America’s mainstream media, ever attracted to the splashy rather than the serious, has a new topic to occupy the time until Election Day: President Trump. What will he do first? How will he translate his hazy “America First” theme into policy? Who will be in his inner circle? (Specifically, will he appoint people who really know something about foreign affairs?) There’s just so much room for playful speculation about Donald Trump that something important has been lost sight of: He’s going to lose—big time, as Trump would say.
So let’s get real: We need to be thinking about another Clinton presidency. Granted, it’s early, but then again, we already know a good deal about Hillary Clinton’s perspectives on the world, the advisers she relies on, and the policies she advocated while secretary of state. We also know she is not going to simply carry on where Barack Obama left off. In fact, on some important foreign-policy matters, we may look back nostalgically on Obama’s record.
Like Obama, Hillary Clinton is a liberal internationalist and a strong believer in American exceptionalism, meaning she is convinced that the world looks to America for leadership, that US involvement everywhere is unavoidable as well as desirable, that US-based multinational corporations are a positive force for global development, and that the US should be ready to commit force in support of humanitarian ideals and American values—but not necessarily in accordance with US or international laws—as much as because of concrete strategic interests. It’s the traditional marriage of realism and idealism that we find in every president (though a Trump presidency would drop the idealism). But each president, as Henry Kissinger once said, inclines somewhat to one side or the other, and in Hillary Clinton’s case, she is more the realist than Obama—more prepared, that is, to commit US power, unilaterally if she believes necessary, in support of a very broad conception of national security.
When Hillary Clinton was a presidential candidate, she strongly criticized George W. Bush’s unilateralism, penchant for resorting to force over diplomacy, and rejection of international treaties on nuclear nonproliferation and climate change. But her proposed alternative—restoring US leadership—was not really a departure at all: “To reclaim our proper place in the world, the United States must be stronger, and our policies must be smarter. The next president will have a moment of opportunity to restore America’s global standing and convince the world that America can lead once again.” After listing the multitude of threats facing the US, Clinton proclaimed: “We must return to a pragmatic willingness to look at the facts on the ground and make decisions based on evidence rather than ideology.” Yet later in the same essay Clinton cited the need to couple pragmatism with promotion of American “values that our founders embraced as universal,” precisely the language that Condoleezza Rice was using.
In the name of “smart power,” Clinton at that time spoke confidently about withdrawing US forces from Iraq, “stabilizing” the Middle East, and creating the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian accord. But she also thought it would be possible to “win” the war on terrorism and, with a greater military effort in Afghanistan and cooperation from Pakistan, defeat terrorists there. She took a hard line on Iran, proposing incentives only if Iran renounced support of terrorism and ended its nuclear-weapons program. On the other hand, she was hopeful about engaging Russia and finding common ground with China, setting a positive example on lowering carbon emissions, promoting deeper international collaboration on energy, and pressing governments on equal rights for women. Thus, she concluded, if the US can live up to its ideals, “we can make America great again.” Sound familiar?
As secretary of state, Clinton often took positions contrary to those she had taken while campaigning. As is well known, during the Obama administration’s early debate over how to support anti-Assad fighters in Syria, Clinton wanted to arm the rebels and establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria. Later, she would criticize Obama for not acting decisively, arguing that he left the field open for ISIS and enabled Assad to remain in power. But to Obama, ever mindful of George W. Bush’s downfall, Hillary’s hawkishness violated his cardinal rule: “Don’t do stupid shit.” But he did do “stupid shit” in Libya after the overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi, intervening on the unwise advice of Hillary Clinton, who saw democratic potential in a few of the feuding factions that are still feuding today. Clinton also sided with the Pentagon in urging more troops in Afghanistan and a residual force in Iraq, drawing “likes” from defense secretary Robert Gates. She urged against inducements to Russia and advocated a hard line on North Korea.
Writing in 2013 on Hillary’s legacy as secretary of state, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution stated that though Hillary “cannot claim a signature accomplishment,” she can claim responsibility for the US “pivot” of naval and air power to East Asia, her “work with European leaders to hammer out tighter sanctions on Iran and a new missile defense strategy that would provide greater protection against ballistic missiles while antagonizing Russia less.” But are these success stories? The “pivot” to Asia was the starting point of China’s uncompromising stance on the disputed South China Sea islands. Pushing for tighter sanctions on Iran only obstructed the difficult path to a nuclear accord. And missile defense (against Iran) seems like quite a waste against a nonexistent threat.
Another observer writes that “Clinton does not seem particularly eager to continue Obama’s rapprochement with Iran and has generally adopted a tougher line on Iranian policies in the region.” But not tougher, this writer continues, when it comes to Saudi Arabia: “Clinton might thus represent an opportunity for some marginal gains in U.S.-Saudi relations; she seems to have a greater appreciation for the value of relations with Saudi Arabia than Obama.” Being too quick to use sanctions against Iran and too willing to cozy up to an unfaithful Saudi ally—not to mention maintaining the usual US support of Israel—leave no room for creating a new Middle East paradigm.
What may most fundamentally separate Clinton from Obama are his much touted doubt and caution. When Obama retreated from imposing his “red line” on Syria’s chemical weapons, he was reportedly motivated by lack of clear support from the US public, Congress, and some allies such as Germany and Britain, and by concerns that air strikes would not only fail to accomplish the job of destroying the chemical facilities but might suck the US into another long-term fight. As Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview reports, Obama endured shock and criticism among his inner circle and abroad for deciding at the last minute not to attack, thus supposedly hurting US “credibility.” But to this day he’s convinced he made the right choice. Hillary Clinton evidently would have gone ahead, not just in order to preserve US credibility and out of belief in the efficacy of military power, but perhaps also because of “pressure to exaggerate her foreign policy experience to establish her ‘toughness’ in the foreign policy arena” (Regina Lawrence and Melody Rose, Hillary Clinton’s Race for the White House, 2010, p. 74).
In short, Hillary is an armchair warrior, to the right of Trump when it comes to international entanglements. Some leading conservatives who have come out against Trump, such as Eliot Cohen, the hawkish former State Department official under George W. Bush, consider Clinton the superior choice in foreign policy precisely because she “believes in the old [realist-idealist] consensus and will take tough lines on China and, increasingly, Russia” and may well return to supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. There is every reason to believe he’s right, not only because Hillary Clinton has said she believes in that consensus, but also because her views closely match those of her husband, another liberal internationalist whom she has already told us will be a key economic adviser if she is elected. Indeed, most of Hillary’s top advisers are holdovers from Bill Clinton’s administration, virtually guaranteeing no major departures from traditional foreign-policy commitments and principles.
What to make, then, of her emphasis years ago on energy and environmental cooperation, improvement of relations with China and Russia, and concern about global poverty? What about dramatic reductions in nuclear weapons and the military budget, and raising the profile of human rights in the conduct of foreign policy? These are worthy elements of a progressive agenda, but Clinton has had very little to say about them during the current campaign. Will they be priorities in her administration, or will she fall prey to cowgirl diplomacy?
My sense is that we have reason to doubt how much Hillary Clinton has learned from events in Syria, as well as from her vote to authorize war in Iraq and her lack of faith in engaging Iran. That doubt leads me to think she will respond incautiously and perhaps audaciously to provocative developments such as China’s military construction in the South China Sea, incidents between Russian and US forces along Russia’s western border, North Korea’s expanding nuclear weapon arsenal, and ISIS advances in Libya. She will also have to address a potentially even more dangerous phenomenon: the deeply disturbing popularity of the far right all across Europe (France, Austria, Hungary, Greece) as well as in Israel and here at home. Fascism will be a serious challenge for the next president. We’ll see how all this plays out soon enough.