Will presidential election change American foreign policy?

Foreign policy is usually not the topic which would be super prominent in the US presidential election, though candidates need to show they have some foreign policy credentials. But looking at the crowd of candidates in the US presidential election do you see any trends and which trends that may probably influence the future of American foreign policy almost irrespectively of who will be the next US President? Read few comments.

Kurk DorseyAssociate Professor of History, University of New Hampshire

Foreign policy is either a central issue, as in the 2008 campaign, when the Iraq War gave Obama an opening to challenge Hillary Clinton and then John McCain, or it is almost completely absent, as in this election.  Still, it is possible to see that the economic issues about the status of the middle class that are at the heart of this election are really about America’s attitudes toward the world.  When Donald Trump talks about building a wall and making Mexico pay for it, he is basically saying that America’s economic problems have come because we have been weak when dealing with foreigners (hence his slogan “Make America Great Again”).  Because the Democrats hold the White House, there is no reward for any Republican to praise the current state of the US place in the world (so there is universal agreement that the Iran deal is flawed without any debate about what parts of it might be acceptable), so they generally stick to platitudes about the need to change the course of foreign policy by being stronger.  Even Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side have taken a similar approach by opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership because it will undermine protections for American workers.  So if there is a central theme, it is that globalization has gone too far and the United States has lost more than it gained.  Of course this is ironic because the United States has probably done more to champion the technology and institutions that make globalization move more quickly., and I expect that the next president, whoever it will be, will discover that globalization can’t really be stopped and generally supports American interests around the world.

The one foreign policy issue that has resonance is the challenge from ISIS, and it is here that we see a range of opinions, from Trump’s “bomb the shit out of them” to more nuanced discussions about who can actually respond in the region and what policy might check an ideology.  In general, Republicans are pushing the idea that the rise of ISIS is a sign of Democratic weakness, but there is some debate about how much the US can or should do about it.

I expect that the next president will inherit a country with more doubts about its power and its allies than in recent memory.  I also expect that he will discover, once in office, that the United States is actually in a better position than the public thinks and will have to address that.  I said “he” because I think Hillary Clinton, as a recent Secretary of State, has been exposed to the complexities of the world more than anyone else in the race and has a better sense of where the US stands.  It does not benefit her right now to run a nuanced campaign on foreign policy, though.

Jack Goldstone, Professor, Director, Center for Global Policy, George Mason University

Unless the US is at war, foreign policy is usually not a major factor in U.S. presidential elections.  So Republicans are trying to persuade people the US is at war – with extremist Islam and with immigrants – and is facing threats of future war from Russian and China, all of which also pose huge economic threats to America.

Democrats are trying to reassure Americans that foreign threats are not so great, and that the American economy will be fine.

However, after the elections, any new President will have to face the elements that have been familiar for the last several years: terror attacks will continue around the world, whether from ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or other extremist Islamic groups; support for Israel will continue; and relations will continue to be difficult with insecure and proud countries such as Turkey, Russia, and China.  The US will almost certainly try to pursue good relations with both India and Pakistan, and with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, a task of great difficulty.  And America will stay engaged with poorer developing countries, trying to improve their health, education, and economies, whether in Central America or sub-Saharan Africa.  New foreign policy challenges will include making meaningful progress on climate stabilization; helping the EU hold together as an effective unified entity; and using NATO as a tool to counter global terrorism.

American relations with Russia will probably depend on whether Russia takes actions to help Europe feel more secure, and that demonstrate that Russia is a predictable and cooperative partner in international affairs.  Without such actions, whomever is President, American relations with Russian will likely remain confrontational.

Ryan Irwin, Assistant Professor of History, University at Albany-SUNY

When I read the tea leaves, I see a United States that remains in a period of relative decline. When I use that phrase, I don’t mean to suggest that the United States is on the edge of a collapse. This country has the world’s largest economy and it remains a hub of technological innovation. The U.S. military is enormous and it’s run fairly well. However, America’s trade balance has declined for a generation — partly because of U.S. policies — and that imbalance has eroded Washington’s ability to lend money abroad. It’s also forced policymakers to roll back labor protections that a previous generation took for granted. Finally, Washington now finds it harder to create consensus through international institutions.

So, this relative decline has a history. It didn’t start overnight, and everything in the previous paragraph merits lengthy explanation. Alas, American politicians are not always most precise people, and irrespective of the fact that U.S. relative decline has a long history, the simple truth is that more Americans “feel” the country’s decline today than they did in, say, 1999. Domestically, it manifests in debates about low wages, disappearing pensions, and ‘illegal’ immigration. Abroad, it lingers in the background of the Syria crisis . . . or Moscow’s actions in the Ukraine or Beijing’s embrace of an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Again, these changes are a long time coming, but folks — everyday American voters — can see the storm clouds quite vividly.

So, what should be done? This strikes me as conversation happening among the United States’ many presidential candidates. Is it wiser to bluster in the face of these truths? Certainly that’s Donald Trump’s appeal — he blusters for the sake of bluster. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio strike me as idealists (though Cruz is clearly an unprincipled opportunist). Their supporters are attracted to the way they idealize America, and their claim that U.S. virtues can somehow renew U.S. power. Bernie Sanders seems to be cultivating this same myth but turning it inward — “let’s focus on the home front” — which isn’t remarkably different (stylically) than Rand Paul’s libertarian claims. Clinton obviously seeks to extend Obama’s approach, i.e. accept relative decline and engage the world with restraint.

I’m not sure who will win the 2016 election. As I noted, America’s relative decline didn’t start overnight. I’m an historian, so it should come as no surprise that I think whoever occupies the White House should understand history. If a Democrat wins, the status quo probably won’t change. Since 1994 the party has essentially advanced George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy, and I don’t think that’ll change overnight. If an establishment Republican wins — say Bush, Kasich, or even Rubio — I doubt we’ll see dramatic change, though the tone would perhaps differ. And I’d be fearful if the neoconservatives recaptured control of our foreign policy. If an anti-establishment Republican wins, I don’t know what to expect. I want to believe these are smart people who are manipulating people’s fears and anxieties for electoral purposes, but they might be as stupid and ahistorical as they sound.

Charly Salonius-Pasternak, Senior Research Fellow, The Global Security research programme, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Hard to say about trends regarding the candidates themselves, since especially on GOP side it’s more about the theater/performance that candidates must give during the primary season. Overall, I guess the one thing that is clear, is that with a few exceptions, all seem to indicate that they would have a more active foreign policy (and by implication “restore American leadership”). What it means in practice in unclear, but perhaps responds to a desire by many for the US to have a clear and strong strategy… I suspect that once they got into office they might look at the world a little more nuanced and see that the military really isn’t a good tool in many cases, and that others also know how to negotiate…all making the having of a clear and strong strategy quite a bit harder.

Thomas Scotto, Professor, Department of Government, University of Essex

I think there is a big question as to whether America has any role in providing relief to refugees.  As failed states (Yemen, Syria, etc) are becoming more common, the tide of refugees and the problems of displaced persons is on the rise.  In the American psyche, there is the belief that the US can be a beacon of hope for the dispossessed but when actual situations arise, people become fearful of immigration.  We have seen this with the approval of Donald Trump’s proposals on the matter in some circles.

ISIS is a problem that has few easy solutions, so we might hear lots of rhetoric from candidates in the primaries, but solid policy proposals that have a chance to be effective are unlikely to be forthcoming.


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