By Amanda Becker
(Reuters) - Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper on Monday said there is an "authoritarian mentality" in the White House and the United States does not need its own "strongman," as he delivered the first major foreign policy address among two dozen Democrats vying for the 2020 presidential nomination.
"I think history clearly demonstrates that when you have a so-called strongman - a dictator - you don't have rule of law," Hickenlooper said when asked at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs if that was a better approach to foreign policy than multilateralism.
In his address, Hickenlooper said China "represents a generational challenge" for national security; that Russia "actively works against our interests" by propping up Bashar Hafez al-Assad in Syria and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela; and that North Korea's nuclear program "threatens its region and beyond."
"From Moscow to Beijing, from Ankara to Caracas and beyond, authoritarian strongmen now threaten not only the rights of their own people, but also the foundations of international peace," Hickenlooper said.
"While no invading army is storming America's shores today, this authoritarian mentality has already breached our defenses. Indeed, it has occupied the White House. We have a president who is not just ignoring many of the threats to our national security, he is aiding and abetting them," he added.
Hickenlooper said President Donald Trump has "fawned over" North Korea's Kim Jong Un and treated Russia's Vladimir Putin "as his puppet master."
Hickenlooper also criticized Trump for threatening to pull out of the NATO alliance, abandoning the Paris climate accord and withdrawing from trade negotiations.
"We cannot hope to go back to the way the world was before Trump, too much has changed," Hickenlooper said.
Trump campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine disputed Hickenlooper's assessment of the president, saying that his "record on foreign policy is unquestionably a strength."
"The Trump sanctions on Russia are the toughest. He also imposed strong sanctions on North Korea and Iran, brought the North Koreans to the negotiating table, decimated the ISIS caliphate, stood up to China for decades of unfair trade practices, strengthened America's trade deals around the world, improved NAFTA, and steered NATO on the right path," Perrine said in an email.
Hickenlooper, who trails in opinion polls, is trying to show how he stands out in a field of Democratic White House hopefuls that include many with years of Washington experience, such as former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Hickenlooper criticized other Democrats for wanting to "withdraw from our global leadership role," and said he would use "constant engagement" to expand trade, modernize the military and form strong global alliances, taking an "activist, not a pacifist" approach to foreign policy.
Hickenlooper said he would reaffirm the country's commitment to the NATO alliance, revive arms control talks with China and Russia and reject boycotts, divestment or sanctions on Israel.
He also said he would consider re-establishing the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement made by the Obama administration, and re-enter the Paris climate agreement. Trump has pulled the United States out of both of those accords.
Hickenlooper also proposed creation of the position of "Director of National Cybersecurity" to formulate a 20-year plan to coordinate efforts among existing security and intelligence agencies.
(GRAPHIC: Who is running in 2020 - tmsnrt.rs/2Ff62ZC)
(Reporting By Amanda Becker; Editing by Bill Berkrot and James Dalgleish)