When it comes to national-security issues, Hillary Clinton seems to win by a slam dunk. After decades as first lady, senator and secretary of state, she would bring an experienced, steady, knowledgeable hand to guiding U.S. foreign policy in a period of international stress and conflict. A President Donald Trump would bring no experience and very limited knowledge to the task. Experience and knowledge outweigh inexperience and ignorance every time—right?
In reality, either of these candidates could get the United States into serious trouble over the next four years. Experience may not be the best indicator of whether national-security policies are wise, steady and successful. Temperament and judgment may be as or even more important. Trump fails both tests, and Clinton fails the second. Which means American national security may be in trouble.
Let’s put the experience thing to rest first. Historically, foreign-policy experience has not always been what it is cracked up to be when it comes to directing U.S. foreign policy. With the notable exceptions of Eisenhower, Nixon and Bush the elder, every president elected since the death of FDR in 1945 has actually had very little or only superficial experience in the details of U.S. foreign and security policy.
While the historical record here is complex, the correlation between experience and effectiveness is uneven. Nine presidents were foreign-policy amateurs: Truman (a haberdasher and World War I artillery captain); Kennedy (wrote a book, commanded a PT boat); Johnson (liked the space program and domestic policy); Ford (virtually zero); Carter (submarine command); Reagan (governor of California); Clinton (governor of Arkansas); and George W. Bush (limiting case of zero).
Success in securing the American national interest is not well correlated here. Ike was great, but he also brought us the Iran and Guatemala coups d’état, which still bedevil U.S. foreign policy. Truman built the policies and institutions that contained the Soviet Union for forty-five years, but that also started us on our present progress to a national-security state. Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs, but also the Cuban missile crisis. Nixon recognized China and negotiated arms control with the Soviets, but prolonged the Vietnam war, after Johnson had escalated it significantly, and supported the overthrow of a democratically elected leader in Chile. Carter advanced human rights and failed in Iran. Reagan sunk into Iran–Contra and experienced the beginning of the end of the Cold War, while Bush the elder ended that twilight struggle but got us into the Somali mess. Clinton made that mess worse, while he helped a difficult transition in the Balkans. Bush the younger made the most dreadful and catastrophic mistake of the new century by invading Iraq, but his HIV/AIDS program was very successful. It is too early to settle Obama’s legacy, but it is clearly mixed, particularly in foreign and security policy.
It appears that experience is not enough, and in some cases (like Vietnam), of little use in telling us who will be a great steward of foreign and security policy.
Likewise, while the stance a candidate takes on foreign-policy issues may seem a good indicator (more on that below), it can be outright misleading. Every candidate in the past twenty-four years has committed to confronting China; not one of them has once in office. But views on issues can give an indication of what matters even more—that second criterion, temperament and judgment.
On these scales, Trump is worrisome because his explosive temperament is dangerous, while his policy judgment would destabilize U.S. foreign policy and our relations around the world. Clinton is worrisome because, while her temperament seems steady, her judgment about U.S. relations with the rest of the world is excessively militarized and interventionist.
Trump’s policy judgment appears to break with seventy years of U.S. foreign-policy commitments and alliances , potentially remove U.S. military forces in some areas overseas, contemplate the expansion of nuclear-weapons states, tear up the Iran nuclear agreement, halt immigration into the United States of entire groups of people, end nation-building activities while supporting dictators in other countries, confront China, and add significantly to the size and cost of the U.S. military.
Some of this sounds potentially sensible; ending U.S. efforts at nation building after two dramatic failures like Iraq and Afghanistan would seem to make sense. Some of it is highly risky; a nuclear Japan, South Korea, or Saudi Arabia may make for less rather than more stability. Some of it just seems internally contradictory; if the United States is going to intervene less under a Trump presidency, it is not clear why the U.S. Army needs to grow by fifty thousand or the Navy to 350 ships.
One senses that the details are not important here, but the unpredictability of Trump’s judgment is. Moreover, because so many of his statements—nukes, burden-sharing, ISIS—are off the cuff, his temperament is at the heart of what makes him a potentially dangerous president. Not only has he headed off the rails in his past (the “locker room” tape), but he has lashed out in every direction on this issue, as well as on Clinton’s mistakes (“go to jail”) and the fundamental nature of the U.S. electoral system (it is “rigged” against him). All are indicative of how he might handle even more explosive situations.