We can't have more of the same: The very real dangers of Hillary Clinton's foreign policy

Trump may well be dangerous. But know what you're getting with Hillary: American hegemony that's hated worldwide

Published June 4, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton gives an address on national security, June 2, 2016, in San Diego.   (AP/John Locher))
Hillary Clinton gives an address on national security, June 2, 2016, in San Diego. (AP/John Locher))

Just what we needed: another foreign policy speech from Candidate Clinton. This one arrived last Thursday in San Diego—well-chosen ground, given the Navy’s immense base on the city’s shore and the Marine Expeditionary Force garrisoned at Camp Pendleton. It has a long military tradition, San Diego, and the projection of American power is what drives the local economy. Perfect for Clinton. Her speech to this crew-cutted, right-wing town was, of course, “major”—as all of her speeches on the foreign side cannot help but be.

Clinton’s people advised the press beforehand that, major or not, this presentation was not intended to break any new ground—no new positions, no new policy initiatives or ideas. This hardly had to be explained, of course: Hillary Clinton has no new ideas on American foreign policy. That is not her product. Clinton sells continuity, more of the same only more of it because it is so good. In continuity we are supposed to find safety, certainty and security.

I do not find any such things in the idea that our foreign policy cliques under a Clinton administration will simply keep doing what they have been doing for many decades. The thought frightens me, and I do not say this for mere effect. In my estimation, and it is no more than that, the world is approaching maximum tolerance of America’s post–Cold War insistence on hegemony. As regular readers will know, this is why I stand among those who consider Clinton’s foreign policy thinking, borne out by the record, the most dangerous thing about her. And there are many of us, by the evidence.

Nominally, as advertised in the advancers published before Clinton spoke, Clinton’s speech was a rolling barrage against Donald Trump’s various assertions on foreign policy questions. It was that. She hacked into Trump’s “America First” stance and a few of his specific positions. But I question whether this was her true point. I find evidence in her remarks to suggest Clinton’s more fundamental intent was to counter all the talk of “Hillary the hawk” and “Killary.” It is catching up on her; the givenness to invasions, bombing campaigns, “regime change” and conjured-from-nothing hostility may well prove a serious burden as she tries to line up the Sanders people—that vast segment of the Democratic Party she has so thoroughly alienated—behind her.

Clinton’s tactic was to go long on her claim to gravitas. She is for a “smart and principled” foreign policy that preserves American primacy. She favors maintaining Washington’s network of global alliances—with friends, clients and those in between—and avoiding any temptation to lapse into isolation. She spoke in such terms as “the stakes in global statecraft” to evoke complexities that only a closed coterie of mandarins could possibly understand. Interestingly, she promised to reduce income inequality at home and rebuild domestic infrastructure, which is fine, but note why: We must do these things because America cannot lead the rest of world if its own people are falling down holes.

“I’m going to keep American security at the heart of my campaign,” Clinton asserted. Just the thing in a military town, of course. And Clinton’s people are right to surmise that global disorder is starting to get on many American voters’ nerves.

On offer in San Diego, then, was a comforting—if this is your flavor—defense of “the bipartisan pillars of American diplomacy that every president has adhered to since World War II,” as The New York Times put it in last Thursday’s editions.

Wow. That is a rich phrase. It seems intended to confer some historical legitimacy on the Clinton record, some foreign policy lineage, and to arouse in us some confidence in the tried-and-true of our nearby ancestors—nostalgia, even, for the supposed wisdom of our supposedly “greatest generation.” People who listen to too much NPR will buy into this as “sensible.” But it requires exploration beyond this kind of dim silliness, surely.

One, we have suffered as against benefited from bipartisan consensus in the foreign policy sphere since 1945. Even the Democrats’ very late opposition to the Vietnam War was rooted not in its immorality, racism, inhumanity and illegality but in the judgment that we could not win it.

One can say now that foreign policy thinking in Washington is ossified only by risking the assumption that anyone is doing any serious thinking. In consequence, there are no alternative perspectives in the foreign policy space. People who entertain them can generally forget about eating lunch in our nation’s capital. There is no comfort to be found in this. It is, rather, the source of very large problems—problems Clinton effectively proposes to prolong rather than address.

Two, continuity in American foreign policy is the last thing Americans need now for a few reasons.

It is time now to recognize that the incessant crises that rattle our window sashes ever more loudly result often—though not always, of course—from the global ambitions American policies express. We Americans ought to travel more for the sake of seeing more clearly. Polls in Europe and elsewhere taken by Pew and other such organizations show that majorities in many places identify America as the primary cause of global disorder. Hillary Clinton is a million miles from grasping this point.

Finally, she is equally far from acknowledging the intimate connections between foreign and domestic policy. She has no intention of reversing the flow of power to the military within the policy-planning elites and no intention of challenging the Pentagon’s voracious appropriation of the resources needed to underwrite even a domestic program as pitifully modest as hers. A little more philosophically, when are we Americans going to wake up to the fact that the violence-as-first-resort now embedded in our foreign policy process cannot be understood separately from the violence that plagues us at home? Do these two not arise from the same culture—our unconscious but prevalent belief in “regeneration through violence,” as Richard Slotkin titled his examination of the phenom back in the 1970s?

There are times in history when the continuity card is the right one to play. As a value, continuity cannot be judged except in historical context, which ought to be obvious. Hillary Clinton now flings this card face-up on the table. It is a lurch rightward, which can surprise us in only one way: Wasn’t she going to wait at least until Sanders exited stage left?

My conclusions: One, Clinton’s operatives and advisers now conclude there is richer political ground to be plowed over her right shoulder than there is over her left. There is evident concern that the Sanders wing is not going to come her way.

Two, in her remarks Thursday Clinton asserted that electing Trump would be “an historic mistake.” This it may be, but in the San Diego context it was mere rhetoric with an odd irony in it: Clinton betrays a very poor understanding of what time it is in history. The world spins into a new era, no matter whether anyone wants it to, making this a truly awful moment to talk about continuity in foreign policy. It is what we might call “reactionary,” is it not—a recidivist lunge into a past that cannot be reconstructed but in the dreams of conservatives? Autumn of the matriarch: Is this what awaits us?


It is interesting to consider the term “conservative” in the context of Clinton’s attack in San Diego on Donald Trump’s ideas, or instincts, or impulses, or passing thoughts—whatever they are—on foreign policy. You have a figure who calls herself “progressive,” if only when it suits her, berating a conservative because he thinks our foreign policy needs to be rethought.

Clinton singled out a number of Trump’s positions—the banning of Muslims from American soil, a risky assertion of military force against the Islamic State—but hitting The Don on these points is like shooting at the side of a barn. These things will never come to be and are meant only to project the tough, Jacksonian affect his supporters like. I do not take them as serious, thought-through positions. Only two of Clinton’s policy critiques are interesting enough to consider briefly, in my read.

One concerns NATO. Clinton went full-tilt at Trump’s suggestion that the organization is outmoded and requires a reinvention if it is to survive sensibly. In such a case, Trump has said on numerous occasions, the U.S. cannot continue paying more than a fair share of its costs. Three transgressions, in the Clintonian view.

I have taken up the NATO question previously in this space and will reiterate the established only briefly. NATO spent its first post–Cold War years wandering in the desert, bereft of purpose, and has now settled on Russia’s “aggressions” as its enduring raison d’être. Fine, except there are none other than those NATO and Washington have provoked. Never forget the gem John Kirby, the State Department’s latest spokesman, delivered a few months ago: Russia, he explained to The AP’s ever-dogged Matt Lee, is simply too close to NATO to be tolerated. That is where this line of logic leads you.

The part that interests me now is the question of funding. It is against the orthodoxy to raise the question of who pays what in the NATO budget. The U.S. does indeed shoulder far and away more of the organization’s costs than any other member. Why should this not be raised? Why not corrected? This is Trump’s question, and he is probably the only one around who does not know the answer.

Because NATO is a creature of the Pentagon and the American defense industries and the Europeans are force-marched members—this is why. No other member, at least among the original signatories in Western Europe, would consider contributing a eurocent more to this wasteful paranoia factory than it absolutely must to keep the peace with Washington.

Press the Continentals on this and you lift the lid on the fragility of an alliance for which they have long had only an attenuated enthusiasm. The French, as an interesting piece in the Times noted the other day, are subtly reverting to the Gaullist position: NATO’s an infringement on sovereignty and we are thinking about stepping out altogether.

Second issue: Trump also asserted recently that he would talk to Kim Jong–un to persuade him to abandon North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Talk to Kim Jong–un? This is another faux pas in Clinton’s book. Same question: Why would this be?

Since we Americans are such accomplished forgetters, best to recall a little of the past. It is only since the Bush II years as they unfolded after the 2001 attacks that refusing to talk to adversaries has been elevated into one of the stupidest principles ever to be enshrined in official Washington.

Bill Clinton ended an 18-month standoff with Pyongyang in 1994 by negotiating what was called the Agreed Framework, alert readers will recall. Kim Jong–un’s father, Kim Jong–il, consented to freeze nuclear development and construction of reactors that might have been capable of weaponizing enriched uranium. Remember when the North blew up a reactor on television? It was during this period. In exchange, the U.S. agreed to supply the North with shipments of fuel oil while it developed alternative sources of energy.

The regrettable ending here is that the Agreed Framework came undone in 2003 amid mutual recriminations. Washington asserted that Pyongyang was not living up to its obligations, and Pyongyang asserted the reverse. The net of it is North Korea withdrew from the Non–Proliferation Treaty that year. Read the fine print in the 139th paragraph of the historical accounts and you find that the U.S. never delivered an ounce of oil. I know: I covered this affair at close range.

After the framework agreement collapsed, what are known as Six-Party Talks commenced. These had the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan sitting across the mahogany table from North Korea to negotiate the nuclear question in another format. There were six rounds of talks, with intermittent signs of promise, before they ended under none other than Barack Obama in 2009. Resuming the talks remains the only serious way to address Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions effectively.

Now think again about Hillary Clinton’s shrill blasts at Trump for his willingness to talk to the North’s new leader.

One cannot sign on to the idea that Trump brings a fresh, imaginative voice to American foreign policy debates. No. This is not the point. Know what you are buying when you buy into Hillary Clinton’s ripostes. This is the point.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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