international analysis and commentary

Why a crisis lies ahead for American foreign policy


It is not too early to think through what sort of foreign policies the two would be likely to run if they were to enter the White House. One thing is for sure: the relatively quiet, steady, realist Obama years are about to be superseded by a more activist US foreign policy of either the left or the right. In either case, I predict Obama’s closet realist foreign policy will be judged relatively kindly by history. For strikingly, a serious international crisis awaits the winner of the November election, regardless of the victor. 

The subtle problem with Hillary

Over foreign policy, Clinton can be seen as a garden variety Wilsonian, while the current White House espouses a form of realism. Wilsonians can be characterised as more hawkish, being inclined to use force when an international coalition can be assembled, often for humanitarian purposes, and when the international community generally backs the use of such force. Realists tend to be more cautious, arguing force should only be used to further specific American national interests, being perpetually worried that foreign over-commitments — often not based on furthering specific American interests — actually dilutes American power over time.

Indeed, regarding specific foreign policy issues, Secretary of State Clinton proved herself predictably more interventionist than her boss. Early on, she favoured western efforts to topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, even as the White House worried about what would come after him. Likewise, Secretary Clinton has long been for leaving a significant residual American military force in Afghanistan (she also favoured doing the same in Iraq), a point of view the Obama administration only reluctantly agreed to recently (in October 2015), following Taliban gains in Kunduz.

Clinton has also advocated a greater American role in Syria — stressing that the US should establish no-fly zones near the Turkish-Syrian border and more seriously train Syrian rebels — while President Obama has tried mightily hard to keep America out of the bloody and intractable Syrian civil war. In a rare direct criticism of the President, Secretary Clinton said in 2014 that the failure to help non-Islamist Syrian rebels fight the Assad government had left a ‘big vacuum’ for ISIS and other jihadists to fill there. She also favours sending arms to the Ukrainian government, and generally wants Europe and America (she has chided the Europeans publicly on this score) to be far tougher with President Putin of Russia than the Obama administration has been prepared to be.

Another major foreign policy disagreement centers on the Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement (TPP) negotiated between the White House and major American allies ringing the Pacific Rim. The deal amounts to the most important free trade initiative in decades, as countries representing up to 40% of all global trade are involved. It is a signature policy initiative in the Obama administration’s overall ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy, designed to re-focus American might in the area of the world growing at by far the fastest rate, but one where political risks are increasing with the emergence of China as a great power. Although Secretary Clinton helped negotiate the pact, fearful of Sanders on her left and of increasing, vocal opposition within the Democratic Party to free trade in general, she has come out against this central plank of Obama’s foreign policy.

Given these specific policy positions there is danger ahead for the Western alliance. A President Clinton will say to a Europe hard-pressed merely to survive, ‘We are with you, share your values and want to work ever more closely with you. So now up your defence spending, let’s get far more involved strategically in Ukraine and Syria, take in those refugees, and let’s stabilise the world together.’ Of course, this is absolutely the last thing European leaders wish to hear, and is a hallmark of the dangers of utopian, Wilsonian thinking. Then when Europe fails to act, the West will have a fully blownalliance crisis on its hands.

The obvious problem with Trump

Trump’s actual foreign policy positions, which put him at odds with the Republican Party establishment, have not politically hurt him so far. Many rank-and-file Republicans do not share the pro-free trade, free market ideology that dominates the party’s upper echelons. As such, Trump describing the Obama White House’s just concluded TPP as a bad deal for Americans, has passed without internal controversy.

For Republicans in general, the key foreign policy questions are: How does their candidate project strength in foreign affairs, while avoiding another Iraq? And what is the new way to appear prudently hawkish? These questions could become the key to the Republican nomination. An early June 2015 Pew survey found that foreign policy was front and center for Republican primary voters. Lumped together, foreign policy, national security and terrorism recently became the number one concern of such voters, with 57% of them wanting a more aggressive approach than President Obama has provided.

Trump’s general foreign policy criticism of the Obama administration is that it has failed at the operational level. Weak negotiating skills have allowed China to ride roughshod over America in terms of economics, Iran in terms of the recently concluded nuclear accord, and Mexico in terms of immigration. As an extremely well-known businessman, Trump vows to upend all this, negotiating tough terms with Mexico (including the rather incredible claim that he can persuade the Mexican government to pay for a wall to keep their countrymen out of America), China (especially regarding what he sees as Beijing’s manipulation of the yuan), and Russia (some sort of geopolitical accommodation can be worked out to America’s advantage with the Kremlin).

In essence, Trump is offering the party a protectionist, nativist, anti-immigration, anti-free trade, unilateralist foreign policy, usually the preserve of merely the Jacksonian minority of the Republican Party. However, given his shocking success since declaring for the presidency, these historically minority views within the party must be taken very seriously. Frankly, given his boorish style as well as the radical content of his foreign policy, a Trump victory would surely signal the end of the Western alliance, leaving the world a multipolar jungle where every power would be forced to fend entirely and narrowly for itself.

The strong likelihood is that in terms of global political risk, the West itself will be the world’s main problem into the medium term. With America about to make a shuddering shift in its overall foreign policy orientation, the Western alliance will come under a strain such as it has not experienced since its founding. In the words of the great Bette Davis in the classic movie, All About Eve, ‘Fasten your seat-belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.’