The 2016 election cycle continues on its baffling way, but foreign policy issues have largely been neglected, with a few exceptions like ISIS. Each of the three remaining major candidates falls short in certain ways.
Allow me to summarize each candidate’s position, what I believe each lacks, and to describe the appearance and objectives of a new vision for American foreign policy.
I reviewed some key passages from each candidate’s website and came up with a short summary of their ideas:
Trump – “America first” realism:
This strategy might best be compared with what international relations scholars call “realism”, though that school has far from a monopoly on realistic proposals. Realism posits that since the world order is essentially anarchic, meaning that it has no central authority to enforce peace, states must engage in “self-help” by following national interest above all else. Because no supranational force will come and save us, we must maintain a strong military as a cornerstone of our foreign policy. Trump demonstrates this thinking:
- In his 23-second video on the military, Trump says: “I’m gonna make our military so big, so powerful, so strong that nobody, absolutely nobody, is gonna mess with us.” There’s a couple issues here, primarily that the President’s foreign policy should take longer than half a minute to describe and should consist of something more substantial than something you’d overhear at a pub. Secondly: Since Trump has frequently invoked the specter of Islamic terror, it’s important to point out that even in pre-911 2001, the USA spent $287 billion on defense. This did not stop fundamentalists from committing the 9/11 attacks. This means that even though America was and continues to be the strongest country in the world, “nobody is gonna mes with us” is a utopian fantasy. Furthermore, for fiscal year 2015, America spent $596 billion on defense. This doesn’t strike me as “weakness” on the part of the military. Military preparedness is certainly a virtue, but Trump’s saber-rattling is not.
- The virtues of Trump’s economic foreign policy are frankly not worth discussing. Suffice it to say they represent economic nationalism, exclusion, and xenophobia.
- Note that Trump’s realism is distinct from Bush’s neoconservatism, which advocates intervention in many situations as a way of spreading “democracy”. Trump seems to forgo this ideology in favor of a more basic version of national self-interest. Regardless, Trump’s bullish attitudes about military buildup are antiquated in fights against non-state actors like ISIS in which fighting smart is as important as having the biggest guns, figuratively. Of course, all of the above rests on the assumption that Trump actually has beliefs and policies, and that this whole campaign isn’t a perverse version of self-actualization for him.
Clinton – “Mixed” liberalism:
Clinton’s platform more closely resembles international relations liberalism, which in this context means a foreign policy centered around international political and economic cooperation towards greater prosperity and freedom for all, theoretically. This is evident in her website’s national security section, which includes some interesting points:
- “Create partnerships for tomorrow. Hillary believes in free peoples and free markets. As president, she’ll invest in partnerships in Latin America, Africa, and Asia with people and nations who share our values and vision for the future.” Presumably, this means Clinton will support free trade deals and more privatization. We are looking at a more liberal version of the Washington Consensus, an economic plan for the world which values free trade and free markets. However, frequently this has resulted in inequality, oppression, and stagnation in the developing world. It does not fundamentally change United States policy, which has almost always been to guarantee the existence of friendly markets, by force if necessary.
- “Engage civil society. America has the opportunity to resolve familiar conflicts and nurture new democracies; to empower moderates and marginalize extremists; and to open markets and champion human rights. From engaging students and civil leaders to broadening our development partnerships to involve our businesses, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists, Hillary knows that America’s greatest assets are our diverse citizens and the vision of fairness and openness we offer the world.” This alludes to another key tenant of international relations liberalism: The importance of non-state actors and institutions in maintaining capitalist freedom and peace. The more ominous side of this is giving authority to fundamentally undemocratic organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These financial institutions will frequently help save economies of the developing world on the condition that these economies privatize and frequently sell off state assets to wealthy corporations. Egypt and Greece recently went through this process; a Clinton presidency would probably see more of it.
- Democrats are frequently on the defensive when it comes to defense, constantly attempting to prove to the American people that they are as “tough” internationally as their Republican counterparts. This phenomenon explains the military positions on her website. These include “making sure our military is on the cutting edge”, “defeating ISIS”, and “standing up to Putin”. I have no doubt Secretary Clinton will attempt these things in office. Her term as Secretary of State was rather hawkish, especially in regards to airstrikes in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. One could make the argument that her hardline on the military is a result of sexism; that is to say, a woman gunning for the nation’s top elected office must appear especially tough when it comes to international relations. This may very well be true, but it does not fundamentally alter Clinton’s foreign policy, merely our understanding of it.
- Thus, the word “mixed” I used to describe Clinton’s liberalism refers to her belief in a combination of “soft” power economics and “hard” power military intervention and force projection.
Sanders – Liberal Cooperation and Caution:
Sanders’ policy is a little difficult to fit into the one of the schools of international relations, which are frequently descriptive rather than prescriptive. One might point to constructivism, which argues that international society is built by evolving norms of behavior, which Sanders’ caution probably seeks to build. Economic structuralism, a Marxist school of international thought, doesn’t accurate describe Sanders’ platform either: But Sanders’ “socialism” isn’t particularly Marxist or revolutionary: it stands for measured critiques of the corporate elite, the reform of capitalism, and opposition to international free trade deals and not the overthrow of the capitalist world-system. Liberalism may best serve to describe Sanders’ overall vision, which is that of peace, cooperation, and economic progress:
- Ending unliateral action: “We must move away from policies that favor unilateral military action and preemptive war, and that make the United States the de facto policeman of the world.” This is comforting to left-leaning Americans who are tired of Afghanistan, Iraq, and a variety of other conflicts which appear to have hurt us and not furthered the national interest. Critics may therefore refer to Sanders as Trump-like or isolationist. However, Sanders lays down some examples of situations in which he would advocate the use of force:
- Cautious and limited use of force: “As a member of Congress, I have supported the use of force only when it was a last resort and America’s vital interests were at stake. I opposed the first Gulf War, as did many other Members of Congress, because I believed that there was a way to achieve our goals without bloodshed, through sanctions and concerted diplomatic action. I supported the use of force to stop the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. And, in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001, I supported the use of force in Afghanistan to hunt down the terrorists who attacked us. I regret that President Bush did not use that authority properly, and that American combat troops remained there too long. I voted against the war in Iraq, and knew it was the right vote then, and most people recognize it was the right vote today. The only mission President Bush and his neo-conservative friends accomplished was to destabilize an entire region, and create the environment for al-Qaeda and ISIS to flourish.” This may be the kernel that composes a hypothetical “Sanders Doctrine”: The use of force as a last result, and only then to prevent mass murder and self-defense.
Why are these inadequate? What do we need? A shift beyond imperialism and isolationism to internationalism.
It is my opinion that the United States should focus in the long run on the improvement of the international system itself. Each of the candidates has not fundamentally addressed the root causes of the problems identified, namely, the lack of a system of global governance to solve problems individual states are unable to. It should be relatively obvious that Trump does not care about the world-system. His idea of a good world is one in which America is strong. In an increasingly interdependent world in which the borders between nation-states are dissolving, this nationalist position is as impractical as it is immoral. As for Clinton and Sanders, they seem to be focused on individual solutions to individual problems, holding out the promise of “international cooperation” as an antidote to climate change, terrorism, and trade. Though I am more sympathetic to their arguments, Sanders in particular, without a fundamentally just international system, none of these problems are solvable. Below I explain a little about our current international system, and posit some ways in which it must be reformed.
After World War II, the United States set up multiple interwoven systems to guarantee its global dominance. They include Bretton Woods, the system that regulated monetary relations globally, the IMF, the World Bank, and the United Nations. When I say “global dominance”, I do not mean to indicate that U.S. hegemony was totally negative in nature. It did allow a degree of prosperity globally, especially in U.S.-aligned states in Western Europe and Asia. However, it was a system that guaranteed the supremacy of the United States and, to a lesser extent, the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council: Britain, France, Russia, and China.
Conventional wisdom says the United States is a hegemon in decline. Regardless of the accuracy of this statement, we are certainly seeing what Fareed Zakaria describes as the “rise of the rest”, specifically the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) as well as many states in Africa. We are facing a century in which the United States will not have overwhelming authority it possessed in the past. And despite the horrible human rights abuses of the United States and its allies since 1945, I am hesitant to declare that China, the probable next hegemon, would be somehow more peaceful or responsible. A responsible world wouldn’t be bound by American or Chinese dominance. What then must we do?
The international system is changing, and the United States foreign policy apparatus should use its clout to move towards a more inclusive, just, democratic, and peaceful world order. How do we do this? A strong commitment to human rights, for one. It is difficult to speak as a moral authority when the nation is engaged in unjust wars, and the intelligence apparatus supports kleptocrats in the developing world. In the long run, we should strengthen, reform, and reshape multilateral institutions like the UN. The international system should be just and more permanent than whoever is in power.
I can’t give you specifics as to what an ideal world-system would look like. But I do know that Trump’s nationalism, and to a lesser extent the immediacy of Clinton and Sanders’ ideas, are fundamentally incapable of moving toward such a system.