Secretary Clinton’s foreign policy speech yesterday was not your traditional campaign foreign policy address. It became quickly clear that it was really her way of going on the offensive against Trump and using her remarks to draw some very distinct contrasts between his multiple positions on every issue and her positions. Others, in many places and from many different perspectives, have provided some interesting takes on her remarks, but I want to put the politics aside and focus a bit on what policy components there were in the speech.
After her initial introductory remarks, including a few specific comparisons between Trump’s positions and hers, Secretary Clinton started not with foreign policy, but with domestic concerns. She quickly focused on how to extend economic growth through fixing America’s long neglected infrastructure, shoring up education and educational opportunities, and investing in research and development, which she referred to as innovation. She then contrasted this with a discussion of Trump’s tax plan, which would add $30 trillion to the debt.
There is a very good reason why every foreign policy address should begin with a discussion of domestic policy, including economic issues: resources (means). The shorthand we use for policy – domestic or foreign – is ends, ways, and means. What are one’s objectives (ends), how does one go about trying to achieve them (ways), and how does one pay to do so (means). Right now American policies, both foreign and domestic, are constrained by the issue of means. Specifically the fetish with the debt and deficit that has led to our elected decision makers, in pursuit of their own ideological goals, to pursue economic and budgetary self-defeating and non-sensical policies that have hampered growth and starved all levels of government of the funds necessary to provide for both the general welfare and the common defense.
A number of the regular commenters are very concerned that Secretary Clinton might be too hawkish on foreign policy and defense issues. She may very well be, but she, or any prospective president, is constrained by the ability to spend to achieve their policy objectives. It is very hard to be hawkish if you cannot get an Authorization to Use Military Force, let alone a Declaration of War, and a dedicated funding stream (both revenue and spending) for the proposed operations through Congress. Focusing on domestic issues, including initiatives, such as spending on infrastructure, which will have an economic multiplier effect, makes sense if one is looking for ways to relieve some of the economic resource constraints that we have allowed to be placed upon ourselves. It is also good domestic policy in and of itself.
Secretary Clinton went on to discuss the need to maintain and safeguard our alliances. Not just for the fight against the Islamic State, but for responding to any number of other opportunities, challenges, and threats. And these alliances are not just military, though many, like NATO, have a primary military focus. The alliances and partnerships we have established are intended to facilitate diplomacy and trade, as well as bind our partners to us and us to our partners in order to reduce the likelihood of international conflict. Moreover, the purpose of our diplomatic, economic, and military alliances are to protect and safeguard the international order. It is true that both the post World War II and post Cold War international order were established and are maintained in America’s best interests. And while this reality, and Secretary Clinton’s willingness to maintain and incrementally improve it, may give some pause, the bigger question about the international order and the global system is what would we replace the current one with? Until that can be answered, and a coherent case made for why it would be at least as stable and how we could achieve this new international status quo, we are left with the reality of the current post World War II and post Cold War global system.
Secretary Clinton did lay out some specific policy positions. If elected president, she would continue to aggressively pursue the campaign against the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and other international terrorist threats. Under her leadership the US would also continue to push for and promote its best ideals and values and would rely first on diplomacy, economic, and informational power. None of these are proposals outside the norms and boundaries of traditional American foreign policy discourse. Secretary Clinton also came out firmly on the side of supporting Israel. She stated that Israel is our strongest, democratic ally in the Middle East, which was a subtle jab at Erdogan in Turkey. And she clearly indicated that the US would not be neutral towards Israel and the Palestinians, which was a domestic politics two-fer: aiming to distinguish herself from Trump’s debate response about being neutral and demonstrating her orthodoxy on one of America’s domestic politics litmus tests.
I think the most important portions of the speech, from a policy perspective, were the sections were she described the hard, often undiscussed efforts of diplomacy. She repeatedly referred to work with the Japanese and the South Koreans in order to shore up Asia-Pacific regional responses to North Korea. There was also a solid recounting of how the State Department under her leadership reinvigorated the diplomatic process with Iran in regard to its nuclear energy and suspected weapons program and did the hard, slow work of establishing the conditions that allowed the US and its allies in the P5+1 to successfully conclude an agreement with Iran in 2015.
This is very significant. In Secretary Clinton, the US has a potential president with extensive, highest level diplomatic experience. This would be a major change from the experiences that past presidential candidates and presidents brought with them onto the campaign trail and into office. And it is likely to produce a very different type of approach to foreign policy than even President Obama’s, even as Secretary Clinton would likely build off of and extend his initiatives. We have not had a President who had been the Secretary of State in a very long time and that may produce a very interesting and unique American foreign policy should Secretary Clinton be elected.
Finally, if you really want to understand someone’s position on their policies, you go to the source documents. For foreign policy in the US that means the National Security Strategy, the National Military Strategy, the Quadrennial Defense Review, and the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. The reason we have a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review is Secretary Clinton. When she took over as Secretary of State she recognized that the US’s diplomatic and development efforts needed to be focused on, thought about, developed, and presented on equal footing as the efforts of the Department of Defense. The first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review was released in 2010 and pdf copy can be found at the link below marked QDDR. If you read through it, or just the executive summary, you will find a pretty good baseline for Secretary Clinton’s views on US foreign policy; especially as she created and ushered this strategic document into the American foreign policy milieu.