A Pendulum Swing on Foreign Policy? Not So Fast

May 23, 2016

Just as Donald Trump clinches the Republican nomination for president, I, an avid French observer of U.S. politics, look back on this campaign and last August already feels like a decade ago. Like many others, I could not have envisioned back then that a white, male eccentric billionaire turned reality TV star would rob the nomination from five U.S. senators, nine governors, one African-American neurosurgeon, and one female ex-CEO.

Nor could I have realized then that most of the foreign policy positions developed by the 10 main candidates during the first debates would by now have vanished. At the time, watching from a European capital famous for its opposition to Bush’s Iraq war, I could only take note of the fact that neoconservatism was making a comeback. Out of 17 candidates competing to become the next GOP nominee, 13 of them indulged in interventionist rhetoric — with the notable exceptions of libertarian Rand Paul and sovereigntist Ted Cruz, as well as two political neophytes Donald Trump and Ben Carson. All would-be frontrunners for this race — Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and even Chris Christie — belonged to the big-military, big-surveillance interventionist camp. Their views and rhetoric were right on target: According to a July 2015 Pew Research Center poll, 53 percent of Americans said that President Obama was “not tough enough” on foreign policy, an increase of 12 points since his re-election in 2012.

Indeed, there appeared to be a full-speed pendulum swing away from President Obama’s strategic restraint: Washington was buzzing with think tank reports and expert analyses, from the left and the right, criticizing the administration’s international positions on Putin and Eastern Europe, ISIL, and the Syrian civil war. Up until Jeb Bush’s series of single-digit scores and Marco Rubio’s crushing defeat in Florida, I would have bet anyone that the U.S. foreign policy of the next administration was bound to renew a more unilateralist and expansive use of force, somewhat reminiscent of the George W. Bush era.

And yet, as the primaries are coming to a close, it is undeniable that the Reagan-esque interventionist Bush-Rubio camp has lost, while the “paleo-nationalist” Trump-Cruz camp got the upper hand. Similarly, on the left, Hillary Clinton is toning down her natural liberal interventionist tendencies as she is challenged by Bernie Sanders’s resilient campaign and his vocal skepticism of the use of force.

How to explain this about-turn? Does the Bush-Rubio setback illustrate a more global defeat of neoconservatism? Are Americans actually demanding more retrenchment rather than less?

You often hear the claim that foreign policy positions do not matter during primaries. Indeed, with the exclusion of exceptional circumstances such as the 2008 Obama-Clinton duel when the former first lady paid a heavy price for her vote on the Iraq War, stances on foreign affairs do not determine the outcome of primaries, and barely matter for the general election. This year seemed no different. Americans are getting excited by Trump or Sanders, who have, at best, a negligent approach to foreign policy matters. And yet, the amount of time candidates spent talking about free-trade, refugees, terrorists, as well as Mexico, China, and Japan suggests that international policy is central to this year’s presidential decision. Soon after the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks, a December 2015 Pew Research Center poll revealed that foreign and international issues were now perceived as “the most important problems facing the nation” (32 percent), more than economic issues (23 percent) — a jump of 23 points compared with December 2014. Republicans are particularly worried: 93 percent of them believe that ISIL is “a major threat to well-being of the United States.”

It would also be a mistake to dismiss Trump’s vision of the world as inarticulate, and conclude that American voters who prefer him do so without his foreign policy positions in mind. True, Trump’s statements on foreign policy smack of amateurism: He contradicts himself constantly, flip-flops often, and generally responds to basic populist instincts, rooted in protectionism, nationalism, and xenophobia. For some, the candidate’s incoherence and inconsistency prove that he is malleable and can be “re-programmed” by the GOP foreign policy establishment. However, even if Trump has proven to be an uncontrollable and unpredictable candidate, he, as Brookings’s Tom Wright has convincingly argued, has held a relatively coherent vision of international issues over the past three decades. I believe his supporters have at least a general understanding of his approach to international issues.

Some also believe that only inside-the-beltway experts have been calling for a return to an active and muscular foreign policy for the past two years, while the rest of the country has tilted toward staunch isolationism. According to this view, Trump’s and Sanders’s foreign policy positions are actually in tune with the American public’s gut feelings, whereas Hillary Clinton, as well as the losing side of the GOP (Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Lindsay Graham, and Marco Rubio), would be only in tune with Washington insiders. However, a September 2015 Chicago Council survey showed that a majority of Americans (64 percent) remains committed to an active role of the United States in world affairs and that they are increasingly concerned by the challenges posed by ISIL and Russia. Not only do Americans widely support the military operation in Iraq and Syria against ISIL (62 percent), but are increasingly in favor of spending more on national defense (35 percent).

Therefore, why hasn’t the pendulum more clearly swung back from Obama’s strategic restraint towards neoconservatism, as many expected a year ago?

First, it is clear that the recalibration of U.S. foreign policy initiated by Obama has structural roots and will be pursued beyond his presidency, regardless of who wins the 2016 presidential election. In many ways, U.S. standing in the world has already fundamentally changed, due to the country’s decreasing dependence on Gulf oil, increasing estrangement with some allies (especially Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as European countries), a keen awareness that America’s future lies in the Pacific, and a deep conviction that the United States is no longer destined to be the world’s sheriff. As much as Europeans had to come to grips with U.S. rebalancing to Asia, or Obama’s minimalist approach to Syria’s civil war, the next president will have to deal with these realities, which may lead to a foreign policy of continuity in substance, if not in form.

And yet, there is a deep division within American society on U.S. engagement in the world. The split is perfectly illustrated by recent Pew Research Center figures of public support for the use of ground troops in Iraq and Syria to fight ISIL: 46 percent are in favor, 50 percent against. It is as if American public positions fall roughly along the lines of two fundamentally divergent foreign policy approaches: a Clintonian approach, a sort of renewed “Wilsonianism in boots” (as political scientist Pierre Hassner used to call the Bush Doctrine), and a Trumpian approach, a nationalistic minimalism that Tom Wright calls “19th century foreign policy.” The November election is expected to decide between these two competing worldviews.

Although the division is real and follows party lines (66 percent of Republicans support a ground intervention and 64 percent of Democrats oppose it), the great paradox is that the frontrunners of each camp are not representative of their base. In a nutshell, Hillary Clinton is the interventionist front-runner of an isolationist camp while Donald Trump is the paleo-nationalist front-runner of an interventionist camp.

Undoubtedly, these blurred fault lines between the two camps make it impossible to predict or deny a more interventionist foreign policy after Obama. Europeans wish they could anticipate the priorites of the future president, since a lot of the continent’s most acute strategic challenges (Russia, Middle East,  refugees, and TTIP) are conditioned by America’s behavior and choices.  But the future lies in the fog:  after eight years of military adventurism under Bush and nearly eight years of strategic restraint under Obama, Americans are coming to the painful realization that both formulas have failed, and they are at a loss to come up with an alternative and a reliable foreign policy prescription for America in the world.

Candidates — and presidents — rarely fall perfectly into an interventionism versus isolationism binary, but this year they are offering a real choice when it comes to their vision of what the United States’ role in the world should be. Hillary Clinton believes in American exceptionalism, and certainly seeks to protect and strengthen the post-World War II, U.S.-centric liberal international order. She embodies almost perfectly the views of the bipartisan, more interventionist Washington-based foreign policy establishment, best represented by the latest report issued by the Center for a New American Security. Sanders, on the contrary, fears American imperialism and warns against overreaching. As for Trump, he holds a deeply pessimistic vision of America’s current trajectory and its alliance system, and advocates unilateralism, restraint, and balance of power as drivers for American foreign policy.

I can’t predict which of these visions for America will prevail next November, although I must admit that many Europeans can’t get their mind around the idea of a President Trump. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the 2016 presidential campaign promises to offer a clash between proponents of an active U.S. foreign policy strengthening America’s position as a global leader at the top of a system of alliances, and believers in the inevitable decline of an America under siege, which urgently needs to get rid of the cumbersome burden of leader of the free world.


Célia Belin is an Associate Researcher at the Centre Thucydide in Paris (views are her own). Ms. Belin holds a PhD in political science/international relations from the University Panthéon-Assas and has been a Guest Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University. She writes regularly on US affairs and transatlantic relations, and teaches American foreign policy at University of Saint-Denis and Panthéon-Assas.

Image: CC, Sylvar