“The show must go on” could very well be the maxim of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  Just last week, Donald Trump announced his “America First” foreign policy program and managed to further worry Americans about the future of American foreign policy.  Yet traditionally, when it comes to U.S. presidential elections, neither the candidates nor their electorate have paid much notice to foreign policy issues. Indeed, foreign policy issues have historically had only a minor effect on polls, which further discourages candidates from delving into such topics. Notwithstanding, we should remember that, while foreign policy cannot decide a winner, it can certainly decide a loser.

Thus, while it would be incorrect to say that foreign policy dominates the present campaign, its presence in the current discourse is noteworthy.  As the end of July nears, when the dates for final party nominations are set, it is important to discern the policy stances of the two most prominent candidates -- Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – in order to analyze the implications that one candidate’s victory over that of the other could have on global developments. While Clinton has sought to capitalize on her legacy as former Secretary of State, Trump has sowed confusion with an often incoherent policy that mixes nationalism, isolationism, and foreign policy realism. Thus, a side-by-side analysis of Clinton and Trump’s positions with respect to the most difficult issues in U.S. foreign policy -- the Middle East, Russia, and China -- is required in order to make an informed projection for the future.

During her career, Hillary Clinton has managed to build a strong legacy and identify herself as a liberal in foreign affairs.  While she declared support for most of the foreign policy decisions implemented by her previous boss, President Obama, there are certainly instances where the two have disagreed.  

In contrast, Donald Trump’s lack of foreign policy experience becomes painfully obvious.  Trump tries to mask his relative inexperience by referring to his overly ambitious international business schemes, which often yielded dubious results.  He also echoes the refrain that he is not part of the “establishment.” His “America First” speech (which, in breaking with his usual habit of improvisation, was read from a teleprompter) represented something that American citizens had not yet seen during Trump’s earlier public appearances.  This speech intended to showcase that Trump can grasp the substance of foreign policy and deal with issues that the U.S. could very likely encounter over the next four years.

The Middle East

There are certain issues in foreign policy with which any candidate settling into the White House will have to cope.  One such issue is the growing instability of the entire Middle East region.  Indeed, the fragility of this region encompasses in its totality the fragility of the U.S. relationship with these countries.  There will be no way out of the current impasse in the region in the near future, and thus the problems faced by the Obama administration will most certainly await the future president.  Interestingly, the Middle East is one area where both Clinton and Trump would act differently than the current administration has.

Firstly, with respect to the Syria crisis, Clinton stated that Obama had waited too long to start arming and training “moderate” Syrian rebels, which she considered had subsequently led to the rise of ISIS. After the Paris attacks in November 2015, Clinton presented a detailed three-part plan to deal with the situation: defeat ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East; disrupt terrorist infrastructure; and harden defenses against external and homegrown threats to the U.S. Clinton opposes major deployment of U.S. troops on the ground, but she calls for “larger freedom” of action for Special Forces.  While this plan encompasses several issues, it cannot be realized without the engagement of other Middle East countries.  Thus, Clinton has insisted on the greater involvement of countries neighboring Syria, as well as calling for the establishment of safe camps for refugees.  Interestingly, she is in favor of the U.S. taking in Syrian refugees-- in stark opposition to Trump.

Trump has been critical of the White House’s approach ever since the Obama administration made the fight against ISIS a top priority in foreign policy.  Though at first against taking any action in Syria, believing instead that the US should “let Russia deal with it,” Trump indicated in March 2016 that he would be willing to deploy a “large number of troops” after consulting with the generals. In addition, he called for the creation of so-called safe zones for refugees, as well as closer cooperation with Russia and the Gulf states in the form of potential military involvement-- not always welcomed in the region.

Moving on, the U.S.-Israeli relationship did not seem to be a priority for Washington during Obama’s term in office, where he promoted a two-state solution and openly discouraged Israel from erecting settlements.  However, diplomatic, financial, and military support to Israel was never brought into question.  Clinton has a similar stance on this issue; she is in favor of the two-state solution and calls Israeli settlements “illegitimate.”  By comparison, Trump openly praises Benjamin Netanyahu and calls for moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This is tremendously important for Israel, whose claim to Jerusalem as its capital city is contested internationally and depends on final status talks between Israel and Palestine. The move of the embassy has been a thorny issue in the U.S. – Israeli relations for decades, as the U.S. is hesitant to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.  With such views coming from Trump, it is not difficult to imagine who the preferred candidate in Israel is.

In contrast, Trump vehemently opposes the Iran deal, calling it a “terrible” deal reached out of “desperation.”  Moreover, he promised that if he wins the elections, he will “make that agreement so tough and if they break it, they will have hell to pay.”  On the other hand, Clinton supports the multinational deal with Iran, though says that she would toughen the approach.  In the event that Iran attempts to acquire nuclear weapons, Clinton says that she would “not hesitate to take military action,” a statement that, in addition to her support for the war in Iraq, won her the epithet of the “most hawkish Democrat.” With the foundation of her policy based on distrust, and bearing in mind that she played a key role in gaining UN Security Council support for sanctions against Iran in 2010, her approach to this country does not differ significantly from that of Trump.

Finally, when it comes to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, another important player in the region, Clinton’s previous engagement with the Saudis could give her a headache.  During her tenure as Secretary of State, she maintained an excellent relationship with the Saudi government.  On Christmas Eve of 2011, Clinton and her team celebrated selling 80 fighting jets to Saudi Arabia, calling it “not a bad Christmas gift.”  Furthermore, according to a Wall Street Journal article from February 2015, the Clinton Foundation received significant donations from Saudi Arabia, which raises certain ethical concerns whether Clinton could truly be impartial toward the Saudis.  Most recently, one of her campaign funders was recently tied to the Saudi court by The Hill.  For the Saudi Royal Court, Clinton is the preferred candidate. 

Trump, on the other hand, considers Saudi Arabia one of the countries that are “ripping us off.” He has even stated that he would consider a ban on oil imports from the country if it does not join efforts to fight ISIS and provide troops on the ground.  Trump believes that the U.S. is protecting various countries across the globe, including KSA, but it has not been rewarded for this “tremendous service.” Should Trump succeed in becoming president, a tougher approach to the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia is to be expected, if we are to believe the statements he has made so far.

Russia

America’s relationship with Russia reached its lowest point since the Cold War during the last years of Obama’s presidency.  The “reset” button pressed in Moscow by Clinton as State Secretary and Sergey Lavrov, who served as Russia’s Foreign Minister at the beginning of Obama’s first mandate, symbolized a new beginning in the relationship but proved to be a failure.  While some agreements were reached, such as the new Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START), Iran sanctions and Iran deal, and even minor cooperation with respect to Syria, issues such as NATO enlargement, the annexation of Crimea and destabilization of Ukraine, and lastly, the U.S. imposed sanctions, remain open.

Since her role as Secretary of State, Clinton has changed her approach toward Russia. As one of the architects of the failed “reset” policy, which some argue was even an overture to Russia’s aggressive attitude, Clinton has had to take a harsher stance.  She is currently led by the idea that the U.S. should cooperate with Russia where possible but limit what she perceives as Russia’s transgression and influence.  Furthermore, she calls for closer cooperation with U.S. allies in limiting the Russian sphere of influence and toughening current sanctions.  To this end, Clinton is in favor of increasing missile defense in Eastern Europe.  It is interesting to notice that Clinton openly confronts Putin--someone who is not going to disappear from the political scene any time soon.  As a consequence, it is expected that she will be confrontational towards Moscow, as the lack of sympathy between her and Putin moves their entire foreign policy in an ad hominem direction.

Trump, meanwhile, is of the opinion that Putin is disrespectful of Obama.  He contends that this disrespect is the source of increasingly aggressive Russian behavior in the last couple of years. Trump was widely quoted as saying that he appreciates Putin’s leadership skills and that he deserves an “A” for foreign policy.  What Trump tries to demonstrate is that he understands that Russian foreign policy depends on personal relations with Putin.  He plays this card well and claims that due to his frequent business trips to Moscow, he would surely have a “great relationship with Putin.”  Putin responded to this praise, saying that “Trump is a really brilliant and talented person without any doubt.”  Amusingly, this resulted in a mural painted in Lithuania of the two kissing.  This curious relationship seems to signal who Putin would prefer to see in the White House in 2017.  However, what remains unclear is whether Trump’s sympathies towards Putin would continue if he were to be elected and actually had to deal with the open issues between the two countries.

China

As the world’s second largest economy and defense spender, maintaining good relations with China must remain a priority for the next administration.  Officially, the U.S. has supported the “peaceful” rise of China and called for closer relations.  However, many issues that are not publicly commented on remain open, one of the most important being the founding of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in December 2015.  This bank is seen as the main competitor to the World Bank and the IMF, the two main institutions of the financial system dominated by the West.  In addition, issues with the South China Sea remain problematic. Hence, the stability of the global economy and the world order as we know it depend on how well the new leadership manages this complex and occasionally tumultuous relationship with China.

Clinton participated as Secretary of State in the creation of a “pivot” to Asia policy during her mandate.  However, she has been known for criticizing China on its human rights record since 1995.  In her memoir Hard Choices, she writes that China does not “fit neatly into categories like friend or rival.”  In 2015, she accused China of “trying to hack into everything in the U.S. that does not move.”  Yet she advocates for continued trust building and developing this complex relationship.  Clinton understands that without cooperation with China, things could become troublesome for the U.S. in the international arena, especially as Russia and China become closer.  Thus, she is in favor of strengthening alliances in the region and increasing cooperation in areas of common interest.  This will be difficult for her, though, as the Chinese do not look favorably on the idea of Clinton becoming the next president.  While Beijing would never make its preference for a candidate public, it is well known that Clinton is not popular there, due in large part to China’s concerns about being encircled by U.S. allies – something they view as the result of Clinton’s past and potential future actions.

Interestingly, Trump has an even harsher standpoint on China.  He has openly criticized it for “unfair trade practices.”  Moreover, Trump talks about what official Washington does not – the devaluation of the Renminbi and the subsequent trade imbalances.  His main idea is to impose tariffs on China in order to balance its economic policies.  From a military standpoint, he would increase U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, which is not welcomed in Beijing. With the two candidates’ positions outlined, neither is desirable in Beijing.  There is a strong chance for deterioration of U.S.-China relations post-election, though this would not be immediately felt.

Without referring to Clinton and Trump’s domestic policies, where the difference between the two candidates is significantly more pronounced, their foreign policy positions do not drastically differ.  Clinton’s main strength in this area is her vast experience as Secretary of State, while a lack thereof is Trump’s main weakness.  It should be noted, however, that the main problems that the U.S. faces in foreign policy may not even require significant experience in foreign policy or even ideas that can be considered “reasonable”; instead, they may necessitate a personality that is more acceptable to “problem makers.” This is problematic for Clinton, in particular, as a candidate not very well perceived in the areas most troublesome for the U.S.  Thus, one’s preference for one candidate over another will depend on issue prioritization.  

Whether we will witness the continuation of Clinton’s legacy or enter an era of ruthless pragmatism and inward-looking with Trump remains to be seen after the election.  What is certain is that both candidates carry baggage that has the potential to negatively affect U.S. foreign policy and its influence in the world.

by Marko Ceperkovic
PR & Marketing Director