Foreign Policy in the US Presidential Election

Foreign policy and national security is at the forefront of the US Presidential Election this year. Publicly, the focus has been on two simple things. One, Donald Trump’s knowledge of and temperament for conducting foreign policy and handling nuclear codes; and second, Hillary Clinton’s responsibility for past policies. But details are sketchy if you rely on public statements. So I had a look at the policy platforms of both parties, as finalized before their respective conventions. What stood out, from my perspective?

American Exceptionalism in Foreign Policy

Both parties at least agree on one thing: American exceptionalism. America is not only special and unique in the world, but also indispensable in the world. Because without its leadership, the world will go to hell. The claim of American exceptionalism is a familiar feature of US foreign policy. It is part of its mantra, its creed. Which is fine, but it has the potential of blinding a state, especially when it has been and still is he most powerful country on earth. I am amazed hat American politicians continue to believe that the fate of the world can be influenced by acts of a US president alone, as if no other circumstances, states or persons (need to) play a part in forcing a certain outcome. The US may be exceptional and powerful, but not all powerful. And the Democratic Party seems the only party to acknowledge that. However, the Democrats’ cosmopolitanism compromises their reliance on exceptionalism.

Ok, enough with the -isms. Oh, and Trump doesn’t seem to believe in it.

The hard v. soft kill

These different views on the role of America are clearly reflected in the respective views on how to force changes in the geopolitical landscape. Republicans embrace Reagan’s ’peace through strength’ that includes not only military build up, but also the use of that military. Call it the ‘hard kill’. In a marked contrast to the Republicans, the Democrats ’will use all the tools of American power, especially diplomacy and development, to confront global threats and ensure war is the last resort.’ Democrats want to go for the ’soft kill’. It is Republican confrontation versus Democratic engagement. The latter sounds attractive to some, but looks like ambivalence to others. On the other hand, confrontation feels more satisfactory in theory, but may be too simplistic in practice. In any case,

Allies

One of Donald Trump’s many controversial comments concerned NATO. He said what many Americans may think. But simpler. President Trump would only aid its NATO allies, if the US gets paid for it. With continually shrinking defense budgets, other NATO members rely increasingly on the US for their own protection. The US taxpayer is footing the bill. And in the Republican platform, there is an explicit demand that fellow NATO members ’fulfill their commitments and meet their need for greater investments in their armed forces’. Almost explicit in both Trump’s words and those of the Republican platform is that the US would not honor Article 5 of the NATO treaty if the European allies don’t pay up. That is, if European NATO members do not meet their obligations, the US will not come to Europe’s rescue should, for instance, Russia invade the Baltic states. Now, I agree on the defense budgets, but this is not a zero sum game. This is not something that can be solved by making a deal. A treaty is not totally like a business contract. Oh, and the Democrats are not down with The Donald on this. So that’s good.

Nation building

In 2000, George W. Bush campaigned on a ’humble’ foreign policy. No nation building anymore like during the 1990s. Of course, his tenure included the ultimate nation building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. So the Republicans now embrace the slogan in the platform, ’Protecting the nation, not nation building’. Apparently, the two are mutually exclusive in this narrow view of national security. Democrats do not explicitly champion nation building either. But given their propensity for acknowledging the connection between development and security, the platform sounds like nation building, but at arms length. Nation building from behind if you will. In the platform, many nation building policies can be found under the heading ’protect our values’. Nation building thus means exporting American values in order to protect American values?

As has been noted by others, political identities have been reversed. Republicans are saying that the US is weak, want a strong military and want to send it everywhere. The Democrats argue that the US is still great, has the best military in the world, but don’t want to send it anywhere unless it is a ’last resort’. Whenever that may be. What else will this campaign upend?

What are your thoughts on US Foreign Policy in this crazy campaign? Let me know in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.

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