Lead

Preparing for the next U.S. President

While America’s allies have a good idea of Hillary Clinton’s statecraft, they will hope that power will have a moderating influence on Donald Trump’s electoral plank

With the >Republican and Democratic conventions coming to an end, the U.S. heads to presidential elections in November with a new sense of purpose. The race is actually shorter than most people think. By one estimate, since 1952, in 15 out of 16 cases, the candidate who was ahead in the polls two weeks after the conventions went on to become President. In the 16th case, the candidates were tied.

This means that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who is behind Republican candidate Donald Trump by a few points this week in poll averages after leading for most of the campaign, will have a fortnight to close the gap. After that, according to statistics, one or the other could pull ahead, perhaps unbeatably, even before the first head-to-head Clinton versus Trump debate on September 26.

A tough act to follow

The rest of the world doesn’t have a vote, but there is no question that U.S. foreign policy shaped by the winner will leave a deep impact on the world. Hence this is an important point at which to study the candidates’ foreign policy visions. Few can forget the euphoria worldwide that accompanied the election of Barack Obama almost eight years ago. At the time, his five-point vision for “making America safer” seemed just what was needed by the world at large: “ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban; securing nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving energy security; and rebuilding American alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century.” A year later, in recognition of the policies he had outlined, Mr. Obama even won the Nobel Peace Prize.

However, in the run-up to Elections 2016, during his first comprehensive speech on foreign policy, it is on these very goals that Mr. Trump first challenged Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton in her tenure as Secretary of State. Claiming that American military resources were overextended, Mr. Trump said that U.S. allies are not “paying their fair share”. Referring to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and to Israel’s alarm at the Iran nuclear deal, he said that America’s friends think they “can’t trust us”, adding that rivals like Russia and China “don’t respect” the U.S. “Our actions in Iraq, Libya and Syria have helped unleash ISIS (the Islamic State),” Mr. Trump said. Finally, he declared that “America First” would be the overriding theme of his administration.

In the months that have followed, Mr. Trump has built on this idea, effectively turning the debate between him and Ms. Clinton into one of Americanism versus globalisation. There are >several parts to this debate. On immigration, Mr. Trump has indicated his hard-line position, singling out Muslim and Mexican immigrants for the harshest rhetoric.

Next, he has spoken in tough terms about U.S. alliances and allies, such as NATO, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council, accusing them of freeloading on American military resources. In a recent interview to The New York Times, Mr. Trump added that having 60,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and Japan hadn’t brought peace to the peninsula, and had reduced them to bystanders watching North Korea grow more belligerent and more nuclear, even as the U.S. lost “$800 billion” in trade each year, presumably due to tensions with China. This effectively turns U.S. policy on its head, particularly the belief that American troops stationed worldwide are a force multiplier for U.S. power projection and leadership position. It will be important to see where this may lead in the case of a Trump win, given that U.S.-India relations have become much closer over India’s acquiescence to America’s plans on its “pivot” to the east, and the South China Sea in particular.

Third, Mr. Trump has advocated clearly against intervention in other countries on the basis of domestic turmoil. When asked whether he would try to ensure that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or other leaders would guarantee the rule of law and civil liberties in their countries, Mr. Trump called for introspection. “I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country (the U.S.) has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country.” This is certainly disruptive thinking for an American candidate, far removed from the strong bipartisan belief that the U.S. is a force for good worldwide and committed to the “spread of democracy” that it claimed compelled it to intervene in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and arm rebels in Syria.

Experience in statecraft

For her part, Ms. Clinton has allowed her record to speak louder than any articulation of her foreign policy vision. Her experience in statecraft far outweighs Mr. Trump’s, she said in a recent speech, dismissing his as limited to “running the Miss Universe pageant in Russia”. She has also made considerable effort to counter Mr. Trump’s world view by defending the military interventions worldwide, adding that she has “no regrets” on Libya. Countering Mr. Trump’s views on U.S. allies, she said: “You want a leader who understands we are stronger when we work with our allies.” On immigration, she has referred to Mr. Trump’s plans for immigration bans and a wall on the Mexican border as “un-American”, calling instead for “comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship”.

Perhaps most closely watched by the world will be the two candidates’ stands on trade alliances, with both having expressed their opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiated between 12 Pacific Rim nations. While Ms. Clinton’s close confidantes caused some controversy recently by suggesting she should reverse her stand, Mr. Trump has been unequivocal, adding that the U.S. would renegotiate all trade deals, including scrapping the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). From India’s point of view, with New Delhi facing some pressure on lowering tariffs in order to enter various multilateral trade regimes, this move away from global trade treaties may even come as a welcome relief.

Why worry?

So how much should the world worry about the current tussle for presidential power and its bearing on American policy? There is no question that leaders worldwide have a certain comfort level with Ms. Clinton, given her years at the helm of the State Department, and as First Lady before that. In contrast, Mr. Trump was an “unknown unknown” till just a year ago in the context of international relations, and his thoughts, some of which seem absurd, require much more engagement in order to be fully understood.

Second, Mr. Trump’s pitch for Americanism over globalisation must be seen in a larger international context. Anti-globalisation is now a global trend, one in which the far-Right meets the far-Left, with centrists feeling squeezed out. While Britain’s vote to exit from the European Union, or Brexit, is the obvious comparison to be made, the truth is that countries around the world are voting Right, and governments are turning conservative on issues of immigration, trade, and military interventions abroad. During her speech, for example, Ms. Clinton even chided Mr. Trump on outsourcing to “make ties in China, picture frames in India”.

Finally, in any evaluation of the foreign policy of the U.S. presidential candidates, it must be remembered that like for candidates in democracies elsewhere, power will have a moderating influence on their electoral planks. Ms. Clinton has seen too closely the high cost of interventionism to contemplate another Iraq- or even Libya-type operation in the near future. Similarly, on Mexico Mr. Trump may find, much like Prime Minister Narendra Modi found with Bangladesh, that ties with neighbours are actually much more beneficial than when they are simply boiled down to issues of illegal immigration and trans-border crime.

suhasini.h@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | May 30, 2020 8:27:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Preparing-for-the-next-U.S.-President/article14515267.ece

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