The Big 5 and the Sad State of Foreign Policy in 2016

What will the 2016 election mean for U.S. foreign policy? I’ve been trying to avoid that question, because I find the entire spectacle of the campaign disheartening. I don’t just mean Donald Trump; it’s more the sad reality that my country is spending more than a year and billions of dollars selecting a new leader, with the media breathlessly reporting every twitch in the polls and every goofy moment in the debates. No other advanced democracy does business this way; Canada just had the longest election in its history, and it lasted only 78 days. Lucky them. To be honest, I haven’t wanted to jump into this circus until it was absolutely necessary.

As I write this, Iowa voters are casting the first votes in this already long slog toward the White House. By the time you read it, the results will be in, and a mountain of verbiage will have been written or uttered trying to discern what the votes of a select group of voters in an unrepresentative rural state might mean.

But a few things are clear even now: Ben Carson, Martin O’Malley, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, and Jeb Bush are not going to be the 45th president, and the New York Times’s recent endorsement won’t propel John Kasich to the GOP nomination either. What do we know about the contenders who are left, and what sort of foreign policy can we expect when one of them finally staggers across the finish line?


Hillary Clinton.

Let’s take the easiest one first. Hillary Clinton’s views on foreign policy may wobble on occasion (as with her opportunistic skepticism about the Trans-Pacific Partnership), but she’s a known quantity at this point. Maybe too well known. Not only was she once first lady and a two-term senator, but she served four years as secretary of state, for goodness’ sake. Her foreign-policy team is filled with knowledgeable, experienced, and reliably mainstream foreign-policy professionals. Both she and her team are the last people you’d expect to move outside the box when it comes to foreign policy, and that fact alone is likely to reassure foreign governments alarmed by the rest of this year’s field.

A Clinton foreign policy will look a lot like Barack Obama’s, but with a decidedly more hawkish edge. As a senator, she repeatedly backed the use of military force (including the Iraq War), and as secretary of state, she supported the surge in Afghanistan and the ill-conceived toppling of Muammar al-Qaddafi. It was her State Department that got blindsided by Russia’s forceful response in Ukraine, and the United States would be deeply mired in Syria today if her advice had been taken. So a Clinton presidency is not without a serious downside. But if you don’t like radical change and want a foreign-policy team that knows how the government machinery works, she’s probably your candidate.

Here’s the real worry: Clinton and her advisors are deeply committed to the familiar strategy of liberal hegemony the United States has followed ever since the end of the Cold War. This worldview sees U.S. leadership as “indispensable”; has never seen an international problem it doesn’t think Washington could fix; and routinely forgets that other states have interests, too, and aren’t always grateful when the United States throws its weight around. Americans like to think “global leadership” is their birthright, but the U.S. track record since 1993 is a mixed one at best. Today’s world is very different than the one of the 1990s — when liberal hegemony was in its heyday — and many elements of the old U.S. playbook aren’t working that well. If you think that events in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and Africa might require not a bunch of tired verities but some real creativity, the well-worn Clinton team might not be your best bet.

Donald Trump.  

Contrary to what Dan Drezner seems to think, Donald Trump is not the preferred candidate of foreign-policy realists. Trump is a nativist and a xenophobe, not a realist, and the offensive bombast that has carried him to the top of the polls is something no realist could endorse. Realism emphasizes the need for clear strategy, warns against making unnecessary enemies, and recognizes that even powerful countries have to work with others and that complex problems rarely have simple solutions. Realists do worry about how the gains from cooperation are distributed, but no realist that I know opposes a relatively open trading order, favors imposing high tariffs on China, or supports building walls to keep immigrants out. Realists also understand that Muslim-bashing of the sort that Trump has practiced is actively harmful to U.S. interests and a boon to groups such as the Islamic State.

Realism also places a premium on competence in a competitive world, and a businessman who has endured repeated bankruptcies and whose investments have consistently underperformed the market is hardly the sort of management genius you’d want to put in charge of a great nation’s foreign policy.

The real worry is that we have no idea what Trump’s foreign policy would be. We don’t know whom he listens to on the subject (maybe no one), what books he’s read, or whether he understands how modern diplomacy or real war is conducted. No doubt plenty of foreign-policy careerists will flock to his banner should he win the nomination, hoping to land a plum job in Washington, but we have no clue about whom he would appoint. He has said he’ll pick some “really great people,” but on what basis is he going to choose them? And contrary to Trumpian rhetoric, the president isn’t going to negotiate every single international deal himself. A Trump presidency would be a leap in the dark, and I have no desire to participate in a social science experiment on such a vast scale. Italy tried something similar — first with Mussolini and later with Berlusconi — and the results were not pretty.

Ted Cruz. 

What can one say about a candidate who is loathed by his own party and by colleagues on both sides of the Senate aisle? Only that a Ted Cruz presidency would probably make George W. Bush-style “unilateralism” seem like a Quaker meeting. As Winston Churchill once said of John Foster Dulles, Cruz could so similarly be described as a “bull who carries his own china [shop] with him.” If it bothers you that the current U.S. president is now the most popular leader in the world, don’t worry: Cruz would almost certainly fix that problem. The mystery is why someone so filled with un-Christian bile does so well with evangelicals.

Foreign-policy issues don’t rate all that high in Cruz’s campaign materials, apart from the usual GOP boilerplate about Obama’s supposed “weakness,” the need for strong defense, opposition to immigration, and the like. Cruz has promised to tear up the Iran agreement as soon as he’s inaugurated, which must mean he doesn’t mind if Iran’s nuclear program is unconstrained and doesn’t mind angering all the other countries who support the deal. Who knows? Maybe he thinks “carpet-bombing” Iran would solve the problem once and for all. (It wouldn’t.) If Trump worries me because no one knows what he’d do, Cruz worries me because I think we do.

The one interesting wrinkle in the Cruz platform is his aversion to nation-building and his opposition to arming Syrian rebels. There’s a glimmer of insight there, though it doesn’t mesh well with his reflexively combative approach to the outside world. And as with Trump, we don’t know whom Cruz would hire to run the vast national security and foreign affairs bureaucracy. Cruz’s principal foreign-policy advisor has a degree in art history, so at least we can expect a colorful foreign policy in the event Cruz gets elected.

Bernie Sanders.

The Sanders campaign is manifestly not about foreign policy, even though Sanders did show excellent judgment in opposing the 2003 Iraq War. He’s not a reflexive dove, however, having voted for weapons like the F-35 and to authorize the use of military force on a number of occasions. But exactly what he’d do in foreign policy — in Asia, in Africa, toward the refugee crisis, with respect to Russia, etc. — remains a mystery.

In a sense, the Sanders campaign bears a certain weird resemblance to Bill Clinton’s 1992 run. George H. W. Bush had won the first Gulf War and managed the collapse of communism, thereby demonstrating serious foreign-policy chops. But then Clinton came along and told Americans: “It’s the economy, stupid,” thereby implying that Bush had lost sight of what really mattered. But where Clinton embraced Wall Street and globalization, Sanders thinks corporate fat cats have rigged the system for their own benefit and are giving the rest of America the merest crumbs. You can see why he makes the Democratic Party establishment nervous and why young Americans who aren’t planning careers in the finance industry have been drawn to him.

For Sanders, foreign policy is mostly an afterthought. He’s not going to squander lots of money on idealistic foreign-policy crusades, and he’s not likely to pick fights with countries that aren’t directly threatening the United States. That’s sensible. But beyond that, it’s hard to know how he would deal with any of the big-ticket items on the foreign-policy agenda or by what means he’d implement whatever goals he eventually comes up with. And despite his quirky charisma and unexpected success to date, I doubt he’ll get the chance to show us.

Marco Rubio.

For those of you who think invading Iraq was a terrific idea and that all it takes to run the world is a little more moxie and a few ringing slogans, here is your candidate. Marco Rubio’s political career has been bankrolled by backers with solid neoconservative beliefs (such as Paul Singer, Norman Braman, and Sheldon Adelson), and he’s reportedly getting advice from the same Project for the New American Centurytypes who led the United States to disaster under George W. Bush. Indeed, in a remarkably tone-deaf bit of advertising, Rubio’s campaign website opens by asking, “Are You Ready for a New American Century?” Gee, where have I heard that one before? It’s therefore no surprise that Rubio’s foreign-policy pronouncements read like old Weekly Standard articles or that neoconservative David Brooks of the New York Times keeps writing columns touting Rubio’s alleged virtues.

I suspect neoconservatives have cottoned onto Rubio for the same reason they liked George W. Bush and Sarah Palin: He’s an uninformed naif they think they can manipulate and convert to their extreme worldview. Jeb Bush has a few of his brother’s old neoconservative advisors lined up with him, but his campaign is going nowhere, and Rubio is the only candidate who seems to have fully embraced the discredited PNAC worldview. He thinks America is getting terribly, terribly weak (even though we still have the world’s largest economy and spend more on defense than the next dozen countries combined), and he promises to end sequestration and rebuild “American strength.” But he also wants to cut taxes and “rein in Washington spending.” In other words, he’s offering up the same contradictory voodoo that has been a staple of Republican campaigns since Ronald Reagan.

Rubio says he’s big on promoting liberty and freedom, but he also likes Section 215 of the Patriot Act and wants to let the NSA keep sniffing around your cell phone. He also seems to think Iran is the greatest threat we face (even though its economy is about one-twentieth the size of ours and its defense budget even smaller by comparison) and that the solution to extremism in the Middle East is to call it “by its real name — radical Islam.” (The rest of his program for dealing with the Islamic State is virtually identical to Obama’s, though Rubio doesn’t stress this point.) He also promises to maintain strong economic ties with China while confronting it over its human rights violations, implementing the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (another Obama achievement!), and ending Chinese cyberattacks. The only thing missing is how he’ll pull off this magical combination of contradictory objectives.

In short, a Rubio presidency would confirm that the United States has learned precisely nothing from its tragic experiment with neoconservatism. If that’s where we end up this November, we’ll deserve whatever punishment history decides to dish out.


You can now see why I find it painful to write about the 2016 campaign. The good news (such as it is) is that no president gets to run foreign policy on their own, and the things they say in a campaign often bear little resemblance to what they end up doing in office. George W. Bush ran in 2000 promising a “humble” foreign policy and attacking Bill Clinton’s administration for doing too much “nation-building,” but his policies after 9/11 were the exact opposite of the image he presented in the campaign. Similarly, a lot of people thought Obama was going to run a left-wing foreign policy — a grand strategy designed by MoveOn.org — but he upped the use of drones; kept Gitmo open; unleashed special operations forces; escalated in Afghanistan; and made it impossible for Mitt Romney to attack him from the right in 2012 instead.

Moreover, whenever the next president is elected, he or she is going to get an earful from the permanent national security bureaucracy about the difference between the fairy tales peddled during the campaign and the realities of the real world. Obama got schooled before he took office, and even an egomaniac like Trump might pay attention when experienced officials explain to him why his ideas make no sense. And even if Trump or Cruz remains unchastened, bureaucracies have lots of ways to slow down, obstruct, interfere, and dilute whatever cockamamie ideas a president might try to pursue.

Does this mean the election doesn’t matter? Of course not. The United States is still the strongest country in the world, and whoever sits in the Oval Office can still make a huge difference, both in the people he or she appoints and the decisions he or she makes. And that’s what saddens me most as I contemplate this election: Instead of being excited by a smart new leader with a promising vision for addressing our current challenges, I’ve been reduced to hoping that the foreign-policy establishment will rein in the various candidates’ worst instincts.

Welcome to Election 2016: only 10 more months to go!