In the first presidential debate last month, the two party nominees addressed the themes of “Achieving prosperity; America’s direction; and securing America”. A debate is an important platform for the candidates to elucidate political ideas, demonstrate leadership and reflect psychological temperament. A glimpse of the political propositions through the debate may provide a perspective on the future direction of US foreign policy.
First, trade policy. Donald Trump continued to portray the United States as a victim of free trade, insisting that free-trade agreements signed by the United States did not bring the expected benefits to the country, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He also opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that the Obama administration has been eager to promote. Meanwhile, he accused Mexico, China and others of devaluing their currency, which put the United States in a disadvantageous position. As a result, he said, the United States should renegotiate trade agreements and take back the jobs from its competitors. Hillary Clinton stressed the rapid growth of foreign trade during the Obama administration, which she credited with improving employment and boosting the economy. However, she changed her position on TPP from supporter to opponent. To a large extent, it is a tactical shift. However, since the “lame duck” Obama administration seems unable to promote the passage of the TPP agreement in Congress, the future of TPP is much in doubt.
Second, security policy. Donald Trump accused the Obama administration of withdrawing militarily from the Middle East, which led to a power vacuum in the region. Consequently, the United States was now facing the “Islamic State” threat. He also stressed that security policy should have a certain degree of confidentiality and criticized Hillary Clinton. He said: “You’re telling the enemy everything you want to do, no wonder you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.” Clinton retorted that Donald Trump had no security strategy: “He says it’s a secret plan, but the only secret is that he has no plan.” She stated her government would maintain cooperation with regional allies and partners, target the “Islamic State” leaders and disrupt their propaganda efforts online.
Third, the alliance policy. Trump believes US allies need to pay more for the security guarantee provided by the United States. “I want to help all our allies but our losses are billions of dollars”, he said, “and unless we get the compensation we need, we can not be world policemen and can not protect all the nations of the world.” Hillary Clinton made clear that the US alliance policy was the key to consolidating US global and regional interests. She said, “I want to reassure our allies in Japan and South Korea and elsewhere that we have mutual defense treaties and we will honor them.” She also has shown the importance of the alliance by practical actions. During her term of office as Secretary of State, the “Asia-Pacific rebalancing” strategy was implemented, with consolidating, strengthening and upgrading the strategic relationship with allies like Japan as the major policy tools. Recently, Clinton met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who attended the UN General Assembly at the time, highlighting that if she wins the election, the US alliance policy will be strengthened, not weakened.
Fourth, the nuclear issue and US-Russia relations. Trump expressed dissatisfaction with the US-Iran nuclear agreement, saying Iran could use the deal to evade US sanctions, calling it “the worst deal”. Clinton argued that the agreement was in the US national interest and ridiculed Trump: “If he’s going to criticize a deal that has been very successful in giving us access to Iranian facilities that we never had before, then he should tell us what his alternative would be.” On Russian policy, Hillary Clinton stressed that Russia continued to challenge the interests of the United States, such as cyber attacks on the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and said the United States should be tough to respond to the provocation of Russia. She criticized Trump for being too enthusiastic about Russia, referring to his description of Vladimir Putin as “praiseworthy”. In terms of the North Korean nuclear issue, Trump said the United States should let China play a bigger role: “China should solve that problem for us. China should go into North Korea. China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.”
Obviously, they have differences in many critical policy dimensions. There is no doubt, however, that no matter who wins the election, the fundamental purpose of his /her policies is to safeguard and expand the national interests of the United States — clearly reflected in Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America great again” and Clinton’s “together stronger”. It is similarly certain that the world the United States faces will be more challenging and the test of its leadership will be more severe, which could not be easily changed by any one individual.