2 – USA. The everyday and the existential
BSSB.BE ecfr.eu/ 03.11.2016
CLINTON’S EVERYDAY CHALLENGE
As president, Hillary Clinton might lack some of Trump’s leverage, but she would still be seeking to get Europeans to contribute as much as possible to their own security and to US efforts at promoting stability elsewhere.
From a European perspective, this makes Clinton a far more “normal” and comprehensible presidential candidate — and not just compared to Trump. She has been a presence in national politics for more than 25 years and has a long history in politics ― as first lady, senator, and secretary of state. Her foreign policy views place her firmly at the centre of the American foreign policy spectrum and firmly within the long-held consensus on the transatlantic alliance.
- Indeed, Clinton is perhaps more normal than is appropriate given the national mood. The extensive support for Trump and also for Senator Bernie Sanders, in the Democratic primary, indicates that much of the electorate is disillusioned with establishment figures. There is a sense among voters that both the Bush and Obama foreign policies got the United States too involved in the world and failed to put America first.
- Be that as it may, it is surpassingly simple to describe Clinton’s basic approach to the transatlantic alliance. Like every president since 1945, she will rely on the alliance as a cornerstone of her foreign policy. And like every president for nearly that long, she will, within the confines of that approach, seek to shift some of the burdens for global and particularly regional European security to the larger powers of Europe. Like Obama, she will seek to reallocate some of the resources spent on European security to areas of greater urgency, particularly East Asia.
The essential continuity between Obama and Clinton
As is normal for someone running to succeed a president of her own party, Clinton has made an effort during the campaign to disassociate herself from the less popular aspects of Obama’s foreign policy. As a Democrat, representing a party often linked with anti-militarism, and as the first female major party candidate for president, she has been particularly careful to project an image of strength and a willingness to use force. This effort, as well as her past record supporting US military interventions, including the war in Iraq, have led to a widespread view that she would resort to force much more often than Obama, particularly in Syria.
But this view hides an essential continuity in how she and Obama approach foreign policy problems. It also underestimates just how often Obama has used force. He has been at war every single day of his two-term presidency, the only American president to achieve that dubious distinction. He has taken military action in seven Muslim-majority countries, and dramatically expanded the use of drones and Special Forces. Such a view also underestimates just how important Clinton herself was, as secretary of state, in helping to shape Obama’s approach to foreign policy.
As secretary of state, Clinton frequently complained about the militarisation of US foreign policy and touted the virtues of “smart power” (the idea that all types of national power are needed to solve foreign policy problems) and diplomacy in tackling the nation’s most serious national security challenges. She started secret negotiations with Iran in 2012 that ultimately led to the momentous Iran nuclear deal.
- She has similarly supported Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba. She also supported and implemented the reset with Russia that began in 2009. When China started becoming aggressive in the South China Sea, she didn’t reach for military tools, but instead pushed forward a regional diplomatic approach that stood in stark contrast to Beijing’s military aggression
- But perhaps more importantly than her record, Clinton will be inclined to look towards diplomacy because, as president, she will find that the use of force abroad will offer precious few opportunities for making a difference, and will come at a considerable political cost at home.
- In Syria, the idea of risking US boots on the ground or war with the Russians to support an opposition that consists largely of Islamist extremists is not likely to appeal to her any more than it has to Obama. When it comes to fighting ISIS, Clinton also seems comfortable with Obama’s template for the use of military force: the limited use of armed drones, special operations forces, air strikes, efforts to build local capacity for ground operations, and stabilisation duties.
Changing these policies would be politically risky. As recent presidents have learned, military intervention abroad can weaken political support at home. Despite the headlines of global disorder, neither the American public nor the Congress have much appetite for a more active military policy.
A gendered foreign policy
Clinton’s approach to gender will also have an important impact on her foreign policy. When Obama became the first African-American president, he seemed very determined not to rule as an African-American. He took very few opportunities to highlight his race and did not give any particular priorities to issues of race in his policy agenda. His message seemed to be: “I am not a black president. I am a president who happens to be black.” In so doing, he likely reduced, although certainly did not eliminate, a racist backlash to his presidency.
For better or for worse, Clinton seems determined to take a different approach. In her current campaign, she has been much more willing than in 2008 to speak about her gender and about the historic nature of her candidacy. She has implied in various ways that she intends to be a female president in every sense, most prominently through her intention to ensure that half of her cabinet is female. This would almost certainly include the first ever female secretary of defence.
As she said in 2011, “[f]rom Northern Ireland to Liberia to Nepal and many places in between, we have seen that when women participate in peace processes, they focus discussion on issues like human rights, justice, national reconciliation, and economic renewal that are critical to making peace, but often are overlooked in formal negotiations. They build coalitions across ethnic and sectarian lines, and they speak up for other marginalised groups. They act as mediators and help to foster compromise.”
It is unclear what this gendered concept of peace and reconciliation means for Clinton’s foreign policy. But this type of worldview does imply that she will only seek to build durable solutions or alliances with countries that allow women to be well represented in society and government.
Clinton’s Russia problem
Perhaps the least understood aspect of Clinton’s foreign policy is her approach to Russia. Critics frequently cite the 2009 reset as evidence that Clinton is soft on Russia. But in fact, Clinton’s experience as secretary of state deeply soured her view of the Russian regime. By 2011, she had accused the Russian regime of rigging the elections to the Russian parliament, and a year later harshly rebuked Putin for resuming the Russian presidency in 2012.
Ironically, one reason for Clinton’s distrust of Russia is that the country’s decision-makers also have a gendered perspective on foreign policy. But that perspective is nearly the polar opposite of Clinton’s. The Russians maintain that women have no place in such discussions, and there are very few women in the upper echelons of the Russian foreign and security policy apparatus. Russia’s policy stance, as presented by its often-shirtless president, seems the epitome of a macho foreign policy.
Even if Putin’s anger against Clinton is motivated by more than just gender, treating female counterparts with disdain is clearly part of Russia’s diplomatic playbook. People who worked with Condoleezza Rice when she was secretary of state suggest that she received similar treatment, despite being a Russia specialist and speaking Russian. And Putin’s ill treatment of Angela Merkel, including trying to play on her fear of dogs, is well known.
All of this means that under Clinton the US–Russia relationship is unlikely to improve. While many in Europe, and particularly in eastern parts of the European Union, may welcome a more confrontational Russia policy from the US, this is not necessarily good news for transatlantic relations.
CHALLENGES ON BOTH SIDES
Trump’s view of allies and trade represents an existential threat to the transatlantic alliance. That threat comes less from the inconsistent policy positions he has taken in the campaigns than from some of his core beliefs that stretch back decades. His views on allies, on trade, and on authoritarian leaders are fundamentally at odds with the decades-old principles of transatlantic relations. His volatile temperament and his tendency to ridicule allies means that he would bring a new and damaging tone to transatlantic diplomacy.
Overall, it would be the height of folly to assume that winning the presidency would change Trump’s core beliefs or finally subdue his ego.
Of course, Trump may not be president in 2017 and the transatlantic alliance would likely endure a Clinton presidency in something close to its current form. Under Clinton, the European everyday challenge will be, as it has long been, to maintain the American commitment to Europe without being overwhelmed by it. If Clinton is elected, there will be a temptation to assume that business can continue as usual. The alliance might even become boring again.
But such a return to the alliance’s boring predictability would be an illusion. The resonance of Trump’s “America First” message derives in part from the blessings of America’s geography and its historical myth of self-reliance. Trump can credibly say such things because the United States has options, in the short-term anyway, to insulate itself from the troubles of the world and even to reduce its economic reliance on global trade.
The EU has no such option — its geography means that it cannot insulate itself from the troubles of Eastern Europe or the Middle East for long; its economic structure means that it has an even greater interest in an effective global trading system than the United States. This fundamental distinction in the situations of the United States and the member states of the European Union means that there is a limit to the extent that Europe can rely on the United States for its security and prosperity.
Many of the member states of the European Union are becoming more introverted at the very moment that the security threats on Europe’s southern and eastern borders are growing worse. This is possible because, as ECFR’s surveys suggest, many governments in Europe still believe they can count on the United States to secure their core interests. Many privately indicate that they expect a Clinton presidency, particularly given her attitude towards Russia and her supposed hawkishness, to usher in a new phase of American leadership and commitment to Europe’s neighbourhood.
But even in the event of a Clinton presidency, Europe would be foolish not to learn lessons from the experience of Trump’s candidacy. Trump represents only an extreme version of a growing feeling in the United States that, in a time of relative decline, the country is getting a raw deal from its allies. The partnership cannot persist along the current lines for too much longer. The promise of future elections fought along Trumpian lines means that America will likely become more self-centred and less predictable as an international partner, no matter who is president.
Given the current direction of US politics, Europeans would be wise to take more proactive measures to visibly increase the burdens they bear within the alliance and their capacity for independent and cooperative action under the next US president — no matter who he or she is.
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