The campaign headlines of 2016 are distracting world leaders from preparing for what will be the biggest headline of 2017.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Analysts around the world, not to mention average folks everywhere, are scratching their heads over the U.S. presidential election campaign that is among the most bizarre in America’s history. But the mind-blowing nature of some of the developments in the contest for the White House is likely masking an even bigger twist that looms once the election actually occurs in November.
Of all the campaign season’s peculiarities, none gets more coverage than the fever-dream weirdness of the rise of Donald Trump. As I have traveled around the world the past few months, I have been struck by the universal interest in this cartoonish, polarizing figure. But why? Is he a symptom of the decline of American society? A figment of our television-addled collective imagination? A sinister, neo-fascist selling hatred instead of real solutions? An inexperienced buffoon who is an embarrassment to the country of Washington, Jefferson, and, well, almost any other American?
Of course, he isn’t just one of these things. He is all of them. And the fact that a sizable chunk of Americans are willing to support him and actually cast votes to put him in the most powerful job in the world (the global reach and influence of Taylor Swift notwithstanding) is, to most of us, just ridiculous. Unfathomable. Impossible to defend and awkward for Americans to try to explain to friends from abroad—since it requires admitting deep failings in American society, our economy, our educational system, and a failure of our leaders to address those problems for decades.
That honor goes to the remarkable run of the Socialist septuagenarian senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. The notion that a Socialist — not to mention a Jewish socialist who looks and sounds like your cranky grandpa — has won almost as many primaries and caucuses as the unstoppable, foregone conclusion, Democratic Party-establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, is stunning. (With Sanders’ win in the Wyoming caucuses, his total primary and caucus victories are 17, closing in on Clinton’s 19.) The fact that he is the candidate of choice with the young when he likely wears suits that are older than many of his supporters, is equally fascinating.
Sanders is almost certainly the most successful outsider candidate in any American political party primary process since perhaps Barry Goldwater, who won the Republican nomination in 1964. (Obama supporters will suggest that their man was a huge outsider in the 2008 election. He was certainly a long shot. But his politics and how he presented himself — not to mention how he governed as president — were strictly mainstream. His academic credentials and path to the presidency were more traditional than that of Uncle Bernie.)
Foreign leaders who felt whipsawed by the ham-fisted, interventionist presidency of George W. Bush and the leading-from-behind, often bewildered and incoherent foreign policy of Barack Obama (which is how it is widely viewed, despite his articulate explanations and rationalizations) might be excused if the 2016 campaign has them considering writing off the United States as a credible international leader permanently. Trump and Sanders are bizarre choices for America in domestic political terms but when it comes to foreign policy they are demonstrably incompetent, unprepared, and really indefensible choices to be commander in chief. (Ted Cruz, the alternative to Trump, is arguably worse than Trump on many levels. The fact that he and Trump are the two viable choices of the Grand Old Party may soon lead to calls for the revitalization of the Whig Party — which the Republicans effectively replaced in the U.S. political order back with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.)
Foreign leaders — and anyone watching this election from overseas — must think the United States is now somehow locked in a pattern of swinging from one unprepared foreign policy wild card to another.
But you see, that’s where the twist comes. Trump is not going to be the next president of the United States. He may not even be the Republican nominee (though if you were betting, you’d have to bet he would be given his delegate lead). But his negative ratings in the polls are through the roof (the latest AP-GfK poll shows his unfavorability rating at 69 percent and nearly two thirds of Americans say they wouldn’t vote for him). He is almost certain to offend more people between now and November if, as he has a tendency to, he opens his mouth and words come out. And polling data like that found at Real Clear Politics suggests he will not do well against either potential Democratic opponent — with Hillary Clinton showing a double-digit lead over him nationally and Sanders showing an even greater lead, of over 16 percent, over the floppy haired reality-TV star.
Sanders has done amazingly well. But he will lose to the immensely popular Hillary Clinton in New York and in many other upcoming contests. And in the ones she loses because of proportional distribution of delegates she will still pick up key supporters and maintain her lead. Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. And then, facing Trump or Cruz or some “establishment” candidate put up at the Republican convention in Cleveland this summer (who is likely to be opposed by a pissed-off Trump in a third-party candidacy that would blow up any GOP chances of winning), she is going to win.
And a President Hillary Rodham Clinton, for all the historic newness associated with America having its first and long-overdue female president, is likely to embrace a foreign policy that is the most traditional of any president in this century. (Indeed, her presidency may in fact be even more traditional than that of her husband given that he was navigating the unique, confusing environment of the immediate post-Cold War world.) Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and as a senator has showed a commitment to American leadership around the world, strong national defense, and active involvement in the international system that America helped set up in the wake of World War II. (This is a view supported in the accounts of her colleagues, for example, like former Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, and former CIA Director David Petraeus.) She is well known for a temperate management style that earned her widespread support within the State Department when she ran it, a history of both listening and being deeply prepared, and working well with both career diplomats and military officers.
For these reasons, it is not unreasonable to assume that the manic, funhouse-mirror qualities that have made campaign 2016 so memorable and, at times, deeply disturbing are likely to be followed in 2017 by America returning to the most traditionalist, solid, dependable, foreign policy it has seen since the administration of George H.W. Bush and the fall of the Soviet Union. That should be no surprise. Clinton would be the first trained foreign policy professional to become president since the elder Bush and the first secretary of state to become president since James Buchanan (continuing a tradition that was started with men like Jefferson, Madison, and John Quincy Adams).
Which means that all this campaign craziness is likely to produce something that few in the world may expect today: sanity and the kind of sound U.S. leadership upon which the world and the people of the United States have come to depend.
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