Two of the least inspiring, most unpopular US presidential candidates in … just how many years? To find candidates this weak we might have to go back as far as the 1850s, when Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore stood for the country’s highest office. And although both went on to become presidents, they are justly forgotten today by everyone except historians.
Opinion polls indicated that the negative view American citizens have of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is unprecedented; they are fortunate in this respect to be as unpopular as each other. But then how could they have become their parties’ candidates for the presidency? The answer is simple: in US primaries it is not the majority of American citizens who cast their vote but the most determined minorities within each party.
Clinton and Trump won their parties’ primaries mainly for reasons linked to domestic, rather than foreign politics.
Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is largely “inherited:” she has been the “crown princess” of 2016. Having narrowly lost in the primaries against Barack Obama in 2008 she became his secretary of foreign affairs, and has been running as his successor, particularly since Vice- President Joe Biden decided not to enter the race.
Clinton is also the successor of another president, her husband Bill Clinton, who ran the country during the peaceful and prosperous 1990s. She can reassure the center-left voters that she will follow in her husband’s footsteps and those on the more radical left that she will carry on President Obama’s legacy, uniting the entire Democratic Party electorate behind her.
However, the unexpectedly strong opposition from the socialist senator Bernie Sanders that she faced in the primaries forced her to shift further left than she had intended, particularly on economic and domestic issues. One of the effects has been a pivot—albeit rhetorical—to protectionism in foreign trade. This is a major shift, since Hillary Clinton is someone who has always claimed allegiance to the free trade principles, which her husband had also professed as president. One of her achievements as a minister in Obama’s first administration was negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement on foreign trade, which she has now repudiated.
In terms of foreign policy, she has presented herself as a liberal internationalist in the same spirit as her husband. She has been slightly more “hawkish” than President Obama, having not only defended the intervention in Libya and pushed for one in Syria (which did not materialize), but also opposing the complete withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011 (which created a vacuum subsequently filled by the so-called Islamic State).
She is, therefore, more likely than Obama to use military force abroad and to become more involved in global affairs. She might also maintain more intense links with America’s traditional allies.
Donald Trump has based his campaign on, firstly, attacking illegal immigration to the US, especially from Latin America, secondly, attacking political correctness on behalf of racial, ethnic, and other minorities, and thirdly, criticizing America’s weakness—particularly economic but also military—on the global stage.
He claims that American politicians are stupid, which is why they have been losing out economically, especially to China, Japan, and Mexico. His proposed “remedy” is undisguised protectionism, in the form of customs and tariffs.
In terms of domestic policy, he has promoted populist nationalism, especially in the interests of the white middle class. In foreign policy he champions a mixture of a kind of isolationism with a kind of militarism.
On the one hand, he has claimed that America has been too altruistic in its engagement with the rest of the world and that it has been helping other countries to her own detriment. Trump has hinted that he might take the country out of NATO or keep it in only on condition that other countries “pay” the US for defending them. He has spoken admiringly of the Russian president-cum-dictator Putin. And he is likely to pursue more isolationist policies than the current President.
On the other hand, he has been critical of America’s international weakness under Obama, calling for a boost to the country’s armaments and advocating ultra-hawkish views vis-a-vis radical Islam (for example, he has said that he would eliminate the so-called Islamic State by a bombing campaign). His militarist (and popu- list) rhetoric is reminiscent of the hawks of American nineteenth century, such as the seventh President Andrew Jackson.
However, there is a latent conflict between isolationism (and protectionism) and militarism (and willingness to deploy military force abroad), which raises the question what President Trump’s foreign policy might actually look like, since his ideas have been rather inconsistent.
A further question is which of his declared views he actually means and which ones he has expressed solely as a part of a cynical campaign rhetoric, which he will abandon as soon as he is elected president.
This leads to the conclusion that Donald Trump is unpredictable and that his foreign policy as a potential president would be just that: unpredictable. Hillary Clinton is far more predictable in this respect.
A certain degree of unpredictability would not necessarily do any harm: it might inspire respect in America’s adversaries and partners, and ensure greater compliance on their part. Trump might potentially turn out to be a conventional and quite successful president in foreign affairs terms (like, for example, George H. W. Bush), or he might cause a series of foreign policy disasters from trade wars and a collapse of the world trade and all the crises that might entail, to encouraging dictators around the world and collaborating with them at the expense of America’s traditional democratic allies.
In this respect Trump represents a reaction to Obama, just as Obama was a reaction to George W. Bush, who pursued a robustly internationalist, indeed interventionist, foreign policy with the goal of promoting democracy around the world. The result was Iraq and the loss of US popularity worldwide. In response to Bush, Obama has withdrawn from the world while at the same time abandoning the policy of promoting America’s ideals (except for LGBT rights promoted by US diplomacy). This resulted in a weakening of America’s position in the world and contempt on the part of her adversaries.
Trump represents a nationalist-populist, macho reaction to this weakness and contempt. He wants to make America strong again in economic and military terms and proposes to accomplish this goal through protectionism and militarism. At the same time, he does not want America to help anyone apart from herself, and wants to achieve this through isolationism and nationalism.
In the light of this most unusual primary season nothing at all can be ruled out, including the possibility that both Clinton and Trump could give up their nominations, however unlikely that might seem. Nevertheless, in terms of foreign policy, the greatest sea change consists in the fact that for the first time in the past seventy to eighty years, both parties’ candidates promote protectionist policies. For the first time, the post-war consensus among all US presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike, has been abandoned— rhetorically at least—by the candidates of both parties.
And that is not very good news.
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