For many decades the U.S. has vacillated between interventionism and isolationism, so the stark contrast between George W. Bush’s brash ‘engagement’ with the world versus Barack Obama’s ‘withdrawal’ from the world is not outside the historical norm. Given that the U.S. has now been in an isolationist mode for almost for 8 years, what might the presidency of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump imply for the coming 4 years in the area of foreign policy? The short answer is that there is likely to be less difference between the two than one might expect, particularly given that they would face similar obstacles.
At its core, Obama’s approach to foreign policy has been based on not wanting to become entangled in seemingly endless military undertakings, and not wanting to do ‘stupid stuff,’ but the Obama Doctrine is also very much about realpolitik — the American public has had enough of wars, doesn’t know what to believe when politicians speak, and is more interested in taking care of things at home. This is not likely to change when the next president takes office, and Clinton and Trump know it. For that reason, it appears probable that both of them will continue many of the core elements of Obama’s foreign policy, while wanting to distinguish themselves enough to be able to say that each of them has their own ‘doctrine.’
Clinton’s Hawkishness will be in Check
Hillary Clinton’s predilection toward hawkishness is well demonstrated, having voted for the Iraq War, strenuously supported regime change in Libya, and having promised to “totally obliterate” Iran if it were to attack Israel. All of these positions have, in the end, harmed her politically (given how each has turned out), but her supporters believe that her unvarnished ‘realism’ about the way the world works is the hallmark of her approach to foreign policy. I would argue that her interpretation of how international relations function actually lacks realism, has been short-sighted, is based on a conventional view of how nations operate (in what has so far been a rather unconventional century), and is devoid of much insight or a futuristic orientation.
A president Clinton would undoubtedly wish to carry forward many of the core elements of the Obama Doctrine, but she is likely to find herself similarly constrained, whether by an uncooperative Congress, budgetary limitations, or forces outside her control beyond America’s borders.
Even if by some miracle Clinton wins and the Democrats take both houses of Congress, it would make passing laws and funding easier, but that will do nothing to change what the world thinks of the U.S., or the many challenges it faces around the world. Nearly 8 years after Obama has tried to alter the world’s view of America following the Bush era, much remains unchanged. Clinton will find, just as Obama has, that the world no longer snaps to attention when America speaks.
Trump’s Bravado will also be in Check
For the same reasons that Clinton will find it difficult to achieve all she may wish to achieve in foreign policy, Trump will find it doubly difficult. Trump’s bombastic demagoguery sounds good on paper to some, but achieving many of the things he has said he will do as president will be far from easy to do. For example:
- Building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico (regardless of who ends up paying for it) would prove problematic, based on current international and environmental law. It would also require that the U.S. purchase the steel to build it from overseas (more than likely, China, since American steel builders shifted to manufacturing high-end steel products years ago. That would do wonders for America’s trade balance with China); and
- Establishing trade barriers between his great list of offenders (such as China, Japan and Mexico) would take years to pass and implement — even if he had support in Congress — not to mention whether any such actions would contravene current global trade pacts, which the U.S. has signed on to. The World Trade Organization may end up overruling any such actions, anyway, although it may take years to do so.
As problematic as it is ordinarily the case to get to the finish line in the foreign policy arena when the climate is favorable and a lengthy list of friends and allies is on board, imagine what it would be like when many (if not most) of America’s traditional allies found Trump as distasteful as president as they find him as a candidate for president. America’s staunchest allies have all expressed grave concern for what a Trump presidency would imply – for America and the world. Putting together future ‘coalitions of the willing’ under a Trump presidency would be a pipe dream.
How They Would Stack Up on Major Issues
Clinton and Trump would undoubtedly come in on the same side of a range of issues, for the reasons stated above, such as:
- China: Both would want to try to do something about China’s economic and political march across the world (and the South China Sea), and both would fail. This is China’s century, there is nothing that can be done to stop its military development, and within five years it will be the largest economy in the world. With so many economies having tied their fortunes to that of China, anything the U.S. may do to harm China has global implications.
- Russia: Both would oppose Putin’s actions on a variety of issues (i.e. Ukraine, Syria, and Iran) and both would find it rather difficult to make real progress on any of them. Until and unless Ukraine becomes a member of NATO, nothing will change, and Russia holds many of the cards on both Syria and Iran (though Trump would probably have an easier time dealing with him at the outset, given their declared mutual admiration for each other. Let’s see how long that lasts).
- Syria: After 5 years, and given the current state of affairs, neither of them are going to be inclined to commit ground troops, or attempt to alter the landscape much beyond where Obama has gone. Given the current ‘failure-in-progress’ of the latest round of peace talks, look for more of the same on the ground, with drones and special forces being the weapons of choice.
- Iran: Both would probably hold Iran to greater account on its lack of strict compliance with the terms of the P5+1 Agreement, but in the absence of some truly egregious breach of the Agreement, a rap on the knuckles is all that Iran is likely to get from either.
- Saudi Arabia: Neither is likely to deviate much from Obama’s approach to the Kingdom, particularly given America’s self-sufficiency in oil production and the Kingdom’s pivot toward China. If Obama wants the Kingdom to carry more of its weight in fighting ISIS, you can be sure Clinton and Trump will want the same.
- ISIS: Neither favor outlandish ideas such as carpet bombing ISIS (which would in any event never work, given how spread out the organization is). Given that ISIS is here to stay, expect more of the same in terms of maintaining superior intelligence capabilities and using tactical approaches to fighting it. Short of committing hundreds of thousands of ground troops on a long-term basis (which simply isn’t going to happen), or witnessing a miraculous turn of events in either Iraq or Syria, there is little else that can be done.
Impact on the Global Economy
Since politics do not function in isolation from economics, what would the impact of either as president be on the global economy? While global stock markets would no doubt prefer the status quo predictability that would come with a Clinton presidency, in reality, the occupant of the White House makes less difference to the global economy than the composition of the Congress. Since Clinton is far likelier not to want to rock the boat economically, those who favor more of the same would welcome a Clinton presidency. But would that be smart in the longer term? In the U.S., and globally, we are now well overdue for another recession. More of the same isn’t what would be needed to manage that effectively, particularly given that the U.S. does not have the same range of fiscal and monetary weapons to throw at the problem next time around.
Trump as the ‘outsider’ and ‘businessman’ may prove to be a better bet in the long run. Assuming his protectionist rhetoric were to be toned down once he is in office, he is more likely to embrace the concept of genuine reform, which is what would be required when (not if) the next recession hits. If Trump were to be able to substantially reduce America’s trade deficit with much of the rest of the world, it would clearly have major benefits for the U.S. economy, but it may also force other economies to be more competitive and focus on enhancing domestic consumption (at least, for the larger economies). That, in turn, would encourage other countries to shift their wealth generation to the rising global middle class, thereby creating other locomotives of growth over time. That would be to everyone’s benefit.
By the same token, there is naturally a risk that engaging in a trade war – particularly at a time when a recession may be looming – could send the world over the edge, prompting a domino effect. The ‘soft landing’ China has come to expect on a perpetual basis could turn into a hard landing, with ripple effects throughout the global economy. The Chinese leadership would not take too kindly to that, and it isn’t difficult to then imagine that a frosty relationship develops not only between the U.S. and China, but many of the world’s major economies. If so, say goodbye to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Making China Great Again
Of the many topics facing the U.S. in the medium to long-term, China’s rise poses the greatest challenge to America on a wide range of issues, ranging from economic competitiveness, to international influence, to dominance in business. It seems clear that Clinton would be China’s preferred choice, given her presumed intention not to challenge China too strongly while maintaining the status quo, but would that be preferable to Trump’s approach?
China has proven itself rather adept at letting other parties slug it out (i.e. Iraq) and then swoop in for the spoils (i.e. oil contracts). As the Bush Administration fought the Iraq War, China was busy spreading its influence, making friends, and doing business in countries around the world.
While Trump would presumably be busy offending countries, tearing up trade agreements, and ‘making America great again,’ it is not unreasonable to assume that many of the same countries on the receiving end of a Trump crusade would seek solace in the warm embrace of China. If so, would he then not risk making China even greater in the process?
American voters should think beyond their wallets, short-termism, and what ‘feels’ good when they enter the voting booth in November. There is more at stake in this election than any in a generation. The U.S. and the world face unprecedented problems, some of which did not have the reach and severity that they do today, such as the man-made risks of climate change, cyber risk, and terrorism. The same is true for some of the world’s most intractable foreign policy challenges. While both Clinton and Trump face the same set of constraints, how they choose to tackle these challenges is sure to have long lasting implications.
A status quo Clinton presidency could work as long as she trades her realism based on conventionalism for realism based on outside-the-box, future-oriented, practical thinking on foreign policy. A brash Trump presidency could work if he were to discard his extremist views for core values that are both realistic and achievable, without too much cost of any kind, recognizing that foreign policy is not anything like a simple business transaction. Neither will work well if they don’t change their campaign rhetoric and consider not only what is most important, but within the realm of reason. America’s allies will not forgive them if they fail to do so while its enemies are just waiting for them to make critical mistakes.
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Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and co-author of the forthcoming book “Global Risk Agility and Decision Making” (Macmillan, May 2016).
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