international analysis and commentary

Why 2016 amounts to a battle for the future of American foreign policy


In large part because we live at the beginning of a new (multipolar) era, American foreign policy is in flux. Both the Democratic and Republican parties must come up with new answers to new questions, a particularly hard feat as almost all the decision-makers called upon to do so came of age in a time of greater relative American power. To ask them to forget the habits of a lifetime and adjust is so much easier said than done; yet that is precisely what is called for if America is to survive and thrive in this very different time of many powers.

It is through the prism of the presidential nominating process that both parties will determine their future foreign policy orientation. For the parties’ nominees set the tone for the next four years, staff their respective electoral machines, and craft an overall international relations narrative that far outlasts whoever wins or loses in 2016.

For example, perhaps the single most important election of the Cold War era occurred in 1952, when the internationalist realist Dwight D. Eisenhower saw off isolationist Senator Robert Taft in the Republican presidential primary. Ike’s win signaled that the Republicans would not repudiate outgoing Democratic President Harry Truman’s containment policy for dealing with the USSR, as Taft would have surely done. Instead, Ike adopted it, signifying containment would be the bipartisan foreign policy strategy of choice. This political miracle, more than any other single factor, turned the tide in the West’s favor in the Cold War.

But we are far from there in terms of the present, dawning multipolar age. Rather, policy fragmentation rules the day. Both parties have yet to work through and update what their overall foreign policy strategies will amount to in the new era. Before reaching the hoped-for Truman/Eisenhower moment, both have to engage in intellectual civil wars within their ranks – through the 2016 primary process – to first formulate their party’s overall foreign policy response.

For the Democrats, the seemingly simple coronation of Hillary Clinton masks a more complex foreign policy changing of the guard. Despite the fact that she served as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State – and despite the fact that she largely agrees with his liberal domestic policies – over foreign affairs, Ms. Clinton and the President do not share the same foreign policy school of thought.

In defiance of his party, which retains its longstanding Wilsonian tilt, Barack Obama has governed as a closet realist. Above all, in classical realist terms, he has tried to tailor America’s foreign policy initiatives to the new structural realities of the world, which find America still Chairman of the Global Board, but a Chairman with less power than in yesteryear as new (and rising) board members such as China and India sit at the table. As such, the President has tried to avoid entanglement in any more debilitating wars (fighting Assad in Syria), rejecting costly and often-fruitless nation building (Libya), and limiting what military involvement has been forced upon him (Iraq).

Instead, the goal has been to nail down a nuclear deal with Iran – bringing it in from the cold, as just another of the five regional powers (Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt) – facilitating America doing less in the thankless Middle East, instead functioning as an offshore balancer and far-away custodian of this evolving, new regional balance of power. Throw in the fact that America has turned over the Ukraine crisis to Ms. Merkel, functioning instead in a supporting role, and you have a significant US pullback from both the Middle East and Europe.

This strategic drawdown is a vital part of the “Pivot to Asia” strategy. The White House has focused on the region where much of new, future global growth and future political risk will come from, and where America’s only possible long-term rival (China) resides. Doing more there strategically – in terms of trade deals such as the Tans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as well as in military terms with willing allies such as India, Japan, and Australia – makes eminent sense if America is to maintain its global position. Yet this realist view is one far from the mainstream of the Democratic Party.

However, Hillary Clinton is far more of a garden-variety Wilsonian (if a tough incarnation) and more in tune with the Democratic Party over foreign policy than Obama ever has been. She would be tougher with Russia, advocating arming the Ukrainians. She would have armed the Syrian rebels, and would urge the US to play a more active role in the overall Middle East crisis.

She would hector the European allies – for in the best Wilsonian spirit she desires a true multilateral alliance – to do far more militarily, to spend some real money on their defense budgets as a matter of course, and to work with (and be far more involved with) America across the board. All of this may certainly not be music to the ears of an inward-looking Europe, but it is entirely in line with longstanding Wilsonian thinking. Hillary’s coronation means the Democrats will abandon their experiment with realism and revert to their default Wilsonian position.

And even that political complexity is dwarfed by the pie-fight coming in the Republican Party, where one of any six possible candidates could emerge from the pack (Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Chris Christie). Yet lurking under all this tumult, basically the two traditional schools of thought in the GOP – neo-conservatism and realism – will again be competing for the soul of the party.

If Jeb (for all his tortured, confused, and conflicting loyalty to both his realist father and neoconservative brother) emerges or Paul triumphs, realism of a sort will likely guide the party. While American greatness and American exceptionalism would be professed, at base there would be a tacit acceptance that the world has changed, calamities like the Iraq war simply cannot be repeated by an America with less margin for strategic error, and more actual choices would have to be made about when and how to be involved in the world.

In contrast, victory for Walker, Rubio, Cruz, or Christie means the same old neocon advisors, peddling the same old “always intervene” policies. Obama will be flayed for being too weak and thus denigrating American power, and the US must stand strong (whatever that means), and intervene against evil around the world as it finds it. To put it mildly, there will be a gigantic intellectual and strategic difference if a realist or a neocon wins the GOP nomination, which in some ways is the most important political event of the year for the future of overall American foreign policy.

Two disturbing facts clearly emerge from this foreign policy analysis based on contrasting schools of thought. First, given the Democrats are about to re-embrace Wilsonianism and the GOP – whatever way it lurches – is not, there is no foreseeable Truman/Eisenhower moment on the horizon; we are still nowhere near a bipartisan foreign policy strategy for the multipolar era.

Secondly, both Wilsonianism and neo-conservatism – if they dominate the two major parties after the primary season – have little to say about the world we actually live in today, dwelling as they are in a past where America simply had more global power than it presently does. For both schools of thought assume at base that America can largely do as it pleases – Wilsonians may try to charm allies to join its policy initiatives just as neocons feel they can bully them along – but both assume it is America, and America alone, that mostly calls the shots.

Only realism sees the difficult reality ahead; that the world’s basic power dynamic has changed. While America is the greatest of all the powers, much that happens in the world is beyond its control; there are other forces in the world – China, Russia, India, even Iran – which also have the ability to affect what happens. Unless American foreign policy faces up to this seminal mistake about the fundamental nature of the world, its foreign policy strategy is doomed to fail. 


See also:

Hillary Clinton e la politica mediorientale” L’Indro, 22 aprile 2015
Intervista a Roberto Menotti sulle prospettive sul Medio Oriente di un’eventuale Amministrazione Clinton