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Clinton’s Foreign Policy: The Known Unknowns

Regardless of Hillary Clinton's national security predilections, a future Clinton administration will rapidly discover that U.S. foreign policy options are in fact quite limited. The default course is thus likely to be “more of the same” of the Obama administration’s policies and approaches.

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Despite the further stresses introduced by the Federal Bureau of Investigation last week into this most stressful of modern campaigns, Hillary Clinton is still the odds-on favorite to be elected US president. If that judgment is validated on the morning of November 9th, America’s friends and allies abroad can begin to exhale. Whatever opponents have said about Clinton in the presidential campaign, no one can honestly deny that she is smart, savvy, articulate, experienced, and, more-often-than-not, levelheaded.

But true friends of America abroad shouldn’t return to normal breathing patterns just yet. 

First the good news. Despite presidential campaign turmoil and disharmony not seen since the American Republic’s early days—and politics was even rougher back then—after the votes are counted and despite whatever Donald Trump says or does, the American ship of state will, as always, soon right itself. There is also no doubt that, intellectually and temperamentally, Clinton will be a steadying influence on American politics and US engagements abroad.

More good news is that, whatever the new team’s predilections before assuming office, it will rapidly discover that US foreign policy options are in fact quite limited. The default course is thus likely to be “more of the same” of the Obama administration’s policies and approaches. Overall, that is not a bad thing.

But here the good news may end.

Clouds on the Horizon

As of now President Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy agenda is unknowable. Even she can’t know until she occupies the Oval Office, receives her first CIA-produced Presidential Daily Brief, and decides what to do, if anything, about what she learns. Only then will we begin to see her true instincts and attitudes as opposed to what she had to say to get elected. Although grossly unfair, a woman seeking to be commander-in-chief must take muscular stands on the hustings, especially on using military force.

In three areas—Russia, Iran, and Syria—she has advanced hawkish views that do not reassure all of America’s friends, especially in Europe. Perhaps in office she will modify these views. But trends in American thinking can be gleaned. With challenges from Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Ukraine first and now Syria, the US foreign policy community is drifting toward long-term confrontation with Moscow, beyond what the US and NATO are doing to reassure Central European allies. Likewise, there is little support for testing whether relations with Iran can be improved, other than preserving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which establishes limits on its nuclear program. An increasingly dominant view in Washington, fostered by Sunni Arab states and Israel, is that Iran presents the most serious enduring threat to US interests in the Middle East. As for Syria and the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), candidate Clinton has begun to hedge her bets but has said she will be more assertive with U.S. military power.

Those who look to the US for leadership abroad must recognize that it will be deeply affected by what President Clinton must do at home. Modernizing US infrastructure can no longer be postponed. Further, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both struck the same nerve with a large segment of middle- and working-class Americans who feel left behind by economic changes, including globalization, that have kept their incomes stagnant for decades. President Clinton cannot ignore this political upheaval as she works to create a society that is indeed “stronger together;” and she must ask for major investments to enable the country to compete effectively with others, notably China. That means reduced resources and less attention for the outside world. Likewise, she will be challenged on trade liberalization. During the campaign, she was forced to back off on her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is also in trouble. She has sought wiggle room by promising to be a tough negotiator, but no one should expect strong US support for freer trade anytime soon.

Meanwhile, US security policy will continue rebalancing to Asia and the Pacific. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter makes that clear in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. Much of that rebalancing is military, and, in a widespread Washington view, the Pentagon should deemphasize the Middle East and Europe (again) as soon as possible—although the timetable has been delayed by the need to destroy IS (short-term) and contain Russia and Iran (longer-term).

Looking at Europe and Asia

Hillary Clinton is an internationalist who opposes American retrenchment. But in the Middle East, she has so far shown no inclination to try extracting the US from the middle of the Sunni-Shia civil war, and she goes along with the visions for the region presented by Arab states (notably Saudi Arabia) and Israel.

She will also likely pay even less attention to European concerns than did either George W. Bush or Barack Obama, neither major-league Atlanticists. Overall, Europe qua Europe is becoming less central to the United States (Brexit does not help.) Donald Trump’s inelegantly phrased scorn for allies who don’t pay their defense bills is mainstream Washington thinking.

Meanwhile, European allies can expect the Clinton administration to ask them to do more: countering Russia in Central Europe, helping stabilize the Middle East, and joining the United States in building a new security architecture for the Far East. The allies are unlikely to respond, which will exacerbate what is becoming a “drift” away from Europe. Like all US presidents, Hillary Clinton will emphasize America’s fealty to transatlantic relations. But Europe should not expect much help in coping with its internal problems, including its refugee burden, itself, ironically, in major part a product of misconceived American policies in the Middle East since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The lesson for America’s friends and allies abroad thus seems clear. There will be anxious times ahead, even with Hillary Clinton as the 45th president of the United States.

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