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Forget Hillary the hawk: How a Clinton foreign policy is likely to play out

Forget Hillary the hawk: How a Clinton foreign policy is likely to play out
Published 26 Aug 2016 

It seems that Trump’s lousy polling and chaotic campaign mean Clinton will win in November. Most assume we can then relax: we know Hillary Clinton from her time at State, and she will be reassuringly orthodox – more orthodox indeed than Barack Obama. US foreign policy will be back to ‘normal’: a strong military, robust alliances, free trade and decisive interventions wherever the US-led global order is challenged.

Well, maybe, but don’t bet on it. Predictions of the kind I’m about to make are inherently fallible, but there do seem good reasons to question our confidence here. The 2016 Presidential campaign has changed the landscape of US politics in ways that will resonate long after November, and impose big new pressures and constraints on Clinton’s approach to many issues, including foreign policy. We can see how these pressures will work if we put ourselves in Clinton’s shoes and reflect on what will most likely be her top priority from the moment she becomes President: re-election for a second term in 2020. 

The events of 2016 mean her biggest threat in 2020 will come from her own side. To see the scale of this threat, imagine what would have happened this year if her rival for the nomination had not been Bernie Sanders but, say, Elizabeth Warren. If someone as unlikely as Sanders could run Clinton so close, imagine what a more poised, articulate, electable, female Presidential candidate like Warren would have done. It’s a fair bet that she would have beat Hillary to the nomination, and, against Trump, be set to win the Presidency. She must be kicking herself. 

So already Clinton must worry that Warren, and others like her, will be thinking about challenging her for the Democrat nomination 2020. Normally, of course, an incumbent can expect to be nominated unopposed for a second term, but these are not normal times. And Clinton is not quite a normal candidate. If she proves as uninspiring and lacklustre in office as she’s been in the campaign, and if she sticks to polices which so many of her party so obviously reject, she will be very vulnerable.

No one will be more aware of this danger than Clinton herself, and from Day One it will shape her policies – including her foreign policies. She is after all a professional politician through and through. There is no evidence that she has ever allowed foreign-policy convictions to override political calculations, and no reason to think this will change now.

That means we should expect Clinton to shape her foreign policy to neutralise the threat to her nomination in 2020 from the left of her party. So forget Hillary the hawk. To consolidate her Democrat base she will be even more cautious abroad than Barack Obama has been.

And she will be able to do that all the more easily because of what’s happening on the Republican side of the aisle. Even if the GOP rebounds swiftly from the defeat that now looms, it will be a very different party, especially on foreign policy. Trump’s success has revealed how vulnerable the party’s Reagan/Bush/McCain orthodoxy is to his ‘America First’ brand of muscular isolationism.

Ambitious Republicans looking to 2020 must already be sketching for themselves a foreign policy stance that captures this appeal while avoiding Trump’s many negatives. So Clinton will face much less pressure from the traditional right on foreign policy than she ever has before.

So what might we see instead? On trade, we can assume her repudiation of the TPP is permanent, and the temptation to step back from free trade to protect US jobs will grow much stronger. It will mean lower defence spending, and less willingness to bear costs and risks to reassure allies. It might mean for example, that a President Clinton would disappoint those who hope and expect that she would reverse a last minute No First Use declaration by President Obama.

It would mean no big new initiatives or commitments in the Middle East, and great caution about allowing strategic rivalry with China or Russia to grow. It would mean, in other words, a continuing and perhaps even accelerating stepping back from the muscular global leadership which has been the core of what Obama so memorably called ‘the Washington Playbook’. It would mean that US allies like Australia would need to reassess their assumptions about American power – perhaps not as quickly as if Trump wins, but very thoroughly nonetheless.

We will need to remember that two very different kinds of bad outcome loom in Asia: one where the US and China becomes bitter rivals or even go to war, the other where America’s influence in Asia swiftly declines. The only kind of good outcome is one where America avoids both war and withdrawal. That’s got to be possible, but America’s next president seems less and less likely to be able to get there.

Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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