In a recent Bloomberg View column on the policy positions Hillary Clinton will likely take in the 2016 presidential campaign, the veteran political chronicler Al Hunt included a head-scratcher of a passage on international affairs:
On foreign policy, she’ll take a tough line on Russia; President Vladimir Putin and the Clintons show a reciprocal animosity. She’ll call for more engagement with China and, to the consternation of labor supporters, she will back trade deals, but with some conditions.
I tend to cringe when relations are boiled down so casually with major powers like Russia, which currently boasts an arsenal of 7,500 nuclear warheads, and China, now a $10-trillion economy with attitude. Both countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council. Both are partners with the United States and other nations in nuclear negotiations with Iran. Both are rivals and competitors in other spheres.
But to say that Hillary will essentially engage positively with China and negatively with Russia is to let her off too easy. Washington has a deep strategic interest in the course and behavior of Beijing and Moscow. It's critical to understand beyond the binary on-off switch how Hillary perceives these powers and America's long-term posture toward them.
In the case of China, Hillary used to be dead set against cooperating with China because of its human-rights record, suggesting in 2008, for example, that then-President George W. Bush boycott the Beijing Olympics because of China's intransigence on Darfur and Tibet. I argued at the time that Clinton's position was highly unpresidential given the dilemmas the world faced on climate-change policy, WMD proliferation, global economic growth, and more. On all these issues, China was and is a vital, necessary partner. Her position, had she won the 2008 election, would only have offended the Chinese and raised the price of Beijing's cooperation—and not solved the conflicts in Tibet or Darfur. One of the major journeys that Hillary made as Barack Obama's secretary of state was moving from China-basher to China-embracer, in line with the president's "pivot to Asia."
The question that matters today is which view of China Hillary holds. Or has she evolved beyond a good-bad frame to now see China in many shades of gray?
On Russia, the Obama administration is currently developing a national-security strategy that mixes pressure with engagement. The president's team knows that without Russia, it will be virtually impossible to achieve a new equilibrium in Syria (even with Moscow's support, realizing this goal will prove an extraordinarily tough challenge). As one of the world powers negotiating with Iran, Russia is also crucial to securing a nuclear deal with Tehran. And yet the administration is also intent on stopping Russia from further destabilizing Ukraine and spreading its national-dissection campaign from Ukraine to, say, Moldova and the Baltics. Doing so requires more than platitudes about international norms and on-the-cheap arms provisions. It probably requires a comprehensive plan to squeeze Russia in areas that it cares about at home and elsewhere in the world.
Does Hillary get that? Saying that she will "take a tough line on Russia" gives little sense of whether Hillary understands the array of costs and benefits that arise when dealing with a complex, nuclear-armed power that America cannot ignore and occasionally needs on its side—whether it wants to admit so or not.