It is impossible to predict exactly how Clinton or Trump would engage in diplomacy, or retreat from it, if elected president. It is also far from clear that Trump would be able to achieve many of his foreign-policy objectives. Nevertheless, Trump has explicitly promised an “unpredictable” foreign policy, and uncertainty equates to risk. “Clinton’s foreign-policy positions rely more heavily on her rich set of experiences. Trump’s more so on imagination,” said Amy Nelson, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Policies tend to be more vulnerable to biases, and errors, when they are based exclusively on imagination.”
The question is whether Clinton’s case against Trump will sway voters. Focusing on foreign policy could help Clinton appeal to Americans who fear the prospect of a Trump presidency, and the ways it might imperil national security. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll had promising results for Clinton on Thursday, reporting that 56 percent of voters think Clinton would handle foreign policy better than Trump. Emphasizing an assertive foreign policy might allow Clinton to blunt attacks from Trump that seek to portray her as weak on defense, a criticism frequently leveled against Democrats by Republicans.
Though foreign policy and international diplomacy is a complicated affair, America’s engagement abroad is frequently reduced to sound-bites in public debate as voter attention gravitates toward flashpoint issues. In the Democratic primary, Sanders has criticized Clinton’s foreign-policy judgment, pillorying her for her 2002 vote in support of the Iraq War, a decision she later said she regrets. Talking up foreign policy also threatens to set on edge Democrats who fear that Clinton is overly interventionist.
It is unclear if Clinton’s arguments will resonate with Republican voters who have rallied around Trump’s brash promises to protect America, seemingly at any cost. Trump’s lack of foreign-policy experience certainly seemed not to hurt him during the Republican primary election. When voter concern over terrorism spiked in the aftermath of attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, Trump continued to perform well in the polls. “Whenever there’s a tragedy, everything goes up, my numbers go way up because we have no strength in this country, we have weak, sad politicians,” Trump declared in December.
For his part, Trump can turn Clinton’s credentials to his advantage. He can cast her as a stand-in for the Obama administration’s controversial track-record on foreign policy, which critics say has has failed to keep America safe. He can argue that while she may have experience, she has not shown herself to be a capable leader. “With all of the Crooked Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy experience, she has made so many mistakes - and I mean real monsters! No more HRC,” Trump tweeted on Thursday. Before that, he called Clinton “a woman who is ill-suited to be president because she has bad judgment” in an interview with The New York Times. In a general election that pits Clinton against Trump, voters may have to decide what they find more appealing: an established track record or a relatively unknown quantity who brings with him the promise of brute force.