This is the second in a two-part series that considers what U.S. foreign policy might look like when President Barack Obama has left the White House. This piece considers the direction of U.S. foreign policy should the leading Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, become the next president, in terms of her articulated vision of America’s role in the world, national security and international economics, and the difficulty of staying within the boundaries of her predecessors during a time of rapid world change.
A former first lady, senator, and secretary of state, Hilary Clinton is easily the most experienced candidate on foreign policy. Also, as Obama’s first secretary of state, Clinton has positioned herself as continuing what she sees as his foreign policy successes, for which she also claims some credit. However, she distanced herself from Obama even before announcing her candidacy, noting in an Atlantic interview in 2014 that “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Her view of America’s position in the world is based on a comfort with the use of American power that places her firmly in the neoconservative camp. She conceives of using American military might not only for regime change, but as an enabler to a long global strategy of containment of jihadism perhaps reminiscent of Paul Nitze’s NSC-68. In her book Hard Choices, she characterizes the United States as the “indispensable nation,” noting that “While there are few problems in today’s world that the U.S. can solve alone, there are even fewer that can be solved without the U.S.” In an effort to highlight her own experience while drawing a distinction between herself and her opponents, Clinton has also maintained she would be “ready on day one” to be president.
While she has touted her judgment and experience, her opponents have claimed her record shows just the opposite. Sen. Bernie Sanders, her opponent for the Democratic nomination, has noted repeatedly that as a senator, Clinton voted to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 while he did not, citing her vote as evidence of poor judgment. Her Republican opponents have linked her to every Obama foreign policy misstep, real or imagined, especially on the Middle East, whether it be her role on Benghazi, the Iran nuclear deal, or U.S. policy toward ISIL and the Syrian conflict. As the favorite going into the campaign, it is unsurprising that Clinton has been attacked from both the Left (too willing to use military power) and the Right (not willing to use enough military power). For her part, she has pushed back strongly, arguing that no other candidate is prepared for the foreign policy crises and challenges that come with the presidency, and decrying the harsh rhetoric employed by Republican front-runner Trump, as well as the repeated incivility of the Republican debates and campaign events.
As is always the case with any candidate who has a long history of public service that includes several high-level jobs, Clinton has a nuanced record with multiple contrasting positions on various issues. For example, she voted to authorize military force in Iraq in 2002, criticized President George W. Bush’s handling of that war in 2006, supported the surge of American forces to Afghanistan in 2009, proposed a plan to arm Syrian rebels in 2012, and then admitted in 2014 that her war vote was a mistake. She consistently values the utility of military force, while placing it within the framework of “smart power,” Joseph Nye’s seminal notion of using hard power (military force and coercive diplomacy) and soft power (cultural attraction and influence) together. However, as a former secretary of state, she also extols the value of diplomacy, in particular the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran, and long-standing alliance structures like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
As the candidate most associated with Wall Street, it is probably not surprising that Clinton has long favored free trade and an open international economic system, positions desired by major American corporations. An important portion of the Democratic base, however, are working-class voters, some in unions, who equate free-trade agreements with lost American jobs. Historically, Clinton has attempted to straddle this Democratic divide, having supported the North American Free Trade Agreement, approved during her husband Bill Clinton’s presidency, but opposing the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement in 2005. Although she shifted to a more protectionist position on free trade during her time in the Senate and her first run for the Democratic nomination in 2008, as secretary of state she championed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, suggesting that it would be the “gold standard” for multinational trade deals. The unexpected success of Sanders, whose left-wing populism has resonated with more progressive Democratic voters, appears to have prompted Clinton to modify her position on the TPP, which she now opposes, arguing since October 2015 that she did “absorb new information” to conclude that the TPP will not create new jobs or higher wages for American workers.
In my first piece, I considered the future direction of U.S. foreign policy should the leading Republican candidate, Donald J. Trump, become the next president. Since then, Trump announced a relatively unknown team of foreign policy advisers, and raised the specter of both first use of nuclear weapons (antithetical to traditional U.S. nuclear policy) and support for selective nuclear proliferation. I have argued that Trump would find it very difficult to achieve what he has called for, noting that the constitutional structure of the American system of government does not allow one individual or branch of government to be too powerful. Likewise, Clinton would be stymied from making major changes to American foreign policy, as Republicans control the Congress and will likely still control at least the House of Representatives following the 2016 elections, even if she can win the White House. Clinton has the second-highest unfavorable rating of all of the candidates, exceeded only by Trump. Her poor rating is based on a deep dislike harbored by many Republicans. Thus, although she sports a massive team of foreign policy advisers drawn from the inner circle of the Democratic Party, ensuring that her positions going forward will be sophisticated, consistent and mainstream, any major initiatives she would try to push through would surely face fierce opposition by Congressional Republicans. Clinton does not pose a demagogue problem like Trump nor is she a reincarnation of Bill Clinton or Obama. She would, however, try to keep American foreign policy within the boundaries set by her last three predecessors. As terrorism, the rebirth of great power politics, intellectual property theft, and climate change will all likely challenge the next American president, the playbook used by the last three presidents may not be enough.
*The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, Department of Defense, or U.S. government.