FPI Bulletin: Clinton, Trump Leave Questions Unanswered

September 27, 2016

In their first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s discussion of national security policy focused largely on personal accusations, meandering asides, and questions that were so narrowly framed as to offer little vision on how the candidates would actually govern. One exchange near the end of the debate, however, offered a clear contrast between the candidates’ views on America’s role in the world.

As she wrapped up her part of the foreign policy discussion, Clinton pledged that “I want to reassure our allies in Japan and South Korea and elsewhere that we have mutual defense treaties, and we will honor them.” In response, Trump said that “I want to help our allies. But we are losing billions and billions of dollars. We cannot be the policeman of the world. We cannot protect countries all over the world.”

Amid the din, these statements capture the choice that Clinton and Trump seek to present to American voters. Should the United States continue to stand with its allies and maintain the world order that American power has created, or is our country now so dissolute that we cannot afford do so?

In this case, the facts support Clinton’s argument. The American economy has weathered the 2008 financial crisis with profound resilience. Our country continues to enjoy the strongest military in the world, while our alliances provide essential support to American efforts to advance our values and interests. However, neither Clinton nor Trump last night explained how they would wield these strengths in order to lead.

How would either candidate work with Congress to repeal the defense cuts imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and provide our military the resources it needs to fight America’s wars?

Beyond Clinton’s assurances that “words matter,” how will she actually punish Iran for its threatening activities throughout the Middle East, roll back Putin’s adventurism, or prevent China and North Korea from lashing out against our allies in the Asia-Pacific?

How would Trump deal with the security and economic consequences of an American retreat from its global alliances? What leverage would he have to lead after telling our allies that the United States can no longer defend them?

How would either candidate restore America’s leadership on global economic cooperation after each has rejected the U.S.-negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement over the course of the election?

One particular challenge that merits close scrutiny is the conflict in Syria—arguably the central foreign policy failure of the Obama administration. Neither candidate addressed how they seek to root ISIS out of its Syria strongholds, limit Russia’s intervention on behalf of the brutal Assad regime, or halt Iran’s use of the war to expand its hegemonic ambitions in the region.

In their two future encounters, moderators should press the candidates for specifics concerning how they would manage or solve the Syria crisis. For Clinton, that means addressing what lessons can be learned both from her experience as secretary of state and from the Obama administration’s subsequent efforts over the next four years. For Trump, this means carefully examining whether his proposed acquiescence to Russia’s role in the Middle East substantively differs from the Obama administration’s current policy.

Detailed answers to these questions are essential. The American-led world order is under unprecedented assault. Russia and China are attempting to remake their regions into their own respective spheres of influence. Iran and North Korea are advancing their strategic arsenals. Afghanistan remains under threat from the Taliban. Al Qaeda and ISIS have become worldwide Islamist insurgencies that can direct or inspire attacks worldwide. And all the while, a wave of populist isolationism is undercutting leaders in the United States and Europe when their leadership is needed the most.

This is the world that the next president will inherit, its challenges in many ways exacerbated by the Obama administration’s failures to lead. The task for Clinton and Trump is to describe how they will go about putting this right and thereby secure the United States. Although the contrast between the candidates is clear, precious little was shed on this matter last night. Hopefully, Americans will receive the answers they deserve in the coming weeks.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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