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The Mayor and the World

eye on the news

The Mayor and the World

Michael Bloomberg hasn’t said much about foreign policy in his public career—but that will have to change if he’s serious about running for president. November 11, 2019
Politics and law
New York

Conservative critics of potential presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg complain that the former New York mayor loved skyscrapers, hated cigarettes, trans fats, and Big Gulp sodas, and supported such liberal causes as gun control and battling climate change. But New Yorkers—and other Americans who paid attention to his three terms as mayor—also know that he never lost a political race, and that, during his 12 years in City Hall, New York’s crime rates plunged, schools improved, tourism soared, racial tensions eased, and city revenues swelled. His achievements—and failures—for New York are clear.

On foreign policy and many national security issues, though, Bloomberg remains a blank. Unlike Mayor Pete Buttigieg, South Bend’s presidential aspirant, rising swiftly in the polls, Bloomberg has said little on foreign affairs except on topics closely related to those that preoccupied him as mayor—trade, growth, public health, and sustainable development. His website includes a “global engagement” section, but not one specifically devoted to foreign policy. His public pronouncements in this area and national security tend to be, as Thomas Meaney argued in a 2016 essay in Foreign Policy, “uniformly vague, his achievements difficult to discern.”

Based on his mayoral record and activities after leaving office, however, a Bloombergian world view is discernible. A Bloomberg presidency would likely be as pragmatic as the man himself, grounded not in ideology, grand visions, doctrines, or ambitious programs, but on what he believes will work. Such a world view has strengths and weaknesses. It also reflects Bloomberg’s political migration.

A lifelong Democrat, Bloomberg became a Republican in 2001, an independent in 2007, and a Democrat again in 2018. Each shift was grounded in practicality. A run for mayor as a Republican in 2001, for instance, was more likely to succeed than a victory in the more crowded Democratic field. As the city’s Democratic Party shifted left during his time in City Hall, he became an independent. After Donald Trump’s election as president, he reregistered as a Democrat.

Some of Bloomberg’s foreign policy views have been consistent over time, such as his support for Israel, for aggressive counterterrorism measures, and—in sharp contrast with Trump’s “America First” agenda—for such international institutions as the United Nations and the nation’s long-standing global alliances. New York’s third Jewish mayor, Bloomberg followed a long line of pro-Israeli civic leaders. Not religiously observant, he has been a consistent champion of Israel’s right to defend itself. Bloomberg denounced the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, the effort championed by many left-wing Democrats to punish Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. Calling the campaign an “outrage” and “totally misplaced,” he nonetheless defended the First Amendment rights of its supporters to speak on campuses in favor of it.

Initially, Bloomberg strongly supported the 2003 war in Iraq and its justification in what the Bush administration called a Global War on Terrorism, but he gradually grew critical of the effort. “I think everybody has very mixed emotions about the war that was started to find weapons of mass destruction and then they were not found,” he said in 2005. Yet he strongly criticized “irresponsible” Democrats in Congress who favored creating a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq—and his criticism was vindicated by the expansion of the militant Islamist forces that established the Islamic State after U.S. forces left.

When President Obama signed his controversial nuclear deal with Iran, aimed at constraining the Islamic Republic’s efforts to acquire an atomic bomb, Bloomberg criticized supporters of the agreement for “smearing” critics of the deal like Senator Chuck Schumer. Yet he disagreed with Obama’s assertion that it was “not a difficult decision to endorse the agreement,” saying in a speech at American University and then in an editorial in Bloomberg News that Obama’s case would be “more compelling if he stopped minimizing the agreement’s weaknesses and exaggerating its benefits.”

Another stance that angered left-leaning Democrats was his consistent support for tough-minded policing and counterterrorism measures—the two practices inexorably linked in Bloomberg’s mind, said one New York counterterrorism official. Under “stop-question-and-frisk,” which targeted high-crime neighborhoods, stops of individuals rose from over 97,000 in 2002 to over 685,000 in 2011. Though the city’s crime rates continued to plummet, particularly in minority communities, a federal district court judge ruled the policy unconstitutional in 2013, finding that it disproportionately affected black and Hispanic New Yorkers. Bloomberg defended the policy.

Nor did the mayor’s support wane for another set of programs aimed at preventing another 9/11 attack on New York—a controversial effort, under Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, to identify and surveil individuals who might pose a terrorist threat to the city. In 2012, after the Associated Press ran a series of articles on the programs, Bloomberg defended the NYPD against allegations that a CIA-assisted, domestic counterterrorism unit had violated Muslims’ civil rights by spying on them.

Bloomberg’s attitude toward China has shifted over time and is already proving divisive. While in China in 2007, Bloomberg criticized the government’s secrecy and called for greater freedom of information to promote innovation. But in a recent TV interview with Margaret Hoover, he defended China’s abysmal environmental record, denied that Chinese President Xi Jinping was a dictator, and argued that China—still under the rule of Communists—was a democracy. “Xi Jinping is not a dictator,” he told Hoover. “He has to satisfy his constituents, or he’s not going to survive.” His claim was particularly jarring amid growing consensus among Republicans and Democrats that Xi’s authoritarianism, consolidation of power, reversal of economic reforms, brutal repression of minorities, and increasing assertiveness in projecting Beijing’s power abroad present a serious threat to the United States and to the international order. 

Bloomberg, who invested more than $100 million in his last mayoral bid and is capable of spending far more on a presidential campaign, has time to revisit such positions, should he choose to run. Americans may care less about foreign affairs than they do about jobs, health care, and other domestic concerns—but even a confident, self-made billionaire will need to specify where he stands on crucial foreign challenges.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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