BY BEN MARCHMAN
This election year has proven beyond a doubt that whoever said elections were boring obviously has not been keeping up with the roller coaster that is the 2016 election year. From the meteoric rise of Donald Trump towards the position of presumed Republican nominee, to the continual battle between Democratic contenders Clinton and Sanders, this election cycle has been a complete roller coaster. Now that we have finally whittled down the contenders for commander-in-chief, it may be a good time to take a step back and examine where each candidate stands on the future of American foreign policy. The President of the United States holds enormous power in deciding the future of America’s foreign relations, and so knowledgeable voters must carefully consider the experience, policy agenda, and future challenges facing these candidates.
Many voters are keen to dismiss Trump’s statements as bombastic and racist, but it is important to remember that Trump now stands as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Unlike Clinton and Sanders, Trump comes from outside of the political world. This point is a popular one that has garnered him support from many voters, but may actually harm his foreign policy credentials. Trump has never written laws dealing with foreign policy, nor has he been to the over 100 countries that Clinton has traveled to as Secretary of State. However, Trump argues that his international experience comes from business dealings, boasting that “I probably have more experience than virtually anybody looking at this office.” However, this business experience is irrelevant when managing the entire U.S. military and foreign policy apparatus.
Trump’s foreign policy goals have lacked specificity, but he does present a worldview in which the United States must remain “unpredictable,” and yet somehow coherently interact with other nations. In a New York Times interview in March, Trump seemed to gloss over many of the questions about this so-called unpredictability. To add further confusion, in a later foreign policy speech, Trump seemed instead to advocate for a simultaneously coherent yet somehow unpredictable foreign policy. These two goals seem to be largely at odds with one another. How can America be both unpredictable in foreign policy and yet promote coherency? Here, Trump’s lack of experience in terms of designing foreign policy is clear. In an increasingly interconnected world, an unpredictable foreign policy will only cause unnecessary confusion and conflict among international actors — a fact that plays a key role in how other nations will continue to work with the United States in the future.
Lacking concrete foreign policy goals will make international relations even tougher. No country wants to work with an unpredictable ally who may or may not keep their word and choose when to support mutual objectives. Trump’s lack of specificity when answering questions about spying on allies and the use of nuclear weapons may engender trepidation in world leaders. Take German Chancellor Angela Merkel for example. What incentive is there to continue to work with a country–the president of which– has not condemned the NSA for tapping Merkel’s private cellphone? Unpredictability may be useful against enemies, but it does not help assure allies of the United States’ resolve. Overall, Trump’s foreign policy suffers from a problem of oversimplification. Although his worldview is not necessarily uninformed, Trump’s lack of specificity in relation to foreign policy — coupled with the strain this vagueness puts on allies — makes Trump’s plans for American foreign policy weak at best.
Clinton’s foreign policy record appears to be unmatched by any other candidate seeking the U.S. Presidency. Clinton served as U.S. Secretary of State from 2009 until 2013 under President Obama. In this position, Clinton traveled to over 100 countries and logged a whopping 956,733 total miles. Clinton has also had extensive experience within the U.S. foreign policy sphere, both as Secretary of State and as a senator from New York. What will harm Clinton’s foreign policy credentials is not her lack of experience in foreign policy, but rather her blunders. The dark shadow of Benghazi still hangs over her foreign policy credentials. And, of course, Clinton and Obama take some blame for the destabilization in the Middle East as a result of U.S. intervention in Libya and other countries.
This identification with Obama’s foreign policy is both Clinton’s strength and, ultimately, her weakness. Not only is it hard to distinguish the differences between Obama’s and Clinton’s policies, but where differences do exist, Clinton seems far more militaristic. It has been widely reported that, while Obama wanted to take a far less militaristic approach in Libya, then-Secretary Clinton argued for a no-fly zone and all-out military intervention. By being attached to Obama’s foreign policies, Clinton has both benefitted from his successes and been hurt by his failures. Clinton’s foreign policy appears to be nothing more than “business as usual.” According to Clinton’s website, her main foreign policy goals are combatting ISIS, supporting Obama’s Iran deal, and strengthening American power. These objectives seem fairly standard, and reinforce this notion that Clinton and Obama’s foreign policy aligns far too closely.
If Clinton is to inherit Obama’s foreign policy legacy, then she may also inherit his foreign rivals. Russia has long decried continued NATO expansion into Eastern Europe. Over the course of Obama’s tenure, Russia’s relationship with the United States has soured. Russian foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Mikheev sees Clinton as a potential continuation and even a ratcheting up of U.S. aggression towards Russia. In fact, Russia has largely been receptive to Trump’s promise to reconsider NATO’s cost to the United States. Continuing Obama’s policies could be a positive thing for his fans, but for many foreign leaders Clinton seems to be a more aggressive Obama that would only force international confrontation. Clinton, who no doubt has differing views than the President, has not fully articulated the ways in which her foreign policy will be radically different from Obama’s. This lack of clarity may help Clinton with Democrats in the U.S., but leaders abroad anxiously await
Sanders seems to in some ways fall in the vastness between Trump and Clinton. As a congressman and now as a twenty-five-year senator from Vermont, Sanders has without a doubt experienced the United States’ foreign policy establishment firsthand — though not as much experience as Clinton had as Secretary of State. However, Sanders still has considerably more background dealing with foreign policy issues than Trump. Unlike Trump, Sanders has actually voted on key foreign policy issues such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What Sanders suffers from is not a lack of foreign policy credentials, but rather a lack of policy focus.
Sanders’ website centers on an American foreign policy that uses diplomacy rather than military force to resolve conflicts abroad, all the while keeping Iran free of nuclear weapons, and keeping the United States out of the world’s affairs. If these goals sound almost like they came from Trump, it’s because he and Sanders suffer from the same vagueness in terms of foreign policy. Sanders also appears to subscribe to a worldview shared by Obama: eschewing simplistic military solutions in favor of a more complex understanding of global problems. For many Americans tired of seemingly constant war, this is an important divergence from previously unilateral U.S. foreign policy, which saw American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and destabilize the Middle East. However, for world leaders and foreign policy scholars alike, this shift shows a certain lack of understanding about foreign policy and vagueness rather than a concrete stance. Much like Trump, Sanders seems to rely on the idea that a strengthened America means one that takes a step back from world affairs. If we consider the ways in which our world is increasingly interconnected, a foreign policy that advocates for withdrawing from this arena will only hurt American power.
Trump and Sanders’ vagueness in regards to details about the of future of U.S. foreign policy only puts dangerous uncertainty in the minds of world leaders. Countries in Eastern Europe and NATO members rely on U.S. military and financial support as means of preventing Russian aggression. Choosing to rely on diplomacy rather than the vast military and financial resources America possesses will certainly not comfort those allies who rely on an engaged American foreign policy.There remains time, of course, for each candidate to further lay out their respective plans for foreign policy. As Election Day draws nearer,American citizens must think carefully about each candidate’s view of America’s international role. Both Sanders and Trump seem to desire an America that can be both strong yet isolationists. These contrasting worldviews only cause more uncertainty and make American foreign policy unpredictable both to its own citizens and to allies and enemies alike. Clinton, on the other hand, seems bent on continuing Obama’s foreign policy with an added militaristic bent. This may comfort some allies who fear an isolationist or unpredictable U.S., but could also force America into a confrontation with other nations such as Russia and China. Who we elect this November will decide the path of U.S. foreign policy for the next four to eight years (and potentially beyond) as well as our status within the international system.