thoughts on busting up ‘big-tech’ can be found in this article, originally published by The Conversation]. Given the barrage of misinformation that will be unleashed by an impeachment inquiry on top of a forthcoming election, she – or any Democratic candidate, for that matter – cannot afford to lose sight of the need to anticipate and counter the poison that is bound to flow. Democracy and ‘datacracy’ are now at war with each other; it is up to a far-sighted candidate to ensure that democracy wins.”

Professor John Cerone is one of our resident experts when it comes to the topic international law. As a practicing international lawyer, he has worked for a number of IGOs and NGOs, including the U.N., the OSCE, the International Secretariat of Amnesty International, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and the International Crisis Group, and has served as a legal adviser to various international criminal tribunals. He also has extensive field experience in conflict and post-conflict environments, including in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and East Timor. While he regularly comments in the media on the Trump administration’s migration policies, Professor Cerone has a few brief thoughts on use of force to share regarding the latest legal issues in Syria and questions that are no doubt on the minds of the Democratic candidates (or, in his view, should be):  

Headshot of John Cerone

Overall, the question of U.S. troop withdrawal is principally one of policy, not law. That said, I would divide the main international law issues into a) the question of the legality of the use of force by Turkey; and b) the legality of how force is being used by all parties to the conflict. 

 As for the first issue, my initial speculation was that Syria had consented to the Turkish operation. That no longer appears to be the case (if it ever was), casting some doubt on the legality of Turkey’s use of force on Syria’s territory. This should – and likely will – raise questions on the international law front and would be an area that the U.S. administration might, typically, be looked to as a source for leadership and moral authority. This should be something for the crop of candidates to consider.

As for the second issue, the U.S. should monitor the conduct of all parties to assess their compliance with applicable rules of international human rights law and the law of armed conflict.

Separately, the issue of migration at the southern border of the U.S cannot be ignored and while it's come up in previous debates, I expect it will again be discussed tonight and should be. For my part, I'll be listening to hear what each candidate plans to do to ensure safe, orderly, and regular migration.

Finally, we asked our Director of Fletcher's Center for Strategic Studies and  Professor of International Politics Monica Duffy Toft to share her two cents ahead of tonight's debate with regards to what she believes is on the minds of the American people... and she will be watching to see how the candidates address these concerns that are currently front and center in the media and in the minds of policymakers: 

"As the democratic candidates go head-to-head tonight two big issues loom large for the America public: the impeachment proceedings against

Professor Monica Duffy Toft

President Trump and fallout from the president’s unilateral decision to pull U.S. forces from Syria. It will be interesting to see how the candidates handle both of these issues, but in particular the administration’s decision on Syria, which involved abandoning the Kurds, a formidable ally that helped us to defeat the Islamic State. Many Republicans have come out against the decision despite the fact that President Trump campaigned on a plan to end the long wars; especially our engagements in the Middle East. However, how he went about this disengagement is the problem.

We know that U.S. should not rely so heavily on force, something I’ve called kinetic diplomacy. The problem now is that (1) the Kurds have allied with Syrian and Russian troops (creating the possibility that Russian forces might engage a NATO ally); (2) our reputation as a reliable ally has now been trounced; and (3) IS prisoners guarded by our former Kurdish allies have been freed (or may soon be). So, even if the threat of economic sanctions causes the Turks to pull back; the ripple effects of Trump’s Syria withdrawal are certain to be costly to U.S. national interests in both the short and and long term."