United States foreign policy and national strategy could undergo major change depending upon the 2016 election result. Hillary Clinton offers more of the same from George W. Bush and Barack Obama but Donald Trump indicates he wants a real change.
Two contending perspectives are at issue. Clinton will maintain the prevailing elite bipartisan foreign policy consensus. Trump, on the other hand, says he will pursue a different policy line.
The foreign policy elite in the United States includes various factions, and each of these has different policy views and prescriptions. In broad terms, there is the dominant empire perspective versus the traditional republic perspective.
The empire perspective thinks in hegemonic terms and emphasizes military power. The republic perspective thinks in multipolar terms and emphasizes diplomacy. These two perspectives are active in both the Democratic and Republican parties. In both parties, however, the empire perspective is dominant.
In the Democratic Party, the progressive firebrand Bernie Sanders challenged the empire perspective notably on the Middle East. His views hearkened back to the progressive views of Franklin Roosevelt who hoped for international cooperation among the major powers to complement the United Nations system after World War II.
But with Roosevelt’s untimely death, the Democratic Party’s foreign policy shifted under Harry Truman to a Cold War mode.
The main concept of the new national strategy, in effect, was that the United States replace the global role of the former British Empire. Thus, Washington put in place an imperial approach in which foreign policy was militarized so as to contain the Eurasian landmass.
The Truman Cold War hawks remained influential in the party through the decades and were fortified by the emerging network of neoconservative policy intellectuals.
Hillary Clinton as secretary of state under Obama implemented the standing bipartisan consensus of the dominant empire faction of both parties.
To understand the Obama administration’s foreign policy, a review of the bipartisan consensus and its formulation is helpful.
The George W. Bush administration recklessly plunged into the unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mainly through the influence of the neoconservative policy network. This hawkish network penetrated the Republican Party during the Reagan administration, and grew stronger in the party during the years of the Bill Clinton administration.
Thus, the neoconservatives were well positioned in the George W. Bush administration particularly through the patronage of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld. In the background, former secretary of state George Shultz, Bush’s campaign co-chair with Cheney was a key supporter of the neoconservative network.
A quagmire in the Middle East soon developed after 911 and U.S. military interventions for regime change in Kabul and Baghdad. By Bush’s second term, the rise of China became more salient as was the renewal of Russia.
As a result of this new international situation, a “pivot” policy toward the Asia-Pacific became an elite policy objective so as to best maintain the empire project. In 2006 and 2007 an elite bipartisan consensus formed to update the old Cold War strategy to meet new perceived challenges, namely the rise of China.
This major policy update process resulted in recommendations for whichever party won the 2008 election. In the event, Obama won and so he inherited the recommendations. His secretary of state implemented them.
The main lines of the policy continued but updated the Cold War strategy. The strategic encirclement and “containment” of the Eurasian landmass is one core principle. Diplomatic, economic, military, and information components of the strategy were updated to this end.
Inevitably, the update and “pivot” policy caused increased frictions and tensions in the Asia-Pacific region as Washington ratcheted up its military power projection and aggressive diplomacy. The East China Sea and the South China Sea are now flashpoints of confrontation and could lead to conflict if not properly managed.
Will the 2016 election change anything?
Most observers agree that Clinton victory this fall means a continuation of the Obama policy although some believe it might take a more hawkish and aggressive turn.
What is not clear at this time is the change to policy that Donald Trump would make should he win.
Examining the Republican Party it is clear that the hawkish neoconservative inspired George W. Bush policy continues to dominate through such voices as Senators John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio not to mention speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan.
But within the party there is an older tradition of prudence, restraint, and non-intervention. While often labeled “isolationism” by the empire faction, this policy perspective has deep roots going back to the early American Republic. George Washington’s “Farewell Address” embodied this perspective which was reinforced by president John Quincy Adams in the early Republic.
Today, the question is whether and to what degree Donald Trump would follow this traditional republic perspective and reject the empire perspective. There would be major consequences should he do so to a lesser or to a greater degree.
Trump in his first formal foreign policy speech clearly signaled that he rejected the policies leading to the present imperial overstretch which negatively impacts the U.S. economy and world image.
He was immediately attacked for his “isolationism” which is to say his apparent rejection of the empire perspective in preference for a traditional republic perspective.
With respect to the Asia-Pacific he proposes that Japan and South Korea do more for their own security. He has said the same about Europeans with regard to NATO for which the U.S. pays about 75 percent of the cost.
He indicates that he wants to develop a working relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin to ease tensions and promote cooperation on matters of mutual interest. He indicates he is willing to undertake direct talks with the North Korean leader, which would advance a process of normalization and peace on the Korean peninsula.
Trump’s fiery campaign rhetoric concerning China raises the usual political criticisms about exchange rates and unfair trade practices. Bashing China is considered good politics in U.S. election campaigns, but the rhetoric generally gives way to pragmatism.
As an international businessman, Trump is certainly aware of the overriding importance of the U.S.-China economic relationship. In a humorous aside during the campaign, he noted that a major Chinese bank is a tenant in one of his buildings.
With realistic briefings by advisors, Trump could come to recognize the exchange rate issue as a dead letter and that there are major possibilities for trade and investment in both directions.
China’s Belt and Road initiative and the related AIIB offer major potential for U.S. business involvement and have global implications for peace and development. Unlike Obama, as an international businessman, he can certainly see advantages for U.S. participation.
The 2016 elections may signal a decisive change in Washington’s outlook should Trump win. With Secretary Clinton, the international community can expect American politics and policy as usual with the empire faction dominating Washington.