The 2016 presidential election and the future of U.S. foreign policy

The 2016 presidential election and the future of U.S. foreign policy

While the U.S. presidential candidates have some flexibility on the extent of foreign intervention, by and large they all seem to favor obtaining results at the least possible cost. Except for Donald Trump, they follow the general outlines of the past.

President Obama’s realism

A good point of departure is recent and current U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration. In a long interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama framed his foreign policy as being derived from realism. Interestingly his touchstone is the foreign policy of the elder President Bush and his National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. He particularly thought the 1991 Gulf War was well executed because it restored the sovereignty of Kuwait, reduced much of Saddam Hussain’s offensive capability, and did so at relatively little cost. He also liked the way the two officials contributed to the dissolution of the Soviet empire through diplomacy and alliance-building and maintained relations with China despite the events at Tiananmen Square.

These actions could best be seen in general terms as the cost-benefit execution of limited war, the value of diplomacy and coalition-building in creating global change, and the primacy of the national interest over sometimes painful human rights violations. Since President Obama has advanced U.S. military goals through the use of drones and special forces rather than large-scale troop deployments, the use of a cost-benefit calculus is quite evident. So are the cost savings and even effectiveness of limited war he favors in comparison to the interminable and expensive occupations in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Observers and practitioners alike have, however, criticized Obama’s foreign policy for undermining belief in U.S. resolve and commitment to allies. Certainly his choice to set a red line over chemical weapons use in Syria and then subsequent choice against enforcing it would offer an example. The president had good reasons not to act since a direct missile strike on the weapons would have created toxic clouds, and attacks on the units believed to be using them would leave them intact and useable by other Syrian units. In terms of U.S. credibility, it would have been better to reach this later analysis before setting a red line and undermining U.S. credibility. The Kerry-Lavrov discussions which led to Russian-facilitated removal of the weapons allowed some face-saving.

The current presidential candidates and foreign policy

While it is difficult to assess how a candidate will make foreign policy based on campaign pronouncements, it’s also important to try for the sake of both voters and investors.

Sometimes differences in conditions prior to election and conditions once in office result in a marked change. Certainly nobody would have thought that the younger President Bush would have supported nation-building in Afghanistan since he explicitly campaigned against nation-building. Most would not have anticipated Obama’s support for a surge in troop levels in Afghanistan either.

Among the candidates, Hillary Clinton is alone in her depth of foreign policy experience. John Kasich had some legislative experience with defense through his work on the House Armed Services Committee. Bernie Sanders can only be viewed by his voting records in the House and Senate since his committee assignments have generally been domestic-oriented. Ted Cruz has served on the Senate Armed Services Committee and its subcommittees on emerging threats, sea power, and strategic forces. Donald Trump has spent his life in his family real estate business and more recently on reality television. He might have some experience through building projects abroad.

Critics of Hillary Clinton correctly point out that she has a record of supporting foreign interventions. She was joined by many in voting for the Iraq War in the Senate, but also took a leadership role in efforts that resulted in the overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. Interestingly, she opposed support for the Arab Spring rebellions in Egypt because she felt that President Mubarak had been a close ally. She was a leading supporter of arming the rebels and even intervening in early efforts to overthrow Syrian President Assad. She now acknowledges that the intervention might not have made any difference, particularly in preventing the rise of ISIS. During interviews, she’s told people that, on balance, she prefers action to inaction when pressed in a difficult situation.

Clinton has also been a proponent of what she refers to as “smart power”. This includes all elements of statecraft including coalition-building, social media, economic diplomacy, and development, as well as public diplomacy. This seems to be an updating of the classic tools available to states in the use of force, diplomacy, and international law. Grotius did not have Facebook.  It is a positive that she acknowledges the many dimensions of power. Unfortunately, however, she views the U.S. “lead from behind” coalition efforts in Libya as a success because of multi-lateral participation. This is at odds with the president, who views the current failed state as one of his major policy errors.

John Kasich favors an increase in military expenditures to increase readiness and counter the reductions from the sequester. While the increase could be substantial since he favors the expansion of the carrier fleet from 10-15, he also favors strong oversight of weapons contractors, with rewards for those who come in under budget. He generally favors measures that limit cost or increase efficiency.  He was against the B-2 bomber because of its high cost and co-sponsored legislation to limit its procurement. He favored the 1991 Gulf War, but opposed the bombing campaign in Kosovo.

Kasich believes in maintaining America’s global leadership role, but is careful in his approach. While he would increase the U.S. presence in the South China Sea, he also acknowledges economic opportunities with China. While Kasich did not immediately oppose the Iran nuclear agreement, he has since talked about suspension of U.S. participation because of Iran’s ballistic missile tests. He also favors working with allied signatories in order to consider reimposing sanctions if the deal is violated. He has yet to take a position on Cuba as a presidential candidate.

Bernie Sanders probably comes closest to the Obama foreign policy legacy in terms of favoring measures to increase the security of the U.S., but generally not favoring regime change. He voted against the Iraq War, but favored the Afghanistan War since the U.S. was directly attacked. Sanders favors the use of drones and special forces deployments, but cautions against the indiscriminate use of drones. He is also against torture and the wholesale communication monitoring of average Americans. He also favors building multilateral coalitions to accomplish desired results.

Like John Kasich, Ted Cruz favors an increase in defense funding to counter the sequester. He favors the use of American military power to advance policy, but is opposed to long occupations and nation-building. Cruz has opposed the Iran deal and also, as a Cuban-American, is opposed to Obama’s outreach to Cuba. Across Cuba, Iran, and China, Cruz would link American concessions to improvement in human rights.

Donald Trump wants to renegotiate all our existing agreements based on negotiating formulas he’s discovered in real estate. It would be interesting to see if his real estate deals have included subsidizing minor partners as a way to gain local knowledge or local visibility for a project. This might help him understand the U.S. system of alliances more.


Decision makers in other major countries, especially among U.S. allies, needn’t fret much about the risks and instability implied in the unusual positions advanced by one anomalous candidate. It is highly unlikely that the U.S. will encourage the Japanese and Saudis to develop their own nuclear arsenals beginning in January 2017. Neither is it likely that the U.S. will lessen its commitment to NATO, seek to renegotiate all its alliances, or renegotiate all existing U.S. trade agreements.

The positions of the other candidates fall squarely within what has been the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy. This is no guarantee of zero risk since the mainstream has sometimes included mistaken policies, but at least decision makers and analysts generally know and can even predict the downsides of these choices.

Categories: North America, Politics

About Author

Lawrence Katzenstein

Lawrence Katzenstein has taught at the University of New Orleans and the University of Minnesota. Through an affiliation with the Humphrey Institute he was one of the trainers for the initial Chinese WTO delegation. He has been an exchange professor at the Consolidated Universities of Shandong Province and an embedded social scientist with the U.S. Army in Iraq. He earned a B.A. in political science from CCNY and an M.A. and Ph.D in political science from Rutgers University. While at the University of Minnesota he also completed a teaching post doc in International Business.