Last week, this author dissected the foreign policy of presumed Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump. This week, it is Hillary Clinton’s turn, since she is the likely Democratic nominee.
Hillary Clinton presents an interesting phenomenon when it comes to examining her professed—and practiced—foreign policy. For starters, she is a Democrat. In American politics, that places her squarely within the party that often comes down on the side of “peace,” and in favor of diplomacy over military action. Often, but not always. After all, Democratic presidents have attempted to overthrow governments (Cuba), have escalated wars (Vietnam), and have supported armed interventions (Libya). So, perhaps that is an antiquated view of the American left.
Despite being a Democrat, Mrs. Clinton is often referred to as a “hawk,” usually by Republicans or more left-leaning Democrats, seeking to disparage her. This is an accurate label, as far as this author is concerned. Mrs. Clinton has, after all, advocated armed regime change (in Libya and Iraq), and more often than not, has reportedly come down on the side of military action in debates within the Obama administration foreign-policy team. Calling her a “hawk” is not unfair.
If we are seeking to clarify her views on foreign policy, though, we must first stipulate that being labeled a Democratic “hawk” does not imply the same thing as being called a “hawk” within the Republican party. And, of course, neither of those labels is the same as “aggressive isolationist,” along the lines of Donald J. Trump, the current GOP nominee.
Therefore, comparisons and labels are probably not the most illustrative way to examine Mrs. Clinton’s foreign policy. Instead, let us simply lay those policies out as they are put forward by Mrs. Clinton herself, on her website, just like we did for Mr. Trump.
Mrs. Clinton should be properly labeled an “idealist” when it comes to her professed foreign policy. Idealism, as opposed to realism in international relations, essentially entails projecting one’s “principles” or “values” on foreign-policy goals. Therefore, Mrs. Clinton, for example, pushes for LGBT and gender rights across the globe, according to her website, even though those ideals might not mesh well with the internal policies of some of our strongest allies. A realist would probably say, on the other hand, that we need Saudi Arabia as an ally, so America should ignore its policies on gays and women as long as the country remains a strategic ally.
Mrs. Clinton is also a staunch believer in alliances with other nations, which meshes well with her foreign-policy idealism. Hers is not so much a call for hard-nosed strategic alliances based on shared interests, but rather, a call to engage in “partnerships” across the globe, with people and nations who share “our values and vision for the future.”
Now, this author is not so naive as to assume that Mrs. Clinton is peering through a completely idealistic lens in this call for strengthened alliances. There is also a touch of realism here, perhaps dressed up in idealism to some degree, to appeal to the more dovish, liberal wing of the Democratic party. Either way, Mrs. Clinton calls for strengthened alliances across the globe, which this author sees as a net positive.
An idealist, truly?
Herein, though, lies a bit of an open secret about Mrs. Clinton’s foreign-policy proposals formulated for the current presidential campaign, versus the reality of the policies she has actually supported in the past: Mrs. Clinton may profess an idealistic set of foreign-policy goals, but she has often supported and put forward approaches that can only be accurately called “neoconservative.”
Neoconservatives—more commonly called “neocons”—practice a more muscular form of idealism in foreign policy, in which they often advocate for the military overthrow of illiberal regimes, followed by the rebuilding of those same countries and regimes to mirror Western democracies. One can put forward Japan and Germany as successful examples of this approach. Both of those vanquished totalitarian regimes were defeated through total war, and were then remade from whole cloth into liberal democracies.
Examples of more recent attempts at this type of foreign policy include Libya and Iraq. Things have obviously not gone quite as well (so far) in the latter two examples. Optimists would say, give it time. Those against neoconservatism (including most realists) would say, we should never devote so much blood and treasure to nation-building. Instead, America should deal with the world the way it finds it, not the way we want it to be.
Coming back to Mrs. Clinton, while her professed foreign policy for the 2016 campaign is one built on idealism and international engagement based on principles and values, her record shows a more hawkish approach, closer to neoconservatism. Who is to say which direction she will lean, if elected? Her record would suggest that she will lean toward neoconservatism, but her constituency (and mandate, should she win) will likely drive her toward a more restrained, yet still-idealistic policy. Kind of murky, huh?
Other foreign-policy issues
As far as specific issues with respect to her national-security strategy, Mrs. Clinton name-drops a few of the current “hot topics” in the foreign-policy world. She calls for defeating ISIS, for example, as well as “global terrorism” writ large, and the ideologies that drive it. One can assume this includes al-Qaeda; though, like Donald Trump, she fails to name the group on her website, even though it is responsible for far more American deaths than ISIS.
Mrs. Clinton also calls for preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and for protecting Israel. These seem like no-brainers, and indeed, Mrs. Clinton has been strongly pro-Israel for many years. Cynics would say this started when she ran for the Senate from New York. Regardless, she consistently takes a pro-Israel stance.
As far as Iran is concerned, although she calls for preventing it from acquiring nuclear weapons, one can assume that Mrs. Clinton would not tear up the Iran nuclear deal as Mr. Trump has promised to do. One can realistically expect more constructive engagement with the Iranians if Mrs. Clinton is elected, along the same road the Obama administration has traveled the last few years.
Standing up to Putin and holding China accountable
Mrs. Clinton’s stances with regards to China and Russia are more nuanced, and probably prudently so. She calls for containing and deterring Russian aggression (“standing up to Putin”), and for encouraging China to play a responsible role in Asia and across the world.
In other words, Mrs. Clinton sees Russia as a dangerous regional bully looking to throw its weight around, and that it must be contained and kept in its box. She views China as a rising strategic competitor that must be managed with a more gentle touch, and not prodded into an imprudent and costly military conflict. These are smart policies.
“Adapt to the world of tomorrow”
Finally, as far as her specific national-security policy goals, Mrs. Clinton addresses cyber security as a primary threat, as well as climate change, and outbreaks of various dangerous diseases. Experts can (and will) quibble over the degree of focus each of these may or may not deserve, but the overarching point is that Mrs. Clinton seeks global engagement on these and many other issues. Her approach is sure to be multilateral and international, in most instances.
This type of internationalist approach to issues is in keeping with Mrs. Clinton’s professed foreign-policy idealism. She clearly seeks to maintain America’s leadership role in the world, and to shape global affairs through an assertive foreign policy. While she states that she will do this based on values and principles, one can also expect that she will inject healthy doses of realism into the mix, when necessary.
The danger lies, as far as this author is concerned, in Mrs. Clinton giving in to her more neoconservative instincts. That would cost more American lives and money, as recent history has shown. In short, can we expect the neocon President Clinton, or the idealist President Clinton?
Time may or may not tell.