In her June 2 speech on foreign policy, Hillary Clinton did a good job of portraying her likely Republican presidential rival as a figure who “is not just unprepared – he is temperamentally unfit to hold” a job that can involve deciding “questions of war and peace, life and death.” Ironically, she also did a good job of showing that, precisely because her knowledge, worldview, and approach to global affairs are so thoroughly conventional, she’s at least as unprepared to keep America strong, safe, and prosperous in the foreseeable future.
Clinton’s speech dealt extensively with Trump’s personal qualifications to be commander-in-chief (or lack thereof), and these criticisms predictably attracted the greatest media attention. But although Trump’s maverick style and personality raise entirely valid questions about his qualifications for high office, Clinton’s most important remarks dealt with her ideas about the global environment that will face the next president, and about how best to protect and advance American interests given these conditions.
And for all Clinton’s insistence that she has the experience, judgment, and temperament, needed for “the tough calls and the hard work of statecraft,” nothing could be clearer from the text that Clinton’s approach to world affairs springs ultimately from a hubris that’s just as emotion-based, and just as “dangerously incoherent,” as she labels Trump-ism. In fact, the foundations of Clinton’s foreign policy could be more dangerous, and likelier to lead the country into a never-ending series of troubles – since they’re couched in the soothing establishmentarian tones to which voters and the political class alike have become accustomed.
After all, according to Clinton, at bottom, the difference between her and Trump on foreign policy is “a choice between a fearful America that’s less secure and less engaged with the world, and a strong, confident America that leads to keep our country safe and our economy growing.”
She continued, “I believe with all my heart that America is an exceptional country – that we’re still, in Lincoln’s words, the last, best hope of earth. We are not a country that cowers behind walls. We lead with purpose, and we prevail.”
No one can legitimately criticize Clinton for expressing pride in the nation, and there can be no doubt that America is truly exceptional. But the former Secretary of State displays no awareness whatever that this exceptionalism extends into the geopolitical realm as well, and that its real implications are exactly the opposite of the policy conclusions she draws.
As I’ve written, America’s greatest strategic asset is its inherent, existential security and matchless potential for economic self-reliance. After all, the United States is protected by two wide oceans, is richly endowed with natural resources (including energy), and is powered by dynamic economic and social systems. This means that without engaging in any diplomacy at all, the nation already enjoys the crucial benefits that motivate more vulnerable, poorer, less fortunate countries to conduct foreign policy in the first place.
Clinton’s speech is filled with paeans to America’s strength, and attacks on Trump for allegedly hyping its weakness. “You’ve got to wonder,” she asks, “why somebody who fundamentally has so little confidence in America, and has felt that way for at least 30 years, wants to be our President.”
Yet Clinton considers this super-strong United States to be super-sensitive to all manner of events in literally every corner of the world. If America doesn’t lead, she insists (a verb that in her view is apparently the only alternative to “cowering behind walls”), “we leave a vacuum – and that will either cause chaos, or other countries will rush in to fill the void. Then they’ll be the ones making the decisions about your lives and jobs and safety – and trust me, the choices they make will not be to our benefit.
“That is not an outcome we can live with.”
And in Clinton’s view, the kinds of overseas outcomes that America can’t live with are hardly confined to those created by military and economic aggressors. Her inclusion of “chaos” on the list demonstrates that the descent of regions into the kind of poverty or instability that almost by definition precludes the ability to threaten America also must (always) be treated as “problems” that can eventually “threaten us at home” as well.
In other words, Clinton is one of the truest believers in the internationalist ideology that treats the well-being and stability of the entire globe as a vital U.S. security interest; that sees no choice but to solve the often age-old economic, social, and cultural roots of even the most local of conflicts; that has limitless faith in America’s ability to cure these chronic ills; and that has yet to explain where the money to carry out these ambitious missions will come from even if they could be accomplished.
Trump’s views are anything but fully formed. But as previous posts have argued, he’s identified major dilemmas and dangers that all major schools of thought in the foreign policy establishment would prefer to wish away.
Moreover, his simultaneous emphasis on rebuilding the U.S. military but using it cautiously, and on viewing alliances skeptically, along with building those walls (in part to bolster homeland defenses against terrorism) indicates an inclination to capitalize on America’s inherent strengths rather than squander them on (unnecessary) crusades and simple nation-building fool’s quests.
Still, it’s getting awfully late in this campaign for Trump to fill this worrisome vacuum, and to show that he can create the strategic alternative needed to knit together his seemingly disparate insights into a viable recipe for national security and prosperity. In fact, it’s far from clear that he even recognizes this challenge.
He’s likely to pay an increasing political price for this failure as well. Because “you can’t beat something with nothing,” if Trump fails to explain why America isn’t condemned to internationalism and its endless, unnecessarily perilous interventionism, Clinton’s fear-mongering – about his ideas as well as his persona – is bound to gain traction.