By Erin Rodewald // September 19, 2016
(This article originally appeared at The Philos Project)
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. What distinguishes these presidential candidates on foreign policy and what should voters be looking for?
More than a few Americans are struggling to make sense of this year’s presidential election and the choice that awaits them at the ballot box in November. After a grueling primary season, voters are left with two of the most unpopular candidates in modern history. Hillary Clinton, who has long had her eye on the country’s top job, enters the final weeks of the campaign with a 55.4 percent unfavorable rating, according to a recent Real Clear Politics poll. Her opponent, businessman Donald Trump, fairs even worse, with a rating of nearly 60 percent.
The voter discontent could not have come at a worse time. At home, the challenges are great – a sluggish economy, political gridlock, racial tensions, shifting cultural values. Abroad, the challenges are extreme – a trigger-happy dictator in North Korea, Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, Russian belligerence in Ukraine, a bloody civil war in Syria, an emboldened regime in Iran, the global spread of radical Islamic terrorism.
As much as both candidates might want to focus their attention on domestic issues, it is in the international arena that the next president likely will encounter the most difficult, persistent and perilous problems. Therefore, what distinguishes the candidates on foreign policy may be the most critical consideration of 2016. The following analysis is presented to assist voters in this important discernment process.
Voters in presidential elections typically start the sorting-out process with a few shortcuts, relying on familiar labels, such as Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal, hawk or dove. But this year’s election is anything but typical, and normal definitions don’t necessarily apply. For example, Trump may be the GOP candidate, but his foreign policy strategy bears little resemblance to the policies of his recent predecessors. He does not share the same sense of global leadership and robust engagement embraced and cultivated by presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Richard Nixon or Dwight D. Eisenhower. Rather, Trump is an isolationist in the tradition of Robert Taft, who led the opposition to U.S. involvement in the lead-up to the Second World War.
TRUMP: “My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else. America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.” —Foreign policy speech, April 27
TRUMP: “I don’t think we should be nation building anymore. At what point do you say, ‘Hey, we have to take care of ourselves?’ So, you know, I know the outer world exists and I’ll be very cognizant of that, but at the same time, our country is disintegrating – large sections of it, especially in the inner cities.” —Meeting with Washington Post editorial board, March 21
While the Republican in the race wears the isolationist hat this year, the Democrat actually appears more hawkish at times, which – for Clinton – is both a blessing and a curse. President Barack Obama used Clinton’s vote to approve authorization of the Iraq War to his favor in the 2008 primary, so Clinton is sensitive to the “hawk” moniker. But it may serve her well this cycle among veterans, generals and other military-minded voters who have been put off by Trump’s rhetoric disparaging a Gold Star mother and former POW John McCain. Likewise, while Trump admires an increasingly aggressive Vladimir Putin for his leadership chops, it is Clinton who holds a more cautious assessment of the Russian president at the moment (perhaps in response to the failed “reset” she helped orchestrate early in Obama’s first term).
CLINTON: “I have been – I remain convinced that we need a concerted effort to really up the cost on Russia and, in particular, on Putin. I think we have not done enough. I am in the category of people who wanted us to do more in response to the annexation of Crimea and the continuing destabilizing of Ukraine” — Remarks at The Brookings Institute, Sept. 9, 2015
TRUMP: “I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia from a position of strength only is possible – absolutely possible.” —Foreign policy speech, April 27
Don’t Be Fooled
When traditional labels do not suffice, there is always experience to consider. Except when there isn’t. At least part of Trump’s allure this season among some voters appears to be his lack of political experience. He is the true outsider. But in matters of foreign policy, a skimpy resume may not be the best attribute. Clinton, on the other hand, has a career’s worth of experience, so there is more to examine, which again, can be a blessing and a curse.
“Mrs. Clinton served loyally as President Obama’s first mate on his foreign-policy Titanic,” author and political scientist Robert G. Kaufman noted. “And, unlike Mr. Trump, Mrs. Clinton has an actual record of mistakes and bad judgment in foreign policy.”
In addition to the aforementioned reset with Russia – which opened a path for Putin’s forced annexation of Crimea – Clinton was also the change agent for Obama’s lackluster Asian pivot and the administration’s principle proponent of U.S. intervention in Libya, which resulted in the fall of strongman Muammar Qaddafi, but did little to support or sustain a new government or prevent the country’s descent into chaos. That chaos would devolve into catastrophe in 2012 with the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi and the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans – on Clinton’s watch.
In Syria, Clinton did little to push back on the Obama Administration’s policies. Former presidential candidate and Florida Senator Marco Rubio has argued that “when it mattered, Clinton was unwilling to publicly advocate for the sort of policy change that would have potentially helped end the conflict and prevent these outcomes.”
Indeed, even as the Syrian civil war ramped up in 2011, Clinton implied that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was a “reformer.” Five years later, that conflict has claimed as many as 470,000 lives by some accounts, and displaced upward of 12.5 million Syrians. Even today, Clinton is reluctant to step in to end the slaughter.
CLINTON: “There is a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s [Assad] a reformer.” —Interview on Face the Nation, March 27, 2011
CLINTON: “We must only send our troops into harm’s way as a last resort – not a first choice. That must be our bedrock principle.” — Remarks at American Legion, Aug. 31
When the conversation and debate move into the present day and the current crises, the policy differences between the candidates and their worldviews become more sharply focused. Words are revealing. On the subject of the Islamic State and global terrorism, for example, a survey of Trump’s remarks and interviews underscore his natural proclivity toward isolationism and nationalism. Like a true negotiator, he is short on details, preferring not to tip his hand with too many specifics.
On the same topic, Clinton’s rhetoric demonstrates her penchant for multilateralism, smart power and diplomacy. On her campaign website, Clinton speaks of doing more than just containing ISIS. She wants to defeat it. Yet – in a recent candidate’s forum – she limited her options for achieving that goal by promising no ground troops in Iraq or Syria.
TRUMP: “To make life safe in America, we must … address the growing threats we face from outside America: We are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS. To protect us from terrorism … we must have the best intelligence gathering operation in the world. We must abandon the failed policy of nation building and regime change … we must immediately suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism until such a time as proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place.” —Acceptance speech at Republican National Convention, July 21
CLINTON: “We need a real plan for confronting terrorists. We need to take out their [ISIS’] strongholds in Iraq and Syria by intensifying the air campaign and stepping up our support for Arab and Kurdish forces on the ground. We need to keep pursuing diplomacy to end Syria’s civil war and close Iraq’s sectarian divide. We need to lash up with our allies and ensure our intelligence services are working hand-in-hand to dismantle the global network that supplies money, arms, propaganda and fighters to the terrorists. We need to win the battle in cyberspace.” —National security remarks in San Diego, June 2
CLINTON: “They are not going to get ground troops. We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again. And we’re not putting ground troops in Syria. We’re going to defeat ISIS without committing American ground troops.” —Commander-in-Chief Forum, Sept. 7
On Iran, the candidates differ sharply. Clinton’s fingerprints are all over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and she is proud of the role she played while secretary of state to bring stiffer sanctions to bear on the regime in Tehran, sanctions she argues brought the mullahs to the negotiating table. From her vantage point, the Iran deal was a diplomatic victory for the Obama Administration, the American people and the entire Mideast region. She remains undeterred in her assessment of the deal’s effectiveness despite recent developments – Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles, stepped-up security at the Furdow underground uranium enrichment facility and newly revealed details about the exchange of money and hostages.
Trump maintains a hardline stance in opposition to the Iran deal. He lays the blame for an emboldened Iranian regime, flush with cash, squarely at the feet of Clinton and the Obama Administration. Short of proposing renewed sanctions to “starve funding” for Iranian proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, however, Trump has few details about how he would walk back the Iran deal.
CLINTON: “For many years, we’ve all been rightly focused on the existential danger of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. That’s why I led the diplomacy to impose crippling sanctions and force Iran to the negotiating table, and why I ultimately supported the agreement that has put a lid on its nuclear program. I really believe the United States, Israel and the world are safer as a result.” —Remarks at AIPAC, March 2
CLINTON: “Our next president has to be able to hold together our global coalition and impose real consequences for even the smallest violations of this agreement. We must maintain the legal and diplomatic architecture to turn all the sanctions back on if needed.” —Remarks at AIPAC, March 21
TRUMP: The Iran deal “is an agreement that will get them to nuclear quicker than had we had no agreement.” —Interview with The New York Times, July 21
TRUMP: “My No. 1 priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran. When I’m president, I will adopt a strategy that focuses on three things when it comes to Iran. First, we will stand up to Iran’s aggressive push to destabilize and dominate the region. Secondly, we will totally dismantle Iran’s global terror network. Third, at the very least, we must enforce the terms of the previous deal to hold Iran totally accountable. And we will enforce it like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before, folks, believe me.” —Remarks at AIPAC, March 21
And finally, there is Israel – arguably America’s most important ally in the Middle East region. Yet, for the past eight years, that friendship has been tested by an administration seemingly more interested in engaging its foes. In his 2009 Cairo speech, Obama promised a “new beginning” in relations between the Arab nations and greater Muslim community. Today, the Middle East is in disarray, and U.S.-Israeli relations are strained.
Initially, Trump gave the impression that a Trump presidency would do little to ease that strained relationship, saying he would remain a “neutral” participant. More recently, though, he appears to have recognized the value in re-energizing the relationship with our only democratic ally in the Middle East. Indeed, on the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Trump has landed right of Israeli policy, backing (perhaps even encouraging) the decision by GOP leadership to remove the heretofore-sacrosanct two-state policy from the Republican platform.
Clinton has a long and varied history with Israel. While she was instrumental in orchestrating the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in 2012, her relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might best be described as “prickly.” She stood silently by as the Obama Administration chipped away at the foundations of the U.S.-Israeli confidence, and her role in first bringing about the Iran deal and now championing it belies her claim that Israel’s security is “non-negotiable.” Unlike Trump and much of the current GOP universe, Clinton remains committed to a two-state solution.
TRUMP: “Let me be a sort of a neutral guy [on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] —Remarks at a town hall in Charleston, S.C., Feb. 18
TRUMP: “Let me be clear: An agreement [between Israel and Palestine] imposed by the United Nations would be a total and complete disaster. The United States must oppose this resolution and use the power of the veto, which I will use as president 100 percent. The United States can be useful as a facilitator of negotiations, but no one should be telling Israel that it must … abide by some agreement made by others thousands of miles away that don’t even really know what’s happening in Israel.” —Remarks at AIPAC, March 21
CLINTON: “We may not have always agreed on every detail, but we’ve always shared an unwavering, unshakable commitment to our alliance and Israel’s future as a secure and democratic homeland for the Jewish people.” —Remarks at AIPAC, March 21
CLINTON: “I remain convinced that peace with security is possible and that it is the only way to guarantee Israel’s long-term survival as a strong Jewish and democratic state.” —Remarks at AIPAC, March 21
In terms of foreign policy, the two leading presidential candidates have different prescriptions for voters – Trump would turn our attention inward, Clinton would continue many of the existing policies and double down on our multilateral relationships, diplomacy and soft power.
There are, of course, a few other options for American voters on Nov. 8. Thanks in part to the high unfavorable rankings of the leading contenders, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson has been receiving measurable attention this year. Like Trump, Johnson is an isolationist, only more extreme. It is concerning (if not remarkable) that when asked by a reporter how he would resolve the crisis in Aleppo, he responded, “What is Aleppo?”
Former CIA officer and policy advisor Evan McMullin made a late entrance into the campaign, tapping into voter angst as the alternative to Trump and Hillary. In a campaign memo, McMullin wrote, “We’re positioned to give voters a safe haven in the era of Trump, to rescue conservatism from the wreckage of Trumpism, and to give Republican donors, candidates and activists a moral and smart political choice.” While McMullin may have the foreign policy bona fides voters are hungry for, he has little traction less than 60 days away from Election Day.
Few hardcore pundits or armchair political junkies would have predicted even a year ago that the race for commander-in-chief would come down to Clinton and Trump. From a foreign policy perspective, the choice portends further erosion of American influence on the world’s stage.