Every president for the last 20 years has faced the threat, the reality, or the devastating consequences of genocide. While terrorism, trade, and great-power competition tend to dominate foreign policy on the debate stage, questions about preventing genocide and other mass atrocities have appeared during every U.S. presidential election cycle since 2000. A review of debate records during that time demonstrates consistent public interest in how presidential candidates plan to respond to mass atrocities.

So the 2020 candidates can’t expect to dodge questions about mass atrocities, as became evident in the first Democratic primary debate in Miami last June. A member of the public identified as “John in New York” submitted two questions for the candidates, asking:

“Does the United States have a responsibility to protect in the case of genocide or crimes against humanity? Do we have a responsibility to intervene to protect people threatened by their governments even when atrocities do not affect American core interests?”

Presidential hopefuls and their running mates have repeatedly been asked to debate if, when, or how the United States should respond to mass atrocities — large-scale, systematic violence against civilians, including genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Each candidate should be prepared to answer questions like these.

A search for references to atrocities and genocide in every presidential, vice presidential, and primary debate in The American Presidency Project database from the University of California-Santa Barbara yielded excerpts from nearly 50 transcripts from 1999 to 2016. In those debates, the word “genocide” alone was mentioned more than 75 times. This analysis specifically cites 16 different questions about mass atrocities from 14 of those debates, representing each election period, debate type, and political party at least once. These illustrate two common types of questions that have shaped the presidential debate over mass atrocities.

Questions about Mass Atrocities in Country X

The first type of question asks how the United States should respond to specific cases of ongoing or recent mass atrocities. The former Yugoslavia dominated the debates during the election of 2000. At question was whether to remove then-President Slobodan Milošević, who was later indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for mass atrocity crimes in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. Then in 2004 and 2008, debates turned to Sudan and what to do about the genocide in Darfur. By 2012 and 2016, the focus was on Syria and how to respond to the Assad regime’s siege of Aleppo.

Taken together, these case-specific questions seem nearly formulaic, combining estimates of civilian deaths and a tone of urgency with language signaling the nature and brutality of the violence. Here are just two examples, across election years and political parties:

“I would like to address the crisis in Darfur. At this time as many as 400,000 people have been killed, millions are…without food and shelter. If you were elected president, what role do you think the United States should play in addressing this terrible tragedy?”

– Audience member Jeff Turiel, psychologist, during the 2007 Democratic primary debate in New Hampshire 

“Now, in Syria at the hands of Bashar al Assad, it’s estimated that some 5,000 people have been killed. The country appears to be sliding into civil war and Arab League peace monitors seem to be failing. How would President Santorum deal with this international crisis?” 

– Moderator Brett Baier from Fox News, during the 2012 Republican primary debate in South Carolina

Sometimes, moderators add analogies to connect present mass atrocities to past cases and U.S. policies. In 2007, a Democratic primary debate question compared the situation in Darfur to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The same thing happened in 2012 at a vice presidential debate, only that time applying U.S. policy in Libya to the Syrian case.

Questions about Using Force to End Mass Atrocities 

The second type of question asks if and when America should use military force in the world, especially for ending mass atrocities. The following example exhibits three themes common in these questions:

“Reverend Sharpton, your Iraq policy calls for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. And as a human rights advocate, is there anywhere in the world today where you would send troops, or use military force, to combat government-sponsored killing, genocide, or oppression? In effect, what is the Sharpton doctrine of foreign policy?”

– Moderator John DiStaso from the New Hampshire Union Leader, during the 2004 Democratic primary debate in New Hampshire

Questions like this force candidates to confront the perceived tradeoffs associated with the use of force for humanitarian aims. Often this tension is between promoting American values—like human rights and democracy—and preserving national interests. For example, in a 2000 vice presidential debate, the moderator asked, “Should U.S. military personnel be deployed as warriors or peacekeepers?” Similarly, in a 2008 presidential debate, the candidates were asked their opinion on the use of force “in situations where there’s a humanitarian crisis, but it does not affect our national security.”

These questions may also refer to past examples of America’s use of force (or the lack thereof) and its implications for policy on atrocity prevention. As illustrated in the question above, Iraq became a popular point of reference for debating the use of force after the 2003 invasion. It even inspired a question in 2007 about whether a U.S. withdrawal could lead to genocide. Candidates have also been asked to account for past failures to end mass atrocities, such as whether it was a “mistake not to intervene” (2000) in Rwanda or if inaction in Darfur affected the U.S. “claim to moral leadership” (2007).

Finally, these questions require candidates to articulate clear policies for if and when they would put “boots on the ground” (2008) in atrocity scenarios. Whether it be outlining their general “doctrine” (2008) for deploying troops in response to humanitarian crises or stating their “criteria for intervention” (2012) worldwide, candidates have been asked to determine the conditions under which they would commit U.S. forces to end mass atrocities as commander-in-chief.

The Next Questions

Two types of questions — asking about a specific country context or a broad use-of-force policy — have guided debates on the national stage about the U.S. role in atrocity prevention and response, but they raise a few questions themselves.

Do the 2020 candidates have answers? Are they prepared to say how they would respond to ongoing atrocities in places like Burma or South Sudan? Are they ready to tell America when they would deploy U.S. troops to prevent another genocide during their term?

Based on their responses in Miami, it doesn’t look promising. Saying that the United States should be ready to respond to genocide is not enough. The American people demand more than vague references to taking action with allies and partners or seeking congressional approval for humanitarian intervention. These are important considerations, but such answers fail to specify what the United States will actually do to respond to mass atrocities — Impose sanctions? Support peacekeeping missions? Create no-fly zones? Presidents need policies.

The candidates should have more precise and detailed answers on how to respond to mass atrocities, not only because history suggests they will be asked for them on the debate stage, but because the future president will almost certainly be confronted with this question while in the Oval Office.

IMAGE: Yazidi women hold up pictures of missing relatives during a ceremony in Stuttgart, Germany, on Aug. 3, 2019, in which the country’s Central Yazidi Council commemorates the 5th anniversary of the genocide that killed thousands of Yazidis in August 2014 by fighters of the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS). United Nations investigators determined in 2016 that the mass killings and other atrocities by ISIS against the Yazidi people constituted genocide. (Photo by THOMAS KIENZLE/AFP/Getty Images)