Does Hillary Really Have the Foreign-Policy Advantage?

Clinton says Trump’s wrong about the world. But she still needs to explain why she’s right.

Jim Young / Reuters

Imagine you’ve had it with your house. Or, more precisely, you’re conflicted about it. You’ve loved living there. It’s a mid-century design—the biggest house on the block. You don’t really want to move. But the years, the kids, they’ve taken their toll on the place. In looking into what to do, you meet an interior designer with 25 years of experience and a fistful of glowing testimonials; she bounces around your home, gushing about the “life-changing” window treatments she’ll put here and the “modern, sophisticated” sofas she’ll add there. When you ask for a second opinion, you’re floored: The guy tells you that the whole structure has been neglected for too long, and that it should be gutted and renovated. He didn’t bring testimonials and he couldn’t care less about window treatments, but he says he knows the best contractors in the world. Why tinker around the edges, he asks, when you could build your dream house instead? Why not put the bathroom where the kitchen is? No, really: What’s stopping you?

Welcome, roughly, to the emerging debate over foreign policy in the U.S. presidential election. Hillary Clinton is the interior designer. She appears to have a considerable advantage over Donald Trump when it comes to experience and knowledge. But that experience and knowledge is only a political asset insofar as voters buy into the premises of the international system that the United States has helped design and lead since World War II—the system, in other words, in which Clinton got all that experience. It’s only valuable insofar as you want to keep the kitchen where it is. If you don’t, well … the guy with the demolition equipment starts looking pretty appealing.

Already, Clinton has claimed international affairs as a key battleground against Trump, devoting her first major address of the general-election campaign to the topic. And she’s done so for understandable reasons. Foreign affairs is arguably the realm in which she can draw the sharpest contrast with Trump in terms of qualifications. In her national-security speech last week, Clinton noted that she visited 112 countries as secretary of state. While Trump was staging a Miss Universe pageant in Russia, Clinton wryly observed, she was negotiating limits on nuclear weapons with the Kremlin. Foreign affairs is also where the stakes of the election seem highest; in her speech, Clinton conjured images of a volatile Trump in the Situation Room, blustering through matters of war and peace with one finger on the nuclear button and another scrolling through Twitter. Plus, it’s where she may be able to peel off some Republican voters. Electing Trump, Clinton said last week, “would undo so much of the work that Republicans and Democrats alike have done over many decades to make America stronger and more secure.”

And yet: It’s unclear whether this strategy will pay off for Clinton. Yes, she has a record of making life-and-death decisions, while Trump doesn’t. But that fact cuts both ways. Experience is not the same thing as success, even though Clinton rarely distinguishes between the two. In his victory speech following Tuesday’s primaries, for example, Trump characterized Clinton’s foreign policy in the Senate and State Department as one that “invaded Libya, destabilized Iraq, unleashed ISIS, and threw Syria into chaos, and created the mass migration, which is wreaking havoc all over the world.” Whether or not that critique is valid, it’s a reminder that Trump can attack Clinton’s actual policy choices; Clinton can only assail Trump’s rhetoric and hypothetical actions.

Clinton has also tethered herself to a decades-old, bipartisan consensus on the rough outlines of U.S. foreign policy, which Trump has been challenging more vigorously than any major presidential candidate has in six decades. Trump has questioned the consensus on free trade by threatening to start trade wars with China and Mexico. He’s questioned the consensus on alliances by pledging to overhaul or even scrap NATO, and to risk antagonizing America’s southern neighbor by building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He’s questioned the consensus on mutual-defense pacts and overseas military bases by promising to withdraw such support unless countries like Japan pay more for U.S. military protection. He’s questioned the consensus on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons by inconsistently suggesting he would acquiesce to countries such as South Korea and Saudi Arabia obtaining nukes if it made them less reliant on American security guarantees. He’s questioned the consensus on U.S. leadership in the world by advocating for an “America first” worldview that is transactional rather than transformational. As a teleprompter-guided Trump declared in April, “We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism. The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony.”

Over the last 70 years, presidential candidates have largely acted like interior designers within the existing structure of American foreign policy. Not Trump. And while it’s not clear that most Americans agree with his views, what is clear is that his candidacy comes at a time when the public is deeply conflicted about America’s outsized role in the world. A recent Pew poll found that the vast majority of Americans support U.S. membership in NATO and the United States playing a shared leadership role in the world. At the same time, however, 49 percent of Americans say U.S. involvement in the global economy is a bad thing because it lowers wages and costs jobs in the United States, compared with 44 percent who believe it’s a a good thing because it provides the country with new markets and economic growth. Fifty-seven percent want the United States to “deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their own problems as best they can,” while 37 percent feel the “U.S. should help other countries deal with their problems.”

(The scholar Stephen Sestanovich has pointed out that the Pew results may be more indicative of partisan differences on foreign policy than of bipartisan support for the U.S. reducing its role abroad. Trump supporters are particularly likely to view U.S. involvement in the global economy as a bad thing, while Clinton supporters are particularly likely to feel the opposite.)

As William Galston of the Brookings Institution recently wrote, “[W]e now have a Trump-led nationalist party facing off against an internationalist party that will be led into battle by a former secretary of state. Internationalism represents the path of continuity, while isolationist-tinged unilateralism is a radical change.”

The last time the foreign-policy debate in a U.S. presidential election was flung this wide open was in 1952, when the Ohio senator Robert Taft tried, for the third time, to secure the Republican nomination. In The Atlantic at the time, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. described Taft as a “New Isolationist” who reluctantly conceded that America couldn’t retreat from international affairs after the horrors of the Second World War, but disdained the new nodes of power in the postwar world, including the United Nations, NATO, and many of the structures designed to contain the Soviet Union.

“If the present policy can be briefly defined, in President Truman’s phrase, as ‘peace through collective strength against aggression,’ the New Isolationism boggles at the word ‘collective,’ and it recoils from the whole theory of building ‘situations of strength,’” Schlesinger wrote. “Its supreme emotional link with the Old Isolationism ... is its dislike of allies and its desire for unilateral action by the United States.”

Dwight Eisenhower, the celebrated World War II general and NATO commander, eventually defeated Taft in the primary, stamping out unilateralism in his party for decades to come. And he did so, in part, by making a passionate, affirmative case for internationalism and its imperfect but indispensable instruments, including the UN, NATO, and U.S. collective-security agreements (though he did want protected countries to gradually take on responsibility for their own defense rather than remain dependent on America).

Eisenhower was not calling for altruism. Every foreign-policy decision, he asserted in a speech shortly before the Republican convention, must advance the security and well-being of Americans. (In a testament to the malleability of language, he, like Trump, once labeled this philosophy “America first.”) And then he made an argument that drew on his authority as a man who had sent other men into battle: Global peace was essential to American security and well-being, he said, and “those who seem to think we have little or no stake in the rest of the world and what happens to it; those who act as though we had no need for friends to share in the defense of freedom—such persons are taking an unjustified gamble with peace.”

Why? Eisenhower argued that technological innovation, along with new production methods and labor skills, had shrunk the world and made countries far more interdependent. This applied even to the mighty United States, which depended on access to foreign markets and far-flung raw materials. America’s communist foes, he claimed, were determined to cut off these vital supply lines, and thus besiege the U.S. economy and political system. “The bleak scene of an America surrounded by a savage wolf pack could be our lot if we heed the false prophets of living alone,” Eisenhower warned.

Hillary Clinton still has work to do in making the affirmative case for internationalism—for sprucing up the house rather than gutting it. Her recent foreign-policy address included a number of assumptions whose logic Eisenhower didn’t take for granted when the U.S.-led international system was just beginning to take shape.

The choice in the 2016 election, Clinton declared, is “between a fearful America that’s less secure and less engaged with the world, and a strong, confident America that leads to keep our country safe and our economy growing.” OK, but why, in the 21st century, is robust American leadership in the world—yes, Clinton’s nuclear negotiations with Russia, but also her support for the U.S. military intervention in Libya—a prerequisite for safety and prosperity? There are arguments to be made on this front, but Clinton didn’t dwell on them last week. (She did offer a detailed defense of America’s unique alliance system and the benefits the country accrues from it.)

“If America doesn’t lead,” Clinton said at another point, “we leave a vacuum—and that will either cause chaos, or other countries will rush in to fill the void.  Then they’ll be the ones making the decisions about your lives and jobs and safety—and trust me, the choices they make will not be to our benefit.” Clinton vividly depicted Jumpy Trump in the Situation Room, but she didn’t take the time to paint a picture of how Americans’ lives and jobs and safety would change under, say, Chinese hegemony.

Trust me—America must lead, Clinton says. That line may have worked during past elections. But it may not be enough against an opponent who insists that America’s leaders can’t be trusted, and that America’s global leadership is a rotten deal.