Trump, Clinton must clarify foreign policies

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including the recently published  “New Warfare:  Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”  In addition to teaching courses in international politics, international organization and law, and U.S. foreign policy, he has served as chair of the Political Science Dept. at UM-St. Louis.

By Marty Rochester

Traditionally, most American presidential elections are not determined by voter concerns about foreign policy and which candidate can better keep America safe. To the extent that voters cast their ballots based on candidate issue-positions, as opposed to other variables (for example, party identification or perception of candidate trustworthiness and character), domestic issues normally matter more than international issues.

Only when there is a major international crisis threatening American security does foreign policy at times become more salient than domestic policy in voters’ minds.  

We saw this during the Vietnam War. We may be witnessing it again today, given the increasing anxiety over the war on terror. Although the sluggishness of our economy, the rise in violent crime and other domestic problems compete for attention with external threats, the latter are likely to have some impact on voter choices in November.   

That still begs the question whether the two candidates differ significantly in how they would conduct foreign policy. Do Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have a clear foreign policy? If so, what is it and how might it affect United States national security?

First, it bears mentioning that few presidents have had a well-defined, coherent foreign policy, if by that is meant a carefully crafted grand strategy for dealing with the world. Some presidents have succeeded more than others. 

For example, Franklin D. Roosevelt had a “Grand Design” for what the post-World War II order would look like, while his successor, Harry Truman, developed the “containment doctrine” to guide us through the Cold War. 

In contrast, observers keep asking whether President Barack Obama has any grand strategy. In “Superpower,” author Ian Bremmer writes, “President Obama has the world thoroughly confused. No chief executive in decades has so evidently lacked a clear foreign policy.” 

Obama has variously been called a liberal internationalist a la Jimmy Carter (stressing the promotion of multilateralism and global institution-building, respect for human rights, and reliance mainly on soft power and diplomacy more than the use of force), a neoconservative a la George W. Bush (with his hard power use of drone strikes against terrorists), and a realist a la Rand Paul (displaying a pragmatic, cautious reluctance to get involved with boots on the ground, at times bordering on isolationism).

So how would you characterize Donald and Hillary?

If Obama has had a muddled foreign policy, Trump has been criticized for having none at all, at least none that anyone can figure out, given his penchant for talking off the top of his head and from the seat of his pants. It seems to combine some elements of  both neoconservativism, with its emphasis on American exceptionalism and unilateralism (reflected in Trump’s  constant “Make America Great Again” and “America First” references) along with a hawkish, muscular response to ISIS and terrorism; as well as realism/isolationism, with its caution against mucking around in other countries in the form of humanitarian intervention and nation-building. 

Interestingly, Trump sounds almost like Dubya pre-9/11 when, during his 2000 presidential campaign, he warned against repeating Bill Clinton’s humanitarian intervention in Kosovo or anywhere else where our core interests were not clearly at stake. 

When Trump was quoted in the July 21 New York Times that we should “fix our own mess” before interfering in the affairs of Turkey or other countries, he was essentially channeling the views of some respected analysts such as Bremmer, who recommends we adopt an “Independent America” strategy that is almost neoisolationist in its focus on repairing America first, and Richard Haass, whose “Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order” argues against overreaching abroad.

Trump rightly has been criticized for his frequent outlandish-sounding foreign policy pronouncements, although the problem arguably is more the loose language he uses than necessarily the substance of the policy itself. For example, regarding his reluctance to honor our NATO treaty commitment to defend the Baltic states should they be attacked by Russia, his comments would have come off as more reasonable had he merely said that our allies, many of whom have shirked their defense spending responsibilities, must meet their reciprocal treaty obligations.   

Trump has been called temperamentally unfit to be president, to have his finger on the nuclear trigger. 

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has her own uncertainties.

Clinton can point to her Washington experience and a stable of advisers including Madeleine Albright, Leon Panetta and other former top officials from the State and Defense departments. 

However, her four-year track record as Obama’s secretary of state is hardly a distinguished one. After all, she was a chief architect of the very foreign policy that has been considered totally incoherent. Moreover, she was the main advocate of the military intervention in Libya, a disastrous decision leading to a failed state, the spread of terrorism and the rare murder of an American ambassador. Insofar as the Obama administration has seen the increased unraveling of world order and growing chaos from the Middle East to Europe and Asia, Clinton cannot escape some degree of blame.

Her worldview seems to be grounded mostly in liberal internationalism — active U.S. leadership heavy on support for the United Nations and multilateralism, the development of international law and human rights, and foreign policy as social work aimed at doing good in relieving global poverty — although she is considerably more hawkish in disposition than Obama. Few question her toughness; indeed, her capacity for indignation may rival Trump. 

Her internationalism is compromised somewhat by her sudden shift away from free trade toward protectionism, as she has waffled on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. For the first time in memory, we may have two presidential candidates in the protectionist camp. Both candidates have professed strong support for Israel, although Trump a bit more so, especially with his condemnation of the Iran nuclear deal.

In fairness to both candidates, a clear, successful “grand strategy” is harder to formulate in a world that is far more complicated today than in the past (for example, where failed states such as Afghanistan, rogue states such as North Korea and Iran, and nonstate actors such as ISIS may pose greater threats than great-power rivals). Chances are, no matter who becomes president, his or her hands will be tied by various constraints and the complex challenges the United States faces.

It is said that, when it comes to foreign policy, politics stops at the water’s edge, meaning we should not play politics with national security. Still, we have a right to expect those who would be president to articulate and debate how they plan to steer the ship of state through treacherous straits. 

We are still waiting to hear more precisely what course they will chart.