The American presidential election has dominated global news headlines for the past year. Although it mostly falls outside the scope of this blog, on the eve of the election it is helpful to learn more about the role foreign policy has played in it. After all, the US remains the most important country in the world, yet its foreign policy is often ignored in presidential campaigns.
The Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, has wide-ranging policy expertise, including as Secretary of State (foreign minister) from 2009 to 2013. She is a fixture of high-level politics, having played an active role in it as First Lady during the 1990s and cultivating close relationships with world leaders through the Clinton Foundation, a nonprofit focusing on international development issues. As such, she has earned the respect and sometimes admiration of politicians (and more) around the world. She is certainly well-versed in international politics; she visited 112 countries during her tenure as Secretary of State.
As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton advanced the foreign policy views of her husband, former president Bill Clinton. This means a commitment to America’s relationships and a positive image of America as global benefactor and role model (“soft power”), while occasionally resorting to intimidation, threats and force (“hard power”) to cow uncooperative countries into line. They spouted lots of rhetoric about human rights, free markets and political participation while resorting to outright intervention mostly in cases where America’s strategic interests were at stake. This has become more or less the norm in American diplomacy, and while foreigners sometimes grumble about hypocrisy or imperialism, by and large the world admires America’s safeguarding of a durable international order and its role model of a thriving, capitalistic, pluralistic society. She has been particularly interested in development, arguing in her 1996 book It Takes a Village that broad community-level support is important for successful child-raising. She is also involved in women’s issues, meeting with women’s groups in especially sexist countries and calling for more participation of women in public life, reasoning that many global problems are exacerbated (or caused) by too much testosterone and the systematic exclusion of half the population.
During the 2008 presidential election, when Hillary Clinton unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination against Barack Obama, differences over foreign policy came into stark focus. Although both criticized George Bush’s adventurism in Iraq and aloof attitudes toward traditional European allies, Clinton turned out to be the more hawkish of the 2. (After all, she had initially supported the invasion of Iraq, as had many Americans.) She scorned Obama’s willingness to meet with leaders of rogue states like Iran or North Korea — the remaining members of Bush’s “Axis of Evil” — as naive and indicative of Obama’s inexperience. Then as his secretary of state she ended up carrying out many of the same policies she had critiqued. Taking advantage of a new Russian president, the relatively sympathetic Dmitriy Medvedyev, she tried to “reset” Russo-American relations and cooperate with a country that America had had testy relations with. She also held back in Syria as that country dissolved into sectarian civil war. She still proved to have a somewhat harsh view of foreign policy compared to Obama, though: she imposed sanctions on Iran after initial efforts to come to terms were snubbed, she bombed Libya in support of a rebellion against its dictator, Moamar Gadafi, and she was involved in the covert mission that killed America’s archnemesis, Osama bin Ladan.
Thus Clinton is seen as the “continuity” candidate, adopting a moderate, traditionally American course of action between the usual twin poles of American foreign policy, militant interventionism and so-called “isolationism” (which is really only isolationist in comparison). She accepts the nationalist American ideology of the US as a beacon of hope and opportunity for the world and sees spreading its gospel to new territories like the Arab world and Myanmar as her mission. While she’s not as bold in this regard as Republican predecessors like Bush or Ronald Reagan, her views are hawkish enough to give some people pause. For instance, she is critical of Obama’s policy on Syria and has long argued for a “no-fly zone,” meaning designating an area in Syria as a safe zone and shooting down any planes that enter it, and more aid for Syrian rebels. She has also taken a hard line on Russia (she reportedly was skeptical of the reset), arguing that its dictator, Vladimir Putin, shouldn’t be trusted and pushing for tighter sanctions and more aid for Ukraine, its victim. On the other hand, there’s no sign that she would be interested in outright invading a country without international or local support.
The Republican candidate, Donald Trump, on the other hand, has a radically different foreign policy. His campaign is built on a strongly protectionist agenda. He launched it last year with a vow to cut off immigration from Mexico with a wall along the border. Not only that, but he’s said that Mexico will pay for it. How this will happen is unclear, although he’s said that he will pressure Mexico to do it by cutting off remittances from Mexican-Americans. His animosity against Mexican immigrants stems from the belief that they are taking American jobs, a longstanding Republican gripe. He is also critical of free trade, repeatedly slamming Clinton for her husband’s support of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico and her previous support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious 12-country trade deal covering the Americas, Oceania and East Asia (she has since turned against it as well). He is especially enraged by China, which is sometimes seen as America’s chief economic rival, and vows to slap a punitive 45% tariff on Chinese-made goods. Given how many things in American markets are made in China, this will doubtless hurt consumers a lot.
Trump’s other major campaign promise in 2015, made in response to a mass murder committed by Muslims that year, was to cut off Muslim immigration entirely. It’s unclear how this will be enforced, and he has since walked back his sweeping declaration (“a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on”) a little to “extreme vetting” of immigrants from places with a history of terror. In this he represents a hard-line version of Republican orthodoxy, which is to take stern measures against terrorism and Muslims with radical beliefs, although the explicit connection of the Muslim religion with his ban makes many uncomfortable and may not be constitutional. This logic is carried over to apply to America’s campaign against the Islamic State, which he has vowed to “bomb the shit out of,” including their families. He is ready to bring back waterboarding and other methods of torture. He has a secret plan to defeat the Islamic State which he won’t divulge until after the election. After destroying Iraq’s oil infrastructure to strangle the Islamic State, oil companies would then rebuild it and the US will somehow take it for itself. He also pumped up a crowd once during the campaign by telling a (false) story from the Philippine War about an American general mass-executing Muslim guerrillas with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood.
In these ways Trump seems to fit in with the usual Republican foreign policy stance, which is to be hard on national security and fiercely protective, to the point of belligerence, of Americans and American interests abroad. But in many ways he is not. Most of his foreign policy views are throwbacks to the pre-World War II isolationist era, when Americans viewed the rest of the world with suspicion and disdain and ignored it as much as possible. He claims to have been against the Iraq War from the beginning, and in any case opposes it now, using it as a tool to bludgeon Clinton with. Probably recognizing that most Americans — including his base of support, the rural lower class — don’t really care about foreign politics, he calls for a sweeping withdrawal of American commitments overseas. He wants to pull America out of NATO unless other members pay more for it. He has threatened to do the same with Japan and South Korea, claiming that he doesn’t see the benefits of America’s alliances with them, unless they assume a more equal position. He is willing to let both countries develop their own nuclear weapons rather than promise to protect them from China’s and North Korea’s.
So Trump represents a sharp break from the Republican party on this as well as on domestic policy. Many Republicans have a bombastically nationalist, almost evangelist view of America and are eager to spread American money, influence, and troops around the world. Trump has a nationalist agenda (his motto is to “Make America Great Again,” after all), but he reaches different conclusions: America should mind its own business and focus on restoring the American economy and American jobs. The rest of the world is mostly seen as a threat, either from nasty terrorists, job-stealing immigrants or scheming businessmen. He is a businessman with no political experience, and unsurprisingly he tends to take a transactional view of things, constantly emphasizing “deals,” vowing to be the greatest dealmaker ever and approaching relationships with a cold, mercantile eye, rather than as a friend or enemy. (His best-selling book is called The Art of the Deal.) This has informed his stance on Russia, where he makes the strongest break from general Republican foreign policy opinion. He has openly admired Putin (even claiming him as a friend a few years ago), sought to do business with Russia, and expressed a willingness to work with it over thorny issues like Syria or Ukraine. His strongman style has provoked fears that he may be sympathetic to dictators as guys who get things done. His former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had business ties in Russia and Ukraine, and he once advised ousted Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovich.
There are other candidates, but despite the record-high displeasure with both Clinton and Trump, they have had little impact on the race. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, has taken the most isolationist stance, constantly chiding America for its imperialism and its wasted efforts to control other countries. He’s also struggled with an image of being dopey and uninformed. Evan McMullin, an independent candidate with a strong following in the western state of Utah, embodies the traditional conservative line: high military spending, a strong commitment to foreign alliances, and an emphasis on armed intervention and opposition to dictatorship. The hard left side of the political spectrum is represented by Jill Stein of the Green party, who relentlessly criticizes American imperialism, belligerence, meddling in foreign conflict, and who also wants to cut military spending and pull back from overseas alliances.
Given Trump’s drastic departure from America’s foreign policy trajectory (not to mention his embodiment of pretty much every negative American stereotype), most foreigners loudly and overwhelmingly support Clinton. The exceptions have been Russia and China, who calculate that Trump’s pledges to withdraw from the world stage work in their favor. Although we’ll find out soon enough, polls suggest that most Americans are With Her.