Despite the media’s best efforts to keep us guessing, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are now the overwhelming favorites to represent the Democratic and Republican parties in the presidential election in the fall.
And as Donald Trump’s speech last week made clear, they represent two very different potential trajectories for America’s future global role.
Indeed, I believe that no election in recent times has so clearly presented American voters with such a stark choice when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. No longer does politics stop “at the water’s edge” in a bipartisan spirit.
So what are the major differences?
America’s foreign policy orthodoxy
Hillary Clinton’s views are embedded in an orthodoxy that has been the bedrock of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II.
First, according to this orthodoxy, as the dominant power, America has both a right and responsibility to act as a global leader. Rightly or wrongly, politicians think that foreigners crave American leadership as a bedrock assumption—and nothing important gets done without it.
Leadership entails setting the global agenda whenever possible. That means being active rather than reactive. And that active agenda is comprehensive.
On the current leadership security agenda, for example, is establishing peace in Syria, ensuring stability in Europe in the face of Russian aggression, and supporting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. All this is done in the name of global stability, and promoting the—sometimes contested—American version of human rights.
To this could be added a multitude of economic agenda issues, like promoting trade agreements in Asia and Europe.
Washington’s politicians generally regard promoting global free trade as sacrosanct, although both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have questioned that assumption in recent months, as Ross Perot did in 1992. But the fact is that presidents from both parties have occasionally invoked “free and fair trade” measures—code words for protectionism. Even Ronald Reagan, Republican doyen, used them in textiles and cars to safeguard jobs and win votes in the 1980s.
Second, this orthodoxy accepts that America has to pay a price in blood and treasure for its global role.
That price takes several forms. There is, above all, the cost of military intervention in protecting vulnerable populations (think of the Yazidis in Iraq) or in upholding American national security (the invasion of Afghanistan).
And the same is true when it comes economic policy. America has acted as a “lender of last resort” in time of crisis. It has underwritten the global economic system with the world’s two key financial institutions, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, headquartered in Washington, D.C.
The Washington playbook
President Obama has, at times, departed from this orthodoxy, or what he recently termed “the Washington playbook.”
He has refused to commit large-scale combat troops to the war in Syria and Iraq or to do more to protect Ukraine. Similarly, Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba and the Iranian nuclear deal have both breached the contours of routine foreign policy.
On his recent trip to Europe, Obama made it clear that European governments need to contribute more to the cost of NATO in the spirit of the organization’s agreement about burden-sharing. All presidents in recent times have asked the Europeans to spend more. But none have been as forthright.
Clinton and Obama have disagreed at times. She has suggested, for example, that America should play a more significant role in Syria by imposing a no fly zone and arming the Kurds. But like Obama, Clinton focuses more on a balanced use of diplomacy, sanctions, development, and firepower than some presidential predecessors, such as George W. Bush.
Still, whatever marginal differences there are between Clinton and Obama, both have largely worked within the contours of American foreign policy orthodoxy. Their differences pale in comparison to those between Trump and Clinton.
Tearing up the playbook
Donald Trump wants to tear up the playbook. His worldview is a trajectory begins with assumptions more common in the world of business than of foreign policy. He wants to broker the best deal. This approach takes three forms.
- Like a negotiator, Trump favors mystique and keeping information “close to his chest” over transparency. So he has a plan to defeat ISIS “very, very quickly” through an “unpredictable” strategy. But he is not sharing it with the rest of us because that would give away a strategic advantage.
- Like any businessman (or shopper), Trump values getting the “best bang for the buck.” So he will reform the military so that it is more efficient. And he will get our current clients to pay for their protection—in Asia and Europe. The ultimatum is clear: “The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves…We have no choice.” So the illusion of “burden-sharing” is over. The U.S. will withdraw its military support from organizations such as NATO if not suitably rewarded, much to the alarm of its allies. And China will have to share the load as well, and stop “raping” the American economy.
- And, finally, in the market, your collaborator can instantly become your competitor. So, engaging with countries Trump regards as our “frenemies”—such as Mexico or some Muslim and Arab countries—as if America owes them something is over. They, like our European and Asian allies, will have to prove their worth rather than relying unconditionally on American support.
Paradoxically, it is some of our competitors that will have a far better time of it.
Vladimir Putin praised Trump’s recent foreign policy speech. That added to their prior mutual compliments suggests a friendship is blossoming. Trump’s view of Putin is reminiscent of George W. Bush’s statement in 2001 when he suggested that he looked into Putin’s eyes and decided he was “trustworthy.”
Former Ambassador Nicholas Burns summarized his concerns about Trump’s newfound approach last week. Commenting on Trump’s speech, Burns said:
I think it’s naive to think you can sit down with Vladimir Putin and negotiate the future of Europe.
President Obama and President Bush before him dealt with Putin from a position of strength. We now have sanctions against Putin because he crossed the brightest red line in international police. He invaded another country and took over its territory. There was nothing in the speech about that.
There was very little in the speech about Chinese assertiveness in East Asia. And I think, Judy, the thing that bothered me the most about this speech, the lack of humility. Donald Trump castigated 35 years of American foreign policy. That includes George H.W. Bush. It includes Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Things will get worse before they get better
The upcoming presidential election process is likely to be as nasty as the Republican primary has been.
So, if you have had a hard time explaining the last six months to your foreign friends, the likelihood is that the next six are going to get harder.
But foreigners, from Mexico City to Moscow, appreciate what is at stake. After all, they too will bear the consequences of the choices of American voters.
The Washington playbook has its problems. Arguably it does need to be torn up. The abiding question is whether this is the way to do it.
It will be ironic if, in retrospect, history judges President Obama’s deviations from the playbook as merely setting the stage for the foreign policy upheaval that followed.