The Donald vs. the Blob

The foreign-policy establishment is backing Hillary Clinton. And that may not be such a bad thing for Trump.


Barring a bizarre and unforeseen turn of events, next November American voters will have to choose Hillary Rodham Clinton or Donald Trump to be the nation’s 45th president. The two candidates could not be more different: female versus male; longtime public servant versus self-absorbed private businessman; Democrat versus Republican; unapologetic liberal internationalist versus xenophobic nativist; uber-cautious, poll-driven politico versus vulgar and impulsive bomb-thrower. It’s quite a choice.

Their campaigns could not be more different either, especially when it comes to foreign policy. The Clinton campaign has already assembled a “massive brain trust” of policy wonks and former government officials, including Michèle Flournoy, Nicholas Burns, Madeleine Albright, Jake Sullivan, Derek Chollet, Tamara Wittes, Phil Gordon, Michael McFaul, and many, many more. As befits a former secretary of state, former senator, and former first lady, her foreign-policy machine is the living embodiment of the mainstream Foreign-Policy Establishment.

By contrast, Trump’s foreign-policy views seem to spring out of his own impulsive id, and the handful of foreign-policy advisors he’s revealed are hardly bold-faced names with glittering resumes. Indeed, such is Trump’s alienation from the foreign-policy establishment that some 120 Republican foreign-policy gurus recently released an open letter denouncing his candidacy and declaring him “utterly unfitted to the office.” Trump can’t even win the backing of conservative humorist P.J. O’Rourke, who might have been expected to support him for the comic value alone.

You’d think this disparity would give Clinton a big advantage in the general election, and that may in fact prove to be the case. But I’m not so sure.

For one thing, most Americans don’t care that much about foreign policy, and they rarely choose presidents on that basis. Economic conditions drive presidential elections more than international events do, so even if voters believe Clinton is the sounder choice on foreign-policy grounds, it may not matter that much.

Furthermore, the public seems to be in a pretty rebellious mood this year, and a lot of that resentment is directed toward the “establishment.” Both the Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns have been sustained by populist anger at well-connected fat cats whom voters believe have sold the country down the river, and that discontent appears to include foreign policy. An April 2016 Pew Research Center poll found that 57 percent of Americans believe the United States “should deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their problems as best they can,” with 41 percent saying the country did “too much” in world affairs and only 27 percent asserting it did “too little.” Needless to say, such sentiments sound a lot more like Trump than Clinton.

For this reason, having the bulk of the mainstream foreign-policy establishment in her corner may not be a great asset for Clinton, and that impression increases when one reflects on how that establishment has behaved in recent decades.

The United States began the 1990s on top of the world, with both liberals and conservatives hailing the “unipolar moment,” dreaming of the “end of history,” and embracing a strategy of American liberal hegemony. Whether in the form of Bill Clinton’s strategy of “engagement and enlargement” or George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda,” the United States was going use its power to spread democracy and human rights far and wide — peacefully if possible but by force if necessary. Markets would grow, freedom would spread, and peace would prevail, all under the watchful but benevolent eye of America’s foreign-policy mandarins.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Instead, U.S. policy in the Middle East eventually triggered the 9/11 attacks, which our vast national security apparatus failed to detect or prevent. The United States then fought two costly and unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there’s still no end in sight in either country. Washington repeatedly failed to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement despite abundant potential leverage and numerous attempts. It also failed to build a positive relationship with Russia, mostly because the United States kept expanding NATO into Russia’s traditional sphere of interest. The United States couldn’t stop North Korea, India, or Pakistan from acquiring nuclear weapons or expanding their existing arsenals, and it reached a nuclear deal with Iran only after the Islamic Republic had built thousands of centrifuges and become a latent nuclear weapons state. The United States also helped produce failed states in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, and its overall response to the turmoil now roiling the Arab world has been incoherent, inconsistent, and ineffective. And in the meantime, China has been increasing its power, staying out of costly conflicts, and gradually challenging the status quo in Asia.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The United States can claim some minor successes in this period, but the overall record is unimpressive. America’s “unipolar moment” was surprisingly short, and the world we inhabit today is far bleaker than the one most experts anticipated back when the Cold War ended. Instead of an expanding sphere of stable and prosperous democracies, today’s world is one of sluggish economic growth, violent extremism, rising xenophobia, declining democracy, and resurgent great-power rivalry. U.S. foreign policy is not solely responsible for these trends, of course, but its various missteps helped cause many of them. In short, America’s vaunted foreign-policy establishment has some explaining to do.

And like Wall Street, it is also an establishment that rarely holds its members accountable. If you’re a respected member of the foreign-policy elite, you can plead guilty of lying to Congress, receive a pardon, get rehired by another president, screw up again, and then land a nice sinecure at a prominent think tank. You can lobby for an ill-planned intervention in Libya, help create a failed state there, and subsequently get promoted to the position of national security advisor or U.N. ambassador. You can help lead the nation into a disastrous war in Iraq, mismanage the postwar occupation, and fail upward to become president of the World Bank. You can get caught making false statements to the public and press and still retain the “full confidence” of the president. Or you can repeatedly fail to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East and then get rehired to try again and achieve exactly the same result.

When disasters cannot be swept under the rug, this same community is quick to blame the “system” and avoid naming names. The 9/11 Commission “shied away from holding anyone personally accountable,” and as one participant later admitted, “individuals, especially the two presidents and their intimate advisers, received even more indulgent treatment.” Similarly, the Schlesinger Report on the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison referred vaguely to “institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels” but declined to identify the individuals to whom this statement referred. Similarly, no one was ever held accountable for the Bush-era torture regime, and apparently no one lost their job after squandering billions of dollars trying to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. And it is an establishment whose supporting institutions are increasingly dependent on donations from corporations with their own international interests, from wealthy individuals with explicit political agendas, and from foreign governments looking to buy some favorable spin inside the Beltway.

To be fair, most of the people who labor in government or in the penumbra of foreign-policy institutions are patriotic, well-meaning, intelligent, and dedicated and sincerely believe in what they are doing. They want the United States to be secure and prosperous, and they would like to make the rest of the world a better place. And sometimes they do just that. But many of these people are also ambitious, and they are imbedded in a system that rewards conformity, rarely if ever questions the value of U.S. “global leadership,” and is quick to marginalize anyone who thinks America’s self-indulgent approach to foreign policy might be doing more harm than good.

By virtue of her history, Hillary Clinton is intimately connected to this community and cannot help being linked to its recent performance. By signing up all those experienced foreign-policy insiders, she reinforces her association with some of the good things the United States has done in recent years. But it also means that she owns the past 25 years of foreign-policy missteps. Clinton was in the White House when her husband embraced “dual containment” in the Persian Gulf, when the United States led the charge for NATO expansion, and when it bungled the Oslo peace process. She was in the Senate when the United States went to war in Iraq, and she voted for that foolish war with apparent enthusiasm. She was running the State Department when the United States unwisely escalated in Afghanistan in 2009 (to no good purpose) and when it helped oust Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011 (ditto). She has little choice but to defend the strategy of liberal hegemony pursued by all three post-Cold War presidents: If anything, she is more enthusiastic about it than President Barack Obama has been. Her problem is that this record is not easy to defend.

Trump is under no such burden. Because his only responsibility over the past 25 years has been mismanaging the fortune he inherited, cultivating celebrity, courting a series of wives, and presiding over a reality TV show, he is free to criticize Clinton and her phalanx of advisors and appeal to the voters’ worst instincts with vague and wildly optimistic promises of his own. Knowledgeable foreign-policy experts have been quick to attack his various proposals, but these experts may not have much street cred this year.

To be clear: I’ve no desire to participate in a vast and risky social science experiment, and I won’t be voting for Trump next November. To the extent Americans care about foreign policy, they may prefer to stick with the familiar nostrums of liberal hegemony, and they may find the support Clinton gets from foreign-policy experts (including some prominent Republicans) reassuring. But if I were in her shoes, I wouldn’t write him off just yet.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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