war on the rocks

#NatSec2016: Concerns about the Foreign Policies of the Top Candidates

May 19, 2016

Trump thinks the United Kingdom isn’t that special. Trump’s foreign policy is already out of the box. Now, his inclinations are getting even weirder.

Trump started a feud with two of the United Kingdom’s top leaders: Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Sadiq Khan. It all started with Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States, which apparently now is “just a suggestion.” When Trump was asked if this ban would apply to Khan, who is a Muslim, the GOP frontrunner responded that “there will always be exceptions.” Khan rejected Trump’s advance, saying that “this isn’t just about me…it’s about my friends, my family, and everyone who comes from a background similar to mine, anywhere in the world.”

And then The Donald got angry. He said that Khan made “very rude statements” about him. It didn’t help that Cameron piled on by calling Trump “stupid, divisive, and wrong” for his Muslim ban proposal, to which Trump didn’t take too kindly.

There’s now a petition with 585,490 signatures (as of this writing) to block Trump from entering the United Kingdom. Perhaps the world’s best known Brit, J.K. Rowling (other contenders include the Queen, David Beckham, and One Direction), said her country shouldn’t band Trump despite how “offensive and bigoted” he is. Of course, those comments were her holding back—she once said Trump was worse than Voldemort.

Your humble #NatSec2016 writer recently commented that Trump’s feud with the United Kingdom is ill-advised. After all, it’s our closest ally. Brits go to war with us; they share intelligence with us; they share our values; and they usually have the same foreign policy objectives. At a time when things are rocky for the British government, scoring an own goal like this was really not a good way to shore up the “special relationship.” But we know what Trump thinks about allies. And Trump expects a poor relationship with Cameron, so he may be trying to ensure that he’s right in the end.

Trump against the machine. At Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt argues that the disparities between the Trump and Hillary Clinton foreign-policy teams “may not be such a bad thing for Trump.” His reasoning?

  • “[M]ost Americans don’t care that much about foreign policy, and they rarely choose presidents on that basis.”
  • “[T]he public seems to be in a pretty rebellious mood this year, and a lot of that resentment is directed toward the ‘establishment.’”

Walt believes it’s that last point that may give Trump an edge. After all, the “establishment” which works for Clinton hasn’t done the best job managing U.S. foreign policy of late:

The United States began the 1990s on top of the world, with both liberals and conservatives hailing the “unipolar moment,” dreaming of the “end of history,” and embracing a strategy of American liberal hegemony. Whether in the form of Bill Clinton’s strategy of “engagement and enlargement” or George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda,” the United States was going use its power to spread democracy and human rights far and wide — peacefully if possible but by force if necessary. Markets would grow, freedom would spread, and peace would prevail, all under the watchful but benevolent eye of America’s foreign-policy mandarins.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Instead, U.S. policy in the Middle East eventually triggered the 9/11 attacks, which our vast national security apparatus failed to detect or prevent. The United States then fought two costly and unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there’s still no end in sight in either country. Washington repeatedly failed to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement despite abundant potential leverage and numerous attempts. It also failed to build a positive relationship with Russia, mostly because the United States kept expanding NATO into Russia’s traditional sphere of interest. The United States couldn’t stop North Korea, India, or Pakistan from acquiring nuclear weapons or expanding their existing arsenals, and it reached a nuclear deal with Iran only after the Islamic Republic had built thousands of centrifuges and become a latent nuclear weapons state. The United States also helped produce failed states in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, and its overall response to the turmoil now roiling the Arab world has been incoherent, inconsistent, and ineffective. And in the meantime, China has been increasing its power, staying out of costly conflicts, and gradually challenging the status quo in Asia.

Whoa—that’s a lot. And while I may quibble with a bit that Walt said, there’s a point to be made. “The blob” behind Clinton surely doesn’t have straight-As, but at least they’ve been to class. Trump’s team is comprised of “hardly bold-faced names with glittering resumes.” As the Hoover Institution’s Kori Schake commented, “National security is hard to do well even with first-rate people. It’s almost impossible to do well with third-rate people.”

Yet, as Alexander Kirss noted in War on the Rocks, Walt’s beloved realism “has failed to deliver on its promise of a better alternative to current American foreign policy.” He even went so far as to call the Center for the National Interest’s decision to invite Trump to give a speech and regard him as realism’s standard bearer “a new low in realism’s search for a political champion.” Walt, by the way, doesn’t believe Trump is a realist, but he does believe realism will save U.S. foreign policy. He might need to answer Kriss and many other’s charge that realism needs to prove it’s the way to go and not just claim it.

But I give credit where credit is due. Like Walt, I also don’t believe voters will not have foreign policy front-of-mind when pulling levers in November. After all, voters usually care about the economy and other domestic concerns more than international affairs. A foreign policy can’t make a presidency or candidacy, but it can break one. Still, there is a choice to make: Trump’s team of fresh-faced rookies vs. Clinton’s wily but imperfect veterans.

Would Clinton be a “foreign-policy nightmare?” That’s the case A. Trevor Thrall makes at The National Interest. In his mind, Clinton will make “three related decisions that doom American foreign policy to another decade of turmoil, casualties, and terrorism.”

The first decision will be to send thousands of American ground troops to eradicate the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria…

Clinton’s second ill-fated decision will be to attempt to restore and stabilize Iraq…

The third decision President Clinton will make is to reverse President Obama’s plan to draw down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, where the Taliban now controls more territory than at any point since 2001.

This fits into the “Hillary the Hawk” and “Trump the Dove” rhetoric we hear so much about. There’s no doubt that Clinton is more hawkish than President Obama and may take some of his proposals a little further. But, perhaps she will temper her inclinations. After all, as the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Aaron David Miller recently told NPR:

Given the fact that many of her decisions to use military force have come back to haunt the United States generally and Hillary Clinton specifically, she may well have to temper some of those hawkish instincts in the service of prudence. And the reality is that we have very bad options.

So, maybe she won’t be as hawkish as the George W. Bush administration, but she likely won’t be as dovish as the Obama administration (although he’s not a dove). Of course, we’ll only know for sure if Clinton becomes president.

Allies watch. Should Trump become president, how would staunch U.S. allies react? Peter Hartcher, the Sydney Morning Herald’s political and international editor, sought to answer this question from the Australian perspective.

Trump is not the incoming president, but now that he’s going to be the Republican candidate he has a very realistic prospect of getting there. And he has not criticised Australia. But if he’s prepared to dump much bigger and more central US allies such as Japan or Britain, why wouldn’t he shrug off a more peripheral one like Australia? Japan’s Koike last month called Trump’s remarks “the height of irresponsibility”. Yet she said that the world needed to emerge from a state of denial: “It may be time to admit that America really could return to the ‘America First’ isolationism of the 1930s, which Trump has just proclaimed as his goal.” …

I asked [former Ben Carson advisor and now Trump supporter Ying Ma] whether US defence allies should assume that existing US commitments would remain intact under a Trump administration, or whether they should start hedging their bets?

“Yeah, I guess they should hedge a little bit,” she replied. “I don’t think a shake up of our alliances would be that bad.”

With a rogue Russia, an increasingly assertive China and a virulent global terrorism movement, among other security problems, it’s an unnerving moment for US allies to have to confront this possibility.

This is yet another piece where allies worry aloud about a Trump presidency. Leaders in Germany, Sweden, South Korea, the United Kingdom (but you figured that by now), Japan, and elsewhere have all gone on the record to relay their concerns should The Donald leave Trump Tower for the White House. Since Trump “never forgive[s],” these comments may impact the US working relationship with allies and partners. That’s not good, and there’s just under six months left for Trump to make it worse.

 

Alex Ward is an Associate Director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security where he works on U.S. defense policy, strategy, and now focuses primarily on the presidential election and foreign policy. He tweets at @AlexWardB.

Image: Gage Skidmore, CC