The 2016 Election Turned the Politics of Foreign Policy on Its Head

Clinton is the hawk this year, Trump the isolationist. Can a warring GOP win back the “strong on defense” mantle — and the White House?

In the 2016 presidential election, one candidate is advocating a forceful U.S. foreign policy, strengthening international alliances, confronting Russia, and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.

And the other candidate is the Republican.

This year’s contest has upended the politics of U.S. foreign policy more dramatically than any in recent memory. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the nominee of the typically “diplomacy first, force as last resort” Democratic Party, sounds more hawkish than the usually “strong on defense” GOP. And businessman Donald Trump, the Republican Party standard-bearer, is the one questioning military interventions overseas and offering olive branches to adversaries.

In the final presidential debate last month, Trump noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin said “nice things” about him, adding, “If we got along well, that would be good.” But Clinton’s plans for the conflict in Syria, he said, wouldlead to World War III” with Russia.

Even if Trump loses — as polls less than a week before Election Day indicate — he has scrambled the politics and the traditional alignments of U.S. foreign policy. He has declared war on his own party, prompting hundreds of its national security elite to form a “Never Trump” movement or even endorse Clinton.

After the Nov. 8 vote, the Republican Party that for years successfully billed itself as the more trusted on security, and in turn helped shape U.S. national security interests, will be left to stitch itself back together — or start over.

“The party is clearly in deep trouble,” said John Bellinger, a legal advisor to the State Department and National Security Council under former President George W. Bush, “and is going to have to be remade.”

Left: A woman wears a shirt reading "Trump-Putin '16" before a rally on Feb. 7 in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Photo credit: DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images Right: Campaign buttons for Trump on sale prior to the Republican nominee's Oct. 29 rally in Golden, Colorado. Photo credit: JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images

Role reversal

Although Trump’s stance is ever evolving on a host of foreign-policy issues and lacking a coherent political philosophy, the Republican nominee loosely calls for a nativist neoisolationism he has dubbed “America First,” harking back to the origins of the phrase in the 1940s.

Trump’s rhetoric is openly hostile to the vision pursued by Republican presidents dating back to Dwight Eisenhower. That vision saw the United States as a global superpower, promoting and protecting free markets and free trade while wielding diplomacy and military might to defend its interests and allies.

Trump’s “America First” appeals put him roughly in a category that some academics call “conservative nationalism,’’ according to Colin Dueck, a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. It’s a mindset that supports unilateral military action while harboring skepticism about multilateral diplomacy, free trade deals, immigration, and democracy promotion abroad.

Attracted to such an anti-establishment message, Trump supporters have flocked to his campaign’s raucous rallies across the country. To voters such as Mike Taylor, wearing a leather motorcycle vest as he stood in line a month ago for a Ferris wheel ride at the North Georgia State Fair, the outside threat is just as real.

Trump is “going to focus a lot on keeping out the illegal aliens,” Taylor told Foreign Policy, though he believes Islamic State “sleeper cells” are already in Georgia and elsewhere.

“The threat is imminent, but I think he’ll focus more on getting rid of the threat than Hillary would,” he said. “She’s a real liberal people pleaser. She’s not going to want to step on toes in the way that Trump is.”

Trump has vowed to bring back a “hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” in interrogations, expressed a willingness to support murdering the families of terrorist suspects, and promised to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” using another name for the Islamic State.

But he also abandoned traditional GOP policy — and a long-established bipartisan consensus — by repeatedly questioning the value of America’s alliances, from South Korea to the Baltics. Trump said he would not necessarily favor the United States coming to the aid of NATO members if they were attacked by Russia, unless those allies had “fulfilled their obligations.”

Following the same line of argument that America is overcommitted overseas, Trump also rejected a decades-long bipartisan consensus on nuclear weapons, openly calling for allies such as South Korea, Japan, and even Saudi Arabia to acquire their own nuclear arsenals. He even reportedly questioned why the United States didn’t use its own.

Taking a page out of the playbooks of both President Barack Obama and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, he has tried to undermine Clinton’s far deeper experience by pointing to the spate of foreign-policy crises during the Obama administration, from Iraq to Libya (both interventions he once supported), as evidence of her “trigger happy” “bad judgment.”

He has left Clinton, in contrast, sounding even more like a member of the Republican foreign-policy establishment. She has struck a hawkish yet prudent tone and scolded Trump at the debates for being ill-informed and ill-prepared.

Clinton and Trump attend the town hall debate on Oct. 9 in St. Louis, Missouri. Photo credit: RICK WILKING/Getty Images

Clinton has consistently hit Trump for being dangerously incoherent on foreign policy and peddling bigotry and xenophobia. She has continued to advocate a more muscular version of the “smart power” multilateralism of the Obama administration, in praising the historic deal over Iran’s nuclear program, defending the New START treaty with Russia, and promoting a further opening to Cuba.

Still, the former secretary of state has been forced to thread the needle of both touting her record and distancing herself from Obama’s foreign-policy foibles — and does so by arguing that military power is a potential means to diplomatic ends.

In one of her clearest breaks from Obama, she called for a no-fly zone in Syria in order to push Russia to the table. She earned praise from Republican hawks, and her position was followed by much of the Republican primary field.

On no single issue has Clinton and Trump’s role reversal on foreign policy played out more starkly than over Russia’s resurgence.

Clinton has taken a hard line on Moscow. She has criticized Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, its intervention in Syria, and its cybermeddling in the U.S. election. But Trump has heaped praise on the Kremlin — which the GOP old guard views as dangerous blasphemy.

Despite receiving intelligence briefings on the subject, Trump continues to deny growing evidence of Russian-directed hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other targets. He has called Putin a “stronger leader” than Obama. Trump’s advisors worked to remove language from the GOP platform calling for lethal aid to Ukraine, and the nominee suggested he may recognize Crimea as part of Russia. The United States should either leave the Syrian conflict to Moscow, he argued, or form a military alliance with Russia.

But Trump’s first jarring role reversal was breaking with decades of Republican orthodoxy on trade — and he dragged both parties with him.

Trump has slammed free trade deals negotiated since the 1990s and in particular the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) championed by Obama, vowing that he’d negotiate better deals with foreign leaders.

“We don’t win at trade, China, everybody, Japan, Mexico, Vietnam, India, name the country. Anybody we do business with beats us. We don’t win at trade,” Trump said in March.

Not since the 1930s and 1940s has protectionism found such a welcoming home in the Republican Party; Ross Perot, who pushed an anti-trade campaign in the 1992 presidential election, ran as an independent. Sen. Reed Smoot and Rep. Willis Hawley — whose eponymous tariffs in 1930 unleashed the Great Depression globally — were both Republican lawmakers.

“Trade has always been one of the cornerstones of Republican foreign policy, more so than the Democrats, who’ve been concerned about free trade, and now the Republican standard-bearer is leading the charge against free trade,” Bellinger said.

Clinton, while leading the State Department, initially championed the TPP agreement. Under pressure from within her own party over trade in the form of an unexpected primary challenge from Sanders, she later came out against it. But she spoke in more measured tones and avoided denouncing all trade accords, including the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement brokered while her husband was in the White House. This year, the Democratic nominee often sounded more like a Republican on trade than Trump, whose appeals to blue-collar workers echoed liberal lions from the Democratic Party’s past.

Trump holds a campaign rally on Oct. 31 in Warren, Michigan. Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images

Not your grandfather’s GOP

Although Trump may sound like a heretic on foreign policy to the Republican elite, he tapped into swelling populist anger among GOP voters that had emerged far earlier.

“He’s a product of the modern Republican Party, not someone who created it,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

Amid rising anxiety over the economic downturns and growing income inequality of recent decades, a large bloc of Republican voters strained to see the benefits of free trade deals and started to view unfettered trade as what left them behind. And after nearly a decade of sluggish economic growth and an uneven recovery on the homefront, an increasing number of grassroot Republicans have become skeptical of the benefits of broader international engagement and cooperation, alliances, foreign aid, and even legal immigration.

The consensus that prevailed in the GOP from the 1950s through the early 2000s gave way to a gamut of ideas from Sen. Rand Paul’s isolationism to a bellicose nationalism advocating unilateral military action against U.S. adversaries, draconian limits on immigration, and less diplomatic cooperation.

Despite the 9/11 attacks, the disastrous outcome of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq emboldened elements within the GOP that had grown wary of open-ended military adventures and were more interested in scaling back the size of the federal government.

Their impatience with the political “establishment” — including Republican leaders — manifested itself in a series of elections since 2010, helping midwife the Tea Party, whose tone and tenor foreshadowed some of Trump’s rhetoric.

The rise of a new terrorist threat, the Islamic State, with its grisly propaganda videos of beheadings and other atrocities in Paris and Brussels, also formed the backdrop for Trump’s emotional appeal. Voters were afraid not just about losing their jobs but of Islamic State militants setting off bombs in U.S. cities.

In a bloated primary field, no single candidate spoke to the insecurities of the American electorate as skillfully as Trump. He won a record 13.3 million votes during the primary — knocking off the establishment presidential hopefuls.

Trump’s rejection of intervention, coupled with his tough talk on security, tracks to some extent with changing public views about America’s global role. Voter support for increased defense spending is the highest it has been since just after 9/11. But most Americans want the United States to focus on its own problems rather than expanding the military’s role abroad, according to recent polls from the Pew Research Center and the conservative-sponsored Survey Sampling International.

Fear — whether of immigration, trade, or terrorism — has served as the common thread for Trump’s candidacy. In his speeches, immigrants are a threat; some are “rapists,” others possibly “radical Islamic terrorists.” If Clinton is elected, Trump has warned, the Islamic State will triumph. If free trade deals are allowed to stay in place, he argues, more jobs will be lost and factories will close.

And Trump’s appeal is not solely an American phenomenon.

In Europe, right-wing, populist rhetoric railing against the dangers of free trade and immigrants — particularly Muslim immigrants — is gaining ground as well, including in France and Germany. Hungary has already fully embraced “illiberal democracy.” The surprise result of the Brexit referendum in June, in which a majority of Britons voted to pull their country out of the European Union, captured the populist mood on both sides of the Atlantic.

A Trump supporter wears a colorful shirt outside Trump's Oct. 29 campaign rally in Golden, Colorado. Photo credit: JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images

The GOP’s civil war is just beginning

But among an increasingly diverse American electorate, Trump’s emotional power also limited his own presidential prospects. Insulting broad swaths of the voting population — women, Latinos, African-Americans, Muslims — mobilized his base but also prevented him from expanding it. Yet even if the businessman-turned-reality TV star loses the race, the anxieties and fears that helped give rise to his candidacy will not disappear.

Once the ballots are counted — especially if Clinton prevails — Republicans will plunge into a struggle over the soul of their party, and foreign-policy issues will be front and center.

“Republicans are divided over foreign policy like they have not been for years,” said Stuart Rothenberg, the founding editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter. “Once defined by their desire to flex the nation’s military muscle and exercise diplomatic influence abroad, the GOP now has a vocal isolationist, ‘America First’ wing. Nobody knows what the future holds for the party.”

For decades, the Republican Party enjoyed a virtual political monopoly on foreign-policy issues.

Since at least the Vietnam War, voters consistently had more confidence in Republican leaders handling foreign crises than their Democratic counterparts. The GOP could cite the diplomatic competence and strength of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, while defensive Democrats found themselves saddled with Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War and Jimmy Carter’s legacy of bungling and bad luck in Iran. Bill Clinton also had his share of trouble on foreign policy, retreating from a disastrous U.S. military mission in Somalia, dithering initially over intervention in the Balkans, failing to take action to stop the genocide in Rwanda, and dropping the ball on the threat posed by al Qaeda.

The tables, however, have turned. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, with its catastrophic consequences and its flawed rationale, badly damaged the Republican Party’s credibility on foreign policy. Public war weariness helped Obama win the presidency. And now the Republican brand has suffered yet another hit, this time from Trump.

Zelizer of Princeton calls the effect “a double punch — Iraq and then Trump.”

Thanks to Trump’s often ill-informed and reckless talk, polls have shown Clinton holds a consistent advantage among voters on foreign policy and a wide range of issues — what Bellinger calls “safe hands” versus a man tweeting at 3 a.m. about a former beauty pageant contestant.

But even without Trump at the helm, large numbers of Republican voters are not ready to return to the party’s traditional foreign-policy doctrine, especially on trade.

Elliott Abrams, who served on George W. Bush’s National Security Council and before that under Reagan, said he was surprised by “the degree to which people have been persuaded — mostly by Trump, a little bit by Sanders — that international trade is the culprit” for their ills.

That shift could result in “an effort to cushion the damage international trade may do to certain portions of the American population … rather than simply getting into trade wars,” Abrams told FP.

But it’s unclear whether advocates of the GOP’s conventional line on national security, many of whom refused to endorse Trump, can forge common ground with more isolationist and populist voices in the party.

“I don’t think Trumpism is the inevitable future for the Republican Party,” said Dueck of George Mason University. “But I do think some form of conservative nationalism is probably here to stay. He identified it, he revealed it, he tapped into it, he expressed it. I don’t think that’s just going to disappear if he loses.”

Bellinger said he was optimistic some Republican lawmakers and foreign-policy experts will work with Clinton in the name of national security. He was far less hopeful for the fate of the GOP itself.

“The Republican Party is going to have to find its way forward and either rebuild the party or the party is going to split,” Bellinger said. “And there will be a moderate, Free Democratic-type party like in Germany, and then some sort of much more conservative, populist, nationalist party.”

Eliot Cohen, who served in the Defense and State departments for George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, respectively, and who organized early Republican opposition to Trump, described it more as a choice between a “purge” and a “secession.”

“If the party cannot rid itself of the nativist, white nationalist, neoisolationist elements …” he said, “I think we can’t survive together.”

Clinton and her fellow Democrats will have to work hard to solidify their hold on foreign policy and craft a positive message that clearly articulates the party’s vision, experts said.

“It’s not enough in the long term just to say that your opponents aren’t doing very well or that they are not that credible,” Zelizer said.

Still, Democrats have the edge on foreign policy for the moment and may for some time — largely thanks to Trump.

“Republicans this year got into bed with a monster,” Cohen said, “and it’s going to take some time for them to get out.”

Top photo credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration

Molly O’Toole

Dan De Luce