Analysis: Buttigieg speech pitched foreign policy highlighting the local, but just one kind of local

South Bend mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg delivered a speech on foreign policy at Indiana University in Bloomington on Tuesday morning. I sat with the general public in the sixth row of the IU Auditorium.

It was a speech that seemed crafted to resonate in places like Bloomington and other cities home to higher educational institutions. That’s not all of America.

His remarks included several specific policy points that many voters in all parts of the country will likely consider when they compare positions of other candidates in the Democratic primary field. He thinks military intervention in Venezuela is not currently warranted. He would re-commit the United States to the Iran nuclear deal. He would not allow U.S. financial support of Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu’s threatened annexation of West Bank settlements. He would re-join the Paris climate agreement.

Those specific policy points were delivered in the context of a more ambitious vision, even if he did not deliver, as he put it, a full Buttigieg Doctrine. The part of the doctrine Buttigieg did deliver on Tuesday was built on the idea of what the world needs, as much as it was on what the U.S. needs:

The world needs an America ready to reverse the rise of a foreign authoritarianism while revitalizing democracy at home and advancing it among our allies. Countries with models that fly in the face of our values, from Chinese techno-authoritarianism to Russian oligarchic capitalism, to anti-modern theocratic regimes in the Middle East, all present a major challenge to us. … [I]t has never been more needed that America live up to the values we profess. The world needs the best of America right now.

The speech served a least one basic purpose for the Buttigieg campaign, which was to establish solid credentials as someone who knows how to do some basic homework on foreign policy issues. It would have been surprising if the Harvard-educated Rhodes Scholar had not been able to fill an hour demonstrating that he had a basic command of current world affairs and this country’s place in them.

A second campaign purpose the speech tried to serve was to answer, even if indirectly, a fair question many voters might have: How does serving as the chief executive of a small American city prepare someone to act on a world stage?

That’s why one of the longer threads in the speech tied local situations to international politics.

Even in his initial remarks, as Buttigieg was thanking former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton for his introduction, South Bend’s mayor connected the local to the global:

By his mastery of the relationship between serving a home district and addressing the affairs of the world, Lee Hamilton became one of this nation’s most widely respected statesmen …

And early in the speech came this nod to the impact of global commerce on the jobs in local places:

… I’ve seen at home in South Bend why foreign policy is not a theoretical discussion for the Americans that I serve. From sendoff ceremonies for reservists about to be deployed overseas to union meetings of American autoworkers making German-branded cars going to Chinese customers from right in our own St. Joseph County, I have seen the local impact of global engagements.

When Buttigieg described climate change as an “existential security challenge,” the crowd gave him sustained applause, and he later tied the global phenomenon to local events:

As a mayor who has had to activate my city’s emergency operations center for floods that were supposed to come less than once in a lifetime, and done so twice in two years, I have seen the homeland implications of this threat. We’ve seen warnings from a generation ago realized today in floods in Indiana, tornadoes in Alabama, hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the fires in California.

Buttigieg connected success on the international level to involvement of local leadership:

And we do it by ensuring that our local leaders that are state and local experts, our governors, and yes, our mayors, are not bystanders in that dialogue. Whether the issue is climate change or trade or immigration, local leaders should be at the table from the beginning, empowered to speak with our national diplomatic, commercial and military leaders. To thrive in the coming decades, we must bring the foreign-policy conversation out of Washington and into the rest of the country,

The sound-bite best capturing the thread was “all politics is not just local, but personal for someone.” It came on the heels of this more general statement:

A foreign policy for [the long-term future] must be grounded in the everyday lives of communities across the United States.

Finally, Buttigieg helped kick out of the speech with a vignette from his service in Afghanistan, which offered listeners a concrete connection to the streets wherever they live:

And after a long day split between processing intelligence at my desk in a modified shipping container and driving my commander across the hauntingly beautiful and violent city of Kabul, I’d carry a laptop up to the roof at midnight to pick up a wi-fi signal and Skype into a city staff meeting back home in South Bend. That tenuous digital link was a reminder that the counter-narcotics efforts of my threat finance cell ultimately mattered to a community on the banks of the St. Joseph River. That there was a relationship between the city streets I was navigating in an armored SUV in Afghanistan and the ones I was responsible for paving in South Bend.

I think the thread that Buttigieg spun out, tying the local to the international, probably managed to loop in many Americans. But not all.

Buttigieg called for “unleashing the full power of the most global institutions on our local soil, colleges and universities.” And the applause line reminded me of Pierre, South Dakota. A year ago I was reporting the news there for the local newspaper.

Local leaders in Pierre were working just to maintain the presence of the Capital University Center, the city’s only higher educational institution. It’s a kind of satellite campus that previously drew support from the state-funded universities. It is easy to talk about harnessing colleges and universities in a place like Bloomington, Indiana. The same speech might not play as well in the capital of South Dakota.

The one nod in Buttigieg’s speech to places like South Dakota, or much of the Hoosier state, seemed like an afterthought:

[W]e should empower rural America to be part of the solution, helping to unlock the potential of soil management and other 21st-century farming techniques.

I can imagine South Dakota farmers and ranchers thinking they do not need to be empowered to do these things, because they are already doing them.

In a speech that mentioned “tariffs as tantrums,” it would have seemed natural to talk about the negative local impact of those tariffs on America’s farmers. In a speech that highlighted climate disruption, it would have seemed natural to talk about the impact of climate change on our ability to grow food.

Buttigieg’s speech might have woven a stronger fabric, if it had recognized that the idea of “local” doesn’t mean only urban. It includes the rural, too.