AS THE 2016 U.S. presidential race begins to take shape, would-be Republican candidates have begun to outline their foreign-policy agendas. But little remains known officially of the foreign-policy agenda of the current favorite to win the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, who just recently launched her bid for the presidency. As terrorism, cybersecurity, communicable diseases and other global concerns remain in the forefront of Americans’ minds, and with no incumbent running, the race presents an opportunity for a healthy—and perhaps heated—discussion of foreign policy.
In recent decades, the most notable change in presidential politics has been the end of the Republican Party’s dominance on national-security issues. After the 1988 presidential election, when George H. W. Bush crushed a hapless Michael Dukakis, many observers postulated that Democrats could no longer win the presidency in light of their vulnerability on foreign policy. George McGovern’s campaign against Richard Nixon in 1972 fostered a narrative that Democrats were too soft on national security to be trusted, and Jimmy Carter’s presidency perpetuated the perception that Democrats were naive about the Soviet threat.
Ironically, the apogee of the notion of Republican national-security strength—Ronald Reagan’s clear vision to push the Soviet Union onto the “ash heap of history”—was the beginning of the end of the GOP’s dominance in foreign policy. After the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union imploded, Republican toughness against Communism no longer served as a central issue to voters—and, consequently, neither did the perception of Democratic softness on Communism. The American people, at least for the moment, no longer cared much about foreign policy.
By 2008, the tables had turned, and the Democrats now held the upper hand in presidential politics. Strikingly, Democrats had gone from a 1992 election in which the absence of foreign policy enabled Bill Clinton (who avoided military service in Vietnam) to win the presidency against a decorated war hero to a 2008 election in which Barack Obama defeated another war hero in part because Republicans no longer could credibly claim they were the party of national security in the aftermath of the Iraq debacle. (Nor, after the onset of the financial crisis, could they claim they were the party capable of running the economy.)
As the 2016 presidential campaign gets under way in earnest, foreign policy is again up for grabs. While candidates on both sides will spend more time discussing domestic challenges than they will international ones, the Republicans—for whom anti-Communism held the party together during most of the Cold War—will grapple with an internal debate pitting the so-called isolationists against the internationalists, themselves split between traditional realists and neoconservatives. On the Democratic side, all eyes are on former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. The assumption is that as president she would return the Democratic Party to a more activist, interventionist foreign policy after eight years of a president who has had an easier time articulating his foreign policy in terms of what he would not do (“stupid” stuff) than in explaining what he would. But that does not mean she would return the Democrats to a refurbished version of her husband’s foreign policy. While a Hillary Clinton victory would propel the Democrats toward a more activist foreign policy after January 2017, we should not expect a replay of Bill Clinton’s agenda, due largely to an American public weary of the country’s efforts to remake other societies and to an international order that the United States no longer dominates as it did in the 1990s.
THE END of the Cold War provided Democrats a golden opportunity, as the national-security credentials of the presidential candidates mattered little to voters in 1992. Bill Clinton, who focused “like a laser beam” on the economy, championed economic openness as the central pillar of his foreign policy. As part of his broader effort to shift the Democratic Party to the center, he was prepared to challenge labor unions to promote free trade. He understood that the forces of globalization were having a profound effect on international economic relations, and while Republican critics derided him as believing in “globaloney,” Clinton forged ahead. He achieved passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 and, soon thereafter, the establishment of the World Trade Organization.
While Clinton appeared more interested in issues related to globalization than anything else in foreign policy (with the possible exception of better relations with Russia that would enable him to reallocate resources from defense to his domestic agenda), a number of his advisers, including Anthony Lake, Richard Holbrooke and Madeleine Albright, urged him to advocate for a foreign policy underpinned by democracy promotion and, ultimately, the use of military force for humanitarian purposes. Democracy promotion had emerged as a theme in the 1992 campaign, in part as a means to return neoconservatives to the Democratic Party.
Traditionally, neoconservatives were socially liberal but hawkish on foreign policy, and after leaving a Democratic Party they viewed as weak on national security in the 1970s, they overwhelmingly supported Ronald Reagan for president in 1980. Disillusioned by what they viewed as George H. W. Bush’s unwillingness to stand up to China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, to support the republics of the then Soviet Union adequately in their bid for independence, and to end the bloodshed in the Balkans, they responded positively to the Clinton campaign themes of promoting freedom and human rights. These ideas flourished particularly in Clinton’s second term, as Albright made them a centerpiece of her tenure as secretary of state.
Likewise, under Clinton, the Democratic Party became increasingly comfortable with the use of military force. When Bill Clinton entered the presidency, his relationship with the military could not have been worse. When Clinton visited the USS Theodore Roosevelt in 1993, the press overheard a sailor telling a joke in which a protester throws a beer at the president—“not to worry, it was a draft beer, so he dodged it.” Moreover, Clinton’s proposal to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military created a tremendous firestorm. Military officers complained they were disrespected by the White House staff, and Clinton’s relationship with Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was rocky. By October 1993, after the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia, it appeared that the image of the Democrats as weak on national security and seeking to avoid any use of force would persist throughout Clinton’s time in office. After all, the president and many of his colleagues had come of age during the Vietnam War, when numerous Democrats viewed America’s military not as a solution to problems but as the actual problem.
By the end of Clinton’s time in office, the Kosovo War illustrated how much had changed. Clinton led a NATO air campaign that seemingly provided the best of both worlds to Democrats: the American military appeared capable of conducting war with no casualties to U.S. personnel, and the country was willing to go to war to save innocent people from humanitarian disaster. Clinton, joined by European liberals like British prime minister Tony Blair and German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, grew to endorse the idea of a responsibility to use force to protect vulnerable populations. The notion of the liberal hawk was born—someone who believed that American military forces could help bring about democracy and protect human rights overseas. This is one reason so many Democrats supported the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003; after all, Saddam Hussein had been among the most barbaric rulers on the planet.
FREE TRADE, democracy promotion and the use of force for humanitarian purposes defined Bill Clinton’s foreign policy; Barack Obama ran against all three in 2008. He criticized NAFTA, one of Clinton’s signature foreign-policy achievements. (Hillary Clinton and the other leading Democratic candidates were also critical.) As for democracy promotion and the use of force for humanitarian purposes, by 2008, those ideas had become associated not with Clinton and the Democrats, but with George W. Bush’s freedom agenda and its neoconservative supporters. Instead, Obama cited as his foreign-policy lodestar George H. W. Bush, whose primary focus was on relations among the great powers and the judicious use of force only in cases of clear national interest. (The primary exception in the George H. W. Bush years was the effort to feed the people of Somalia in late 1992, which led to the debacle in Mogadishu less than a year later after the mission was expanded under Clinton.)
Inheriting two unpopular wars, Obama’s foreign-policy priority in his first term was to wind down American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan (after his initial surge in the latter) and reset relations with Russia. His actions over time have only amplified the sense of distance between the two Democratic administrations. Even though his administration has pursued blockbuster trade deals in Europe and Asia—the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), respectively—he has spent nowhere near the energy that Bill Clinton did to articulate the importance of free trade. In fact, the only reason analysts give any chance of success to these deals is the Republican takeover of the Senate after the 2014 elections and the hope that the president will therefore obtain trade-promotion authority.
As for intervention, for the bulk of his presidency, Libya was the exception to Obama’s general aversion to the type of engagement that marked the Clinton and George W. Bush years. Obama was reluctant to intervene to save the population of Benghazi, promoted British and French leadership of the operation, and watched as Libya’s descent into chaos after the war confirmed his inclination to avoid military interventions. The emerging fight against the Islamic State has changed the narrative of his foreign-policy strategy, as he returned to war in Iraq for what is likely to be the remainder of his presidency. However, Obama remains wary of intervention, and his administration has done little to demonstrate the importance of actively promoting democracy and human rights as a centerpiece of American strategy apart from occasional rhetoric in speeches and strategy documents. Most notable has been his firm stand against intervening militarily in Syria (beyond bombing the Islamic State, which has served to reinforce the regime of Bashar al-Assad). Ignoring calls from the human-rights wing of the Democratic Party, the president has shown no inclination to get involved, despite a mounting death toll estimated at roughly two hundred thousand Syrian lives lost, along with millions more displaced.
Obama’s caution is rooted in part from the lessons he draws from the recent past: deep American military involvement in places like Iraq and Afghanistan did not produce countries with clean and effective governments or vibrant civil society. While he may not view the military as the problem, as many Democrats did in the 1970s, he does not view the military as the solution either, as the Clinton team did in the late 1990s. To be sure, he is not a dove, having ordered extensive drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, among other places, and having exhibited tremendous resolve in authorizing the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. While he has refused to date to send lethal military aid to Ukraine, he inflicted deep sanctions on the Russian government in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine. Overall, he has remained fairly true to the realism he promoted in his first run for office. Policies ranging from his limited engagement in Libya after the overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi, the start of normalization with Cuba and the high-level effort to achieve a nuclear deal with Iran illustrate his overriding emphasis on pragmatism in foreign policy.
A key strategic objective for the Obama administration has been the rebalance to Asia: the notion that U.S. foreign policy was overbalanced toward Europe and the Middle East and should be refocused on the most dynamic region of the world. It is an idea that also animated the Clinton team when it came into office in 1993 and the George W. Bush administration when it took over in 2001, but the policy has been difficult to implement for all three administrations due to unexpected crises like the 1990s Balkan wars, the terrorist attacks of September 11, Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and the emergence of the Islamic State. But the rebalance certainly represents the kind of big-picture realist emphasis on American interests and global power shifts that marks the Obama presidency and the president’s efforts to reestablish a George H. W. Bush–style foreign policy.
HEADING INTO the next presidential election, neither party appears to possess a clear advantage on foreign policy. With Obama having returned to Iraq, the tarring of the Republican brand stemming from the George W. Bush years is dissipating, but the great GOP foreign-policy victories of the end of the Cold War are now in the distant past, as well. Despite having no major foreign-policy failures (unusual for any president but perhaps reflecting his cautious style), Obama’s approval ratings on foreign policy have remained remarkably low. Even if he achieves major victories in his final two years—in particular the trade deals and a nuclear accord with Iran—he is unlikely to see much bump in public opinion on foreign policy given how controversial those agreements will be politically.
From the Democratic side, the real question is whether Hillary Clinton would promote a foreign policy more like her husband’s or that of the incumbent whom she served as secretary of state. The conventional wisdom is that she would be a more activist, interventionist president than Obama, and that is likely to be true. But while she would chart a different course than Obama, she would diverge in important ways from Bill Clinton, too.
While Hillary Clinton’s own forceful approach to world affairs would likely lead her to be a very different president than Obama, her orientation is reinforced by the fact that she is a Democrat. Obama’s realism made sense given the public sentiment toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by 2008. But the Democratic Party is the country’s progressive party, and realism is an inherently conservative philosophy. Focusing on the great powers and ignoring calls to promote democracy and protect human rights is perfectly reasonable for a Republican in the mold of Richard Nixon or George H. W. Bush. It is much more difficult to pull off as a Democrat. Even those Democrats with more realist tendencies, such as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy, could not ignore the pull of progressivism in foreign policy.
After all, the Democrat who was president when the United States emerged as a great power was Woodrow Wilson, and despite his ultimate failure as a foreign-policy president, the themes he enunciated—support for democracy and protection of the rights of small nations in the face of aggressive major powers—have had an important pride of place in Democratic politics. Roosevelt may have acquiesced in Joseph Stalin’s territorial grab in Eastern Europe, but his cherished project was a United Nations that he hoped would serve to defend the weak from invasion by the strong. Truman’s administration saw the development and initial implementation of the Cold War containment policy but also the stirring rhetoric on behalf of the threatened populations of Greece and Turkey. And while Kennedy’s most famous foreign-policy moment came with the successful removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, he also promoted the Alliance for Progress in this hemisphere and initiated the Peace Corps.
Are the Democratic Party and the American public ready once again to support an activist, interventionist foreign policy in the tradition of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy, or is that tradition destined to fade away after the memories of the Second World War and the Cold War? After eight years as president, in his final foreign-policy address, titled “A Foreign Policy for the Global Age,” even Bill Clinton ruefully remarked, “People say I’m a pretty good talker, but I still don’t think I’ve persuaded the American people by big majorities that you really ought to care a lot about foreign policy, about our relationship to the rest of the world, about what we’re doing.”
Today, foreign-policy activism remains a tough sell to a country whose priorities lie in the domestic sphere. On issues related to the importance of democracy, the use of American power to protect the weak and support for women’s rights globally, Hillary Clinton is likely to try to make the case for greater engagement abroad. After eight years in her husband’s White House, eight years in the Senate and four years as secretary of state, it would be difficult to envision her not taking that road. She may not do so to any great extent in the election campaign, in which she might believe playing it safe is the right strategy, but if she were to win the presidency, she would appear by all accounts to place herself in the Truman/Kennedy tradition rather than that of George H. W. Bush. (The more likely candidate to pursue the latter approach, of course, is Jeb Bush.)
Even so, American foreign policy is unlikely to return to where it was in the Bill Clinton years. Gone is the optimism about America’s ability to remake other societies that existed in the aftermath of the collapse of Communism. That narrative, after all, was quite uplifting: after four decades containing the Soviet threat, the capitalist democracies led by the United States emerged victorious and set about to remake others. Western advisers poured across Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Eurasia offering advice on how to successfully build a market democracy. Most of Europe hoped to join the West, including Russian president Boris Yeltsin.
The newly established narrative cautions that the United States cannot easily remake other societies. Whether in Russia, Iraq or Afghanistan, Americans understand now that their power to change others is much more limited than was believed fifteen years ago. Even if Hillary Clinton wished to return to an approach that used limited military force to alter the behavior of odious regimes, she likely would not obtain the public backing to undertake the kind of nation building in which the United States engaged two decades ago.
And then there is globalization. While Americans no longer require evidence that globalization is real, as Bill Clinton devoted considerable time to explaining in the 1990s, the old debate about free trade versus protectionism has grown rather stale. In 1992, the debate centered on the threat of manufacturing jobs leaving the United States for China and other low-wage economies. Going forward, the ability of the United States to maintain its technological dominance will be critical. If Hillary Clinton is lucky, both the TTIP and the TPP will be signed by Obama while he is still president, in which case she would be able to advocate for the need to protect workers and the environment while the country enjoys the benefits that those trade pacts are expected to provide. Given the potential primary challenge she may face from the left, she is unlikely to challenge Big Labor as Bill Clinton did in 1992. That said, a challenge from the left would help Clinton to more acutely define herself as a centrist Democrat, which is where she needs to be in order to win the general election.
In her 2014 book and in recent interviews, Hillary Clinton appears to be signaling her foreign-policy differences with the current president. Mocking his reported motto in an interview with the Atlantic, she remarked, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Since the end of the Cold War, establishing a clear principle around which to base a foreign-policy agenda has not proven easy. During the Cold War, the overriding challenge was the threat of Soviet expansion, and thus “containment” served as a central organizing principle. However, since then, the complexity and variety of policy challenges ranging from the rise of China to terrorism, climate change, energy security, nonproliferation and more have rendered it nearly impossible to establish a single organizing principle. Bill Clinton’s team underwent an exercise in 1993 dubbed the “Kennan sweepstakes” to see if it might establish a theme rivaling the containment strategy developed by George Kennan in the 1940s. The strategy of “engagement and enlargement,” which focused on leveraging Communism’s demise to expand the community of democracies, was attempted briefly as a slogan but never stuck, even though the basic premise underlay much of what the Clinton administration sought to promote. George W. Bush adopted the “war on terror” as his organizing principle, but it proved to be controversial and too narrow, given the other challenges facing the United States.
In 1994, Bill Clinton’s State Department was so eager to develop a clear phrase that it sought guidance directly from Kennan, by then in his nineties, who advised that they abandon their efforts to identify a new bumper sticker–style slogan. Try instead, he said, for a “thoughtful paragraph or two.” Twenty years later, we are still searching for that thoughtful paragraph.
ONE STRIKING difference between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama has been the emphasis the former placed on leading and positioning the Democratic Party as compared to the latter. One of Clinton’s primary objectives was to shift his party to the center of American politics, precisely so that Democrats could be successful on the national stage. Mindful of this objective, Clinton challenged labor unions at home, supported free trade, advocated for democracy promotion and eventually demonstrated a willingness to use force when necessary to protect vulnerable populations. His stance on trade illustrated that Democrats could align with the business community; fostering democracy promotion and a willingness to use force exhibited that Democrats could pursue a muscular national-security policy.
Obama has displayed much less interest in what his presidency might mean for the party in the long term. Hillary Clinton and the other Democratic candidates will have to decide whether this race is merely about themselves and their vision for their presidencies—or about the future of the Democratic Party.
In one important way, the next president should pledge to do what Obama mistakenly thought he had already accomplished: get the United States out of military engagement in Iraq. The United States has been involved militarily in Iraq under the last four administrations, and cannot afford to have its foreign policy consumed with that country as it has been since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990: George H. W. Bush launched Operation Desert Storm; Bill Clinton patrolled no-fly zones and carried out selected bombings; George W. Bush invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein; and Obama, after ending the U.S. military operation his predecessor had initiated, now finds himself back in Iraq to fight the Islamic State.
The battle against the Islamic State revives several challenges that have persisted in Iraq for years. A Shia-led government is unwilling to ensure sufficient inclusion of Sunnis and Kurds to function effectively as a government for the entire country, and the divisive agendas of neighbors like Iran and Turkey further impede the potential for progress. The United States can cajole, but it cannot ensure that a more inclusive government emerges, and it can provide training to the Iraqi army, but its abilities to create an effective fighting force are limited. If Obama does hand off the Iraqi problem to his successor, as the three presidents preceding him did, the next president should not permit military involvement in Iraq to consume yet another four or eight years. Containing the terrorist threat from the region—not eliminating it—is the only realistic strategy.
A second goal, related to the first, should be to enhance the rebalance to Asia. This is a policy that should be central to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, since she and her team at the State Department were critical in launching it in the first place. Rebalancing does not mean that suddenly the United States would cease to retain any strategic interest in Europe and the Middle East; this would simply replace one expression of overbalanced foreign policy with another. For her inaugural trip as secretary of state in 2009, Clinton traveled to Asia, with Japan as the first stop. The next president should do the same. If the TPP is signed this year, the agreement will provide a major boost to the rebalancing effort, but more generally, the next president must continue to bolster traditional American allies (in particular Japan and South Korea), deter Chinese aggression and intimidation in the South China Sea, and continue to develop ties to ASEAN countries.
Looking beyond Asia, the Iranian nuclear issue may be resolved by this president; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain on the agenda for the next. As long as Vladimir Putin remains in power, any future U.S. president will need to continue to contain the threat Russia poses to Europe. A formidable test for the next president will be to address those challenges that require other countries’ cooperation in a world in which the United States is no longer able to dictate to others. Today, central challenges requiring international collaboration include nonproliferation, terrorism, cybersecurity and climate change. Moreover, beyond basic questions of relations with particular powers (most notably China and Russia, but also India, Brazil and South Africa) looms the question of the centrality in American foreign policy of human rights and particularly the responsibility to protect populations at risk of genocide.
If the Democratic Party is to continue to serve as the progressive party in the United States, then the responsibility to protect must maintain a central position in the next Democratic president’s agenda. The international order is changing, and while the United States no longer dominates global affairs as it did in the 1990s, it remains the world’s leading power. We now understand that the United States cannot remake other societies. But we also understand that without U.S. leadership, a liberal international order cannot exist. When crimes against humanity are committed, only the United States can lead a coalition to stop the violence, and any Democratic candidate for president should support this foreign-policy priority.
Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy would likely be far more proactive than that of Obama—yet she cannot fully embrace the foreign-policy agenda of her husband, either, as circumstances have changed dramatically over time. Going forward, the United States will require a president who appreciates the limitations of U.S. power and yet still maintains the resolve to identify opportunities to lead the world.
James Goldgeier is dean of the School of International Service at American University. You can follow him on Twitter at @JimGoldgeier.