Well it finally happened. On Monday night, the great American exercise in intelligent dialog and through-provoking respectful debate finally occurred. Or in reality, two mostly unpopular people hurled insults at each other in front of the entire country while one person tried to have an intelligent conversation. The first of three presidential debates occurred between presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. As expected, the unfortunate incident was filled with character attacks and half-truths (or whole lies) on both sides. But the debate also gave us some insight into the foreign policy of these two individuals. This week, let's try to uncover the foreign policy philosophies of America's potential future president.
A Hawkish Internationalist
Hillary's foreign policy was easy to distinguish long before the first debate. As someone who generally follows the philosophy of liberal internationalism she is a strong proponent of working within the existing system of international institutions (NATO, the United Nations, and such), as opposed to unilateral actions. With some notable exceptions, she tends to favor using diplomatic pressure over military posturing (but certainly isn't against using military action on occasion). She also tends to be much more hawkish (in favor of military intervention) than president Obama. For instance, she favored providing direct military aid to the Syrian rebels before Obama finally agreed to provide limited weapons systems. Most notable is, of course, her initial approval for the invasion of Iraq (something that she has since deemed a mistake).
Regarding her specific policies, Clinton has laid out a comprehensive and detailed plan for improving the various situations in the Middle East, and the fight against ISIS specifically. This strategy appears to draw heavily from established theories and best practices for defeating terrorist organizations (turning local populations against terrorist groups, providing governance models to prevent radicalization, and enlisting the help of local militias to police liberated areas). The current step of removing ISIS from Iraq (which is essentially what Obama has been doing) seems to be working well so far, but the plan for preventing the resurgence of ISIS after its defeat is less detailed. Clinton has also demonstrated her preference blending diplomatic with military solutions as seen in the Afghanistan troop surge, the creation of a sanctions regime against Iran, and the intervention in Libya. This is a philosophy she has termed "smart power," being a blend of soft power (diplomacy, cultural outreach) and hard power (military strength).
Smart Power seems like a sound policy on the face of it, but Clinton's execution of this philosophy has had mixed results. The establishment of sanctions against Iran (which directly led to the nuclear deal), the rebalancing to Asia, and the beginnings of the reset of relations with Cuba were all successful examples of this approach. However, Libya, Egypt, and Syria provide examples of how smart power can sometimes fall short when applied to very unstable or active war situations. Still, if the job of a Secretary of State is to improve American diplomatic relations and standing, Clinton's four years seem to have accomplished this (at least in comparison to America's diplomatic standing at the end of the Bush years).
An Aggressive Isolationist
Trump, as far as anyone can actually pin down a coherent and codified foreign policy, made it clear that his approach to foreign policy would be one that emphasizes obvious displays of strength and power. When asked about his response to Iranian ships traveling too close to American warships (a nuisance, but not exactly a serious threat), his response would supposedly be to shoot them out of the water. His approach to ISIS seems to be the indiscriminate bombing of cities currently under ISIS control (something for which Assad has been fully condemned and is a clear violation of international law). But of course, it is highly unlikely Trump could get away with actions such as these, even if he does fire a large number of military generals and admirals who oppose his methods. Instead, it is more likely we would see a more reactionary military response, and one that would be much less hesitant to inflict collateral damage in order to its achieve military objectives.
The clearest picture we have so far of Trump's foreign policy is his attitude toward America's allies and system of mutual defense treaties. These seem to indicate a preference for isolationism over interventionism. He has repeatedly pointed out that many of America's NATO allies do not pay the required two percent of their GDP as part of their defense obligations. He has also called such organizations obsolete and threatened to withdraw from these alliances if they don't pay up. Though Trump often talks about how aggressively he would pursue military action against ISIS, he seems very hesitant to use direct military force in other areas of the world. This philosophy could best be summed up in Donald's slogan "America First."
But these policy proposals have worried many of America's allies, especially Eastern European powers who are looking to balance against an increasingly resurgent Russia. Trump (and many throughout the country) seems to believe that America is being taken advantage of in this alliance system. On the face of it that may seem true, but there are substantial benefits to being the lone superpower of a mostly peaceful democratic world order. And his argument still fails to recognize that president Obama has already made strides in getting America's allies to pay their share (and without threatening to break alliances). In reality, it is not likely that a president Trump would actually break these alliances (think of the chaos it would cause), but having to be threatened into paying for protection doesn't really help maintain good diplomatic relations.
So what does all of this mean for the future of American foreign policy? Well even as powerful as the office of the presidency is, it is also severely constrained by the political and institutional establishment in Washington. Congress is not likely to approve aggressive deals that sever trade relations (which could spark an all-out trade war). And any major breaks from established (or intelligent) policy norms would likely receive substantial push-back from the State Department. But if there is one area that a president can make a major difference, it is in the area of perception. If America's leader appears reckless, antagonistic, or spiteful, it will certainly have a detrimental impact on the ability of the United States to carry out its policy objectives.