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H is for Hawk: The US Foreign Policy Outlook

28 Jul 2016
By Associate Professor Brendon O'Connor
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Photo credit: DonkeyHotey (Flickr) Creative Commons

This week saw Hillary Clinton’s US presidential nomination confirmed, officially pitting her against Republican nominee Donald Trump for the November poll. So, what is the foreign policy choice for the US electorate and what does it mean for the world beyond US borders?

The next president of the United States will be less diplomatic and more aggressive towards America’s adversaries than President Obama has been. This seems almost certain as both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton believe America needs more forcefully to project its power towards the rest of the world. This more aggressive outlook underrates the prudence of Obama’s general approach and is quite frankly worrisome in a world that is becoming more volatile and less predictable. The post-Cold War peace seems increasingly unstable due to territorial disputes in the west Pacific, horrendous violence and political instability in the Middle East, the rise of ISIS and self-radicalising terrorists and a nationalist Russia intent on restoring its former glory.

This is the time for a confident but measured America. However, instead of prudence in the international arena, a President Trump seems likely to overreact (given his egoism and lack of impulse control) and a President Clinton seems likely to overreach (given her past foreign policy decisions and current beliefs). Some realist commentators—followers of Kissinger’s power politics worldview—have suggested Trump’s largely isolationist outlook is preferable to Hillary Clinton’s liberal interventionist instincts because it is likely to cause less harm in the world. This prognostication strikes me as a misunderstanding of Trump.

If we can categorise Trump’s view of foreign policy at all—a difficult task because his mode of operation is eliciting support through the use of fear—he is usefully seen as a Jacksonian nationalist. Jacksonians care little about the world beyond American shores. “To be damned with the rest of the world” was a strong conviction amongst early American settlers and this sentiment is alive and well today in the USA. However, Jacksonians are not strictly isolationists, they believe that if America is attacked or threatened then it should respond with maximum force and destroy any enemy. This outlook was a central pillar of George W. Bush’s response to the 9/11 attacks.

Trump has claimed he will destroy ISIS. If he is serious about this boast, then America could well commit many more troops for an extended period of time in Iraq and Syria. Trump’s Jacksonianism, which has a good deal of the bar brawler who wants to fight anyone that supposedly insults them about it, is more predictable than his nationalism. Trump’s “America first” trade policies and his “making America great again” promise, which seems to rely on making other nations compliant and “not so great”, could, if put into action, be ruinous for the global economy and for the relative world peace experienced since 1945. Having said all of this, it is also important to acknowledge that given Trump’s limited knowledge and attention span on policy matters, a lot would depend on who he nominates to the key cabinet positions.

Given this gloomy view of Donald’s world surely Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy is likely to be much more preferable. The short answer to this is: absolutely. However, the longer answer is that as first lady, senator and then secretary of state, Clinton developed the reputation for being a hawk (a person that believes in intervening and, at times, bombing foreign nations). Furthermore, she tends to describe these interventions in Wilsonian terms: that they are not just good for America but for the world in general.

How did the Children’s Defense Fund lawyer and feminist advocate Hillary Rodham Clinton become a leading foreign policy hawk? In the 1990s, Hillary staked out boilerplate first lady concerns regarding foreign affairs (for instance, she was a strong campaigner for the rights of women under the brutally sexist Taliban regime in Afghanistan). However, behind the scenes at the height of the Lewinsky scandal in 1998 it has been widely reported that she vocally advocated that her husband not be reluctant about using the power of the US military to kill Osama bin Laden and his closest associates. This led to the controversial military strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan, which at the time were referred to as the “Wag the dog” bombings (in reference to a recent Robert De Niro and Dustan Hoffman film). This advocacy fits a pattern: Hillary Clinton was regarded as an advocate for using airstrikes against Serbia during the conflict over Bosnia and then later Kosovo. Infamously, in 2002 she voted as a senator to authorise the use of military force in Iraq. In a contentious debate amongst Obama’s foreign policy team, Secretary of State Clinton argued for the use of force to end the regime of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. In the Syrian conflict she has stated that she would have been more willing to use US military force in that tragic and very deadly conflict than Obama has been.

The question not enough journalists have asked is, why is Hillary a hawk? And also where is she likely to use the US military in the future with the aim of solving problems? Hillary Clinton is a liberal interventionist in her foreign policy outlook: she believes that a highly engaged America is in the interests of the US and the world, and that this engagement should principally be via commerce and diplomacy, but in extreme circumstances force might be necessary. What these circumstances are of course requires incredible judgment and an eye to unintended consequences. The problem with Hillary Clinton is she does not seem as chastened by the very negative consequences of the invasion of Iraq and the bombings of Libya as she should be. This rightly leads to ongoing concerns about the judgment of the woman that is likely to be the next president of the United States.

Brendon O’Connor is associate professor in American Politics at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. The article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.