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Maryann Cusimano LoveSeptember 15, 2016
(AP photo/Andrew Harnik)

Americans are used to variety, to 500 television channels and millions of YouTube selections. Yet Americans often complain that presidential elections lack variety, that the candidates are too similar, particularly with regard to foreign policy. That complaint is not valid in the 2016 presidential election. The Republican candidate, Donald J. Trump, and the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, vary considerably in their approaches to foreign policy—from alliances to Zika.

Yet despite the many pronouncements that the 2016 presidential election cycle is something completely different and unprecedented, the biggest foreign policy debates in which this year’s candidates are engaged are actually very old.

Mr. Trump’s slogan of “America First” was used in 1939, when many Republicans and isolationists argued that the United States should remain neutral in response to the rise of fascism and Hitler in Europe and that it should reject immigrants and refugees. The “America First” movement chose a celebrity, the aviator Charles Lindbergh, as their leader. These nativist views were popular until the United States was bombed at Pearl Harbor and entered World War II. After the Allied victory, intent on preventing a third world war and deterring further expansion by the Soviet Union, Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican, suggested, and both parties supported, a military alliance with Western Europe. The North Atlantic Treaty, signed in 1949, created NATO, including the Article 5 mutual defense commitment that “an attack against one is an attack against all.” General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s support sealed bipartisan backing of NATO, until this year’s campaign.

The foreign policy positions advocated by Mr. Trump were most clearly articulated in 1992, not by the Republican candidate but by two independent presidential candidates. The billionaire businessman Ross Perot argued against the North American Free Trade Agreement, against foreign alliances and against immigration, particularly from Mexico, arguing these policies would hurt jobs in the United States. David Duke, white supremacist and former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, ran in the Republican presidential primaries in 1992 on an “America First” platform that he still advocates, arguing that the rights of European American citizens are being trampled and advocating for immigration restrictions. When Mr. Duke endorsed him earlier this year, Mr. Trump was at first was unwilling to disavow the support; later, he distanced himself from Mr. Duke and white nationalists.

Usually, both major political party candidates agree on supporting free trade, NATO obligations, current refugee policy, cooperative relations with Mexico and efforts to oppose Russian expansion and influence; recently, they have differed only on how they would continue to execute the “long wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq and how to counter terrorism. This year the foreign policy differences between the major party candidates are much greater.


Mr. Trump has announced that he may not uphold NATO treaty commitments to European countries that fear Russian expansion, and he argues that the U.S. share of NATO’s cost is too large. Mr. Trump is correct to note that the share of NATO’s costs borne by the United States is greater than that of any other NATO ally; the treaty was designed that way to prevent another arms race and war in Europe. Mrs. Clinton (and both the Republican and Democratic party national committees) firmly favors NATO, as has every Democratic and Republican presidential candidate since it was created in 1949 by President Harry Truman, a Democrat, with the support of General Eisenhower, the supreme commander of European forces and later a Republican president. Mr. Trump openly admires the Russian strongman President Vladimir Putin, wants to work with him and is not concerned about Mr. Putin’s forces in Ukraine.

Mrs. Clinton wants to contain Mr. Putin and decries his human rights violations and war in Ukraine.

Migration and Refugees

The hallmark initiative of the Trump campaign is his pledge to build a wall on the Mexico-U.S. border, which he claims he would get Mexico to pay for using his “superior deal-making skills,” and also by using executive orders to change the provisions in the Patriot Act intended to stop terrorist financing to instead stop remittances to Mexico. Mr. Trump vows he would also end birthright citizenship. He claims a simple congressional majority could change the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which grants birthright citizenship. Almost all constitutional scholars disagree, noting that only changing the Constitution can change birthright citizenship. The “lawlessness” of Latino immigrants is a repeated theme of Trump’s campaign, and he has promised to deport an estimated 11 million immigrants currently living and working in the United States without documents. Mr. Trump proposes tripling the size of the U.S. government devoted to border control (the Immigration, Customs and Enforcement Bureau) in order to implement his plan. Conservative think tanks estimate the cost of this deportation to be about half a trillion dollars.
In contrast, Mrs. Clinton pledges to continue to work for immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants living and working in the United States. Mrs. Clinton argues that immigrants contribute to the U.S. economy and community. Donald Trump has said that Muslims should not be permitted entry into the United States, that people from any country that has been compromised by terrorism should be banned from the United States and that he would bar refugees from the Syrian civil war (including Christians) from entering the United States. Mrs. Clinton argues that religious freedom was and is key to the American experiment and that it would be unconstitutional to bar people based on their religious affiliation. She seeks an increase in the number of Syrian refugees accepted into the United States.

There are over 65 million refugees and displaced persons in the world today, the highest number since World War II, including nearly five million Syrians who have fled the civil war and nearly seven million more displaced within Syria. The United States accepts a maximum of 85,000 total refugees per year, after extensive vetting that takes 18 months to two years. President Obama has proposed an increase to 100,000 total refugees from all regions, including an expansion to 10,000 Syrian refugees (two-thirds of Syrian refugees are women and children under 11 years old). Mrs. Clinton proposes thorough vetting to increase the number of admitted Syrian refugees from the 10,000 currently allowed to up to 65,000, starting with the most vulnerable: women and religious and ethnic minorities, like the Christians and Yazidis persecuted by the Islamic State, also know as ISIS. This number would be small compared to the Syrian refugees accepted by Germany, Canada, Jordan, Turkey and others.

Trade and the Environment

Both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton have vowed to make trade agreements more favorable to U.S. workers, and both oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Both candidates argue that the T.P.P. (and the North American Free Trade Agreement, the free trade treaty between the United States, Canada and Mexico passed by Congress with bipartisan support) are not favorable enough to U.S. workers, and both have vowed to be tougher toward China in trade. Mrs. Clinton says she will improve Nafta, including environmental protections; Mr. Trump says he may pull out of Nafta altogether. Both candidates propose greater investments in infrastructure and manufacturing in the United States.

Mr. Trump argues that climate change is a hoax and promises to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, as well as to scrap the Environmental Protection Agency. Nafta is an international treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate, and the Environmental Protection Agency is created by law. Neither candidate can deliver on any of these promises without congressional support. Mrs. Clinton knows this and argues she will persuade Congress and foreign allies to change the current Nafta treaty and to invest in American manufacturing. Mr. Trump does not acknowledge constitutional limits to presidential power. Both candidates previously supported free trade.

War and Peace

Mr. Trump has on numerous occasions said that he might use nuclear weapons as president, and he has said that nuclear proliferation to more countries (Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia) is inevitable and might be in the interest of the United States. Why pay for and stockpile nuclear weapons, he asks, if we are not willing to use them? As secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton worked to reduce the size of nuclear arsenals, although critics such as George Schultz, the Republican secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, have argued nuclear arsenals were not cut quickly or deeply enough.

Mr. Trump favors the use of torture against people accused of terrorism, and the use of violence against the families of suspected terrorists. Mrs. Clinton supports upholding the current domestic and international laws banning the use of torture and the targeted killing of civilians. Both candidates initially favored the U.S. interventions into Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2001 and later expressed reservations about those wars, and both argue for extensive bombings of ISIS. Mrs. Clinton has supported the Obama administration policy of bombing ISIS in Iraq and Syria, arming and training Iraqi government forces and some Syrian opposition forces to fight ISIS and sending military advisors but not large contingents of U.S. ground forces to fight ISIS in Syria. Mrs. Clinton differs from Mr. Obama’s policies in proposing a “no-fly zone” to stop the bombings by Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad of his own people and the creation of humanitarian corridors to allow relief aid in to starving civilians.

Mr. Trump has argued instead that we should work with Russia to keep President Assad in place, expand the bombings against ISIS (including the possible use of nuclear weapons) and send 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. Army ground troops into Syria. He also urges other Middle Eastern countries to send in their own ground troops and suggests embargoing oil from Saudi Arabia and other states unless they provide ground troops against ISIS. He calls for shutting down the internet in Syria and Iraq so that ISIS could not recruit online and for seizing oil fields from ISIS and turning them over to U.S. companies. Mr. Trump says he has more plans for “defeating ISIS really quickly,” but he must keep his ideas secret so as to take ISIS off guard. Neither candidate has offered any specific plans for building peace in the region after the defeat of ISIS.

The Zika Virus

Mrs. Clinton sent advisors to study the impact of the Zika virus in Puerto Rico, read the reports of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other research, and issued a policy for increased public education (particularly for women), the development of a rapid diagnostic test for Zika and greater investments in creating a Zika vaccine and Zika treatment. Mr. Trump has not studied the Zika virus or issued a policy on fighting it, despite requests from many endorsers such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio. At first, Mr. Trump joked about it, saying: “I hate mosquitoes. Speaking of mosquitoes, ‘Hello, Hillary?’” One of his advisors disparaged reporters for asking what Mr. Trump’s policy on Zika is: “He has more important things to worry about than mosquitoes.” When pressed on the issue while giving speeches in Florida, Mr. Trump said Governor Rick Scott “probably had it all under control,” even though Mr. Scott was asking for increased federal resources and coordination on the public health issue. Recently, Mr. Trump said he supported increasing congressional funding to combat Zika, but he offered no specifics on the debate over the level of funding and the types of activities included.

This exemplifies the differences between the candidates on foreign policy. Like her or not, Mrs. Clinton has decades of experience representing the U.S. government and conducting foreign policy. Mr. Trump has none, but he argues that this inexperience will be a strength as he will not be tied to previous policy and will bring his businessman’s sense to the area. Mrs. Clinton does her homework, consults top experts and gives foreign policy talks laden with specific details, which sometimes earns her criticism for failing to connect with voters.

Mr. Trump mobilizes his base, tweets his foreign policy thoughts in very simple 140-character messages, advises that you should never hire anyone who is smarter than you and has a great deal of turnover among his advisors, who are more focused on domestic than foreign policy issues. His team describes the process as one in which Mr. Trump tweets his views on foreign policy, and then the advisors scramble to create background materials justifying his new position for the press and the public. Mr. Trump’s ghostwriter on the best-selling book The Art of the Deal describes the candidate as having “no attention span.” Mr. Trump’s supporters see this as attractive—he “speaks from his heart,” as his vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence puts it—and they argue to “let Trump be Trump.” Like it or not, Mr. Trump’s process is very different from his predecessors in both political parties.

A New Game

Despite the importance of the candidates’ differences in this area, research shows that people rarely vote based on foreign policy. President George H. W. Bush, a Republican, predicted that his popularity after the Persian Gulf War in 1991 would not translate to votes for his re-election to a second term, saying: “The common wisdom today is that I’ll win in a runaway, but I don’t believe that. I think it’s going to be the economy.”

In the 1990s, political scientists were concerned that real-time media coverage, the introduction of the internet and increasingly negative political campaigns would polarize politics and discourage citizen participation. In the book Going Negative, the political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Stephan Stephen Ansolabehere presciently predicted much of what we witness today, writing that negative campaigning “makes the public disenchanted with both candidates.” The authors predicted: “The electorate may curse a ‘plague on both houses’.... [N]egative campaigning may diminish the power of civic duty and may undermine the legitimacy of the entire electoral process. Campaigns that generate more negative than positive messages may leave voters embittered toward the candidates and the rules of the game.”

Events this year bear out many of these concerns. People often say their vote is a choice between the lesser of two evils, but usually the percentage of voters with “highly favorable” and “highly unfavorable” views of the major party candidates come close to canceling each other out. Not this year. There are record-breaking “highly unfavorable” polling numbers for both candidates. The authors of Going Negative did not anticipate that things would get this bad.

In a foreign policy déjà vu, the issues of 1992 are again center stage. Both candidates learned from that election and believe that their economic positions will be more important to voters than their foreign policy stances. Will voters turn out despite the negative campaign? If they do, they have some real choices in policies and process between the major-party candidates.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bill Lesshafft
7 years 5 months ago
An amazingly stilted view of the subject matter. Could you possible have any more contempt for Donald Trump?
Rosemari Zagarri Prof
7 years 5 months ago
It is a pity that American voters know and care so little about foreign policy. As this author so lucidly suggests, the next president not only decides the future of the American people but of people in all parts of the world. What a travesty it would be if someone with no foreign policy experience, little knowledge, and no apparent concern about the fate of humanity was elected president. Here, too, is where the American bishops who privilege unborn lives above all others deny the complexity of the world we live in. Life continues to exist long after people are in the womb and the need for good leaders to preserve existing lives is arguably of equal or greater importance than saving those not yet born.
Julia Smucker
7 years 5 months ago
I wish this weren't true, but to paint Hillary Clinton as any kind of dove is simply wishful thinking. The only real choice here in terms of foreign policy is between America-first isolationism on the one hand and hawkish interventionism on the other. More broadly, both candidates are much closer to a "seamless shroud" ethic (the opposite of the "seamless garment" of the consistent ethic of life) than to being either pro-peace or pro-life in even the narrowest sense of either term. This sad reality may lead to different conclusions on what conscionable choices it leaves us with, if any, but denial doesn't help.

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