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Hillary Clinton’s Dangerously Coherent Foreign Policy

Unlike Donald Trump, the Democratic nominee’s ideas are frighteningly clear

CreditRHONA WISE/EPA/NewscomCreditRHONA WISE/EPA/NewscomHe had been called a racist, a bigot, and even a fascist, but it is likely that for the Washington elite no epithet attached to Donald Trump was more meaningful than Hillary Clinton calling him incoherent.

"Americans aren't just electing a President in November," Clinton told a crowd of supporters and military personnel in San Diego in early June. "We're choosing our next commander-in-chief—the person we count on to decide questions of war and peace, life and death."

This was Clinton's first direct and sustained attack on Trump, and though Democrats had been preoccupied with the unsavory identity politics of the presumptive Republican nominee, Clinton devoted only a few lines to calling out Trump's habits of "demonizing Muslims" and insulting women, Mexicans, and the disabled. Most of her speech went after Trump's utterances on foreign policy. "Like many across our country and around the world, I believe the person the Republicans have nominated for President cannot do the job," she said. "Donald Trump's ideas aren't just different—they are dangerously incoherent. They're not even really ideas—just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies."

Pundits across the Beltway's ideological spectrum cheered. Conservatives at the National Review and Fox News agreed with liberals at Huffington Post and Vox that this was Clinton's "best speech yet" and "her best case against Donald Trump." In recent days she has built the theme of Trump's "dangerous, incoherent" ideas into her stump speech

What Clinton and her bi-partisan allies find most objectionable in Trump's foreign policy pronouncements is not so much their lack of coherence but their discordance with the idea that America should be the leader of the world. "It's a choice between a fearful America that's less secure and less engaged with the world," Clinton declared, "and a strong, confident America that leads to keep our country safe and our economy growing."

Trump has certainly had his inconsistencies, but "Make America Great Again" has never meant "Make America Lead Again." Clinton singled out for opprobrium the proposals made by Trump that would dismantle a century-long project initiated by progressives to remake other countries in the image of the United States. That project, which historians of U.S. foreign relations typically refer to as Wilsonianism, after the first president to give it intellectual shape, has been carried out with varying degrees of militancy but always embraced uncritically by both Democratic and Republican presidents since Wilson declared the United States to be "the savior of the world."

To Clinton and other inheritors of Wilson's calling, Trump's specific sins are what some have crudely called isolationism. Rather than seek U.S. military dominance as a means to extend American influence, Trump has insisted that other nations bolster their militaries and defend themselves, which Clinton dismissively reduced to a demand to "let more countries have nuclear weapons."

Trump undoubtedly set fire to the hair of every Wilsonian when he called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) "obsolete" and a financial burden for the United States and said he would "certainly look at" getting rid of it. As a multilateral but American-led force that has protected U.S.-approved governments in Europe, NATO is quintessentially Wilsonian and near and dear to Clinton, who first championed it when she was First Lady. She was the most enthusiastic advocate among her husband's advisors for a bombing campaign against Serbian forces in the former Yugoslavia, and famously asked, "What do we have NATO for if not to defend our way of life?" Now, she sees a man who "would abandon our allies in NATO," which she considers to be "one of the best investments America has ever made." 

What Clinton offers instead of Trump's "truly dangerous path" is a foreign policy built upon the classically Wilsonian idea that America "is an exceptional country" that is the "last, best hope on earth." She promises to "secure American leadership" and to prove, through diplomacy and military action, that "our country represents something special, not just to us, [but] to the world."

Unfortunately, presidents with these coherent ideas have been the most dangerous of all.

Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush—the presidents most driven to make the world democratic, capitalist, and amenable to American interests—promoted and oversaw U.S. involvement in wars that killed, by great magnitudes, more Americans and foreign civilians than all the other presidents combined, and whose benefits for ordinary Americans, if any, are still far from clear.

Clinton herself has never seen an opportunity for American military intervention she didn't like. As Secretary of State she was the most enthusiastic of all of Obama's senior civilian advisors about the plan for a surge of troops into Afghanistan in 2009, and in 2011 she led the "humanitarian interventionists" in the administration who persuaded Obama to bomb Libya. In his comprehensive review of her work in the Obama administration, James Traub of Foreign Policy concludes that "at bottom, Clinton was a reflexive advocate of the military."

During her tenure at State, Clinton delivered a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that was noted by many observers for its frank and unreconstructed Wilsonianism. In it, she declared that American leadership was needed more than ever. "When old adversaries need an honest broker or fundamental freedoms need a champion, people turn to us," she said. "When the earth shakes or rivers overflow their banks, when pandemics rage or simmering tensions burst into violence, the world looks to us." She claimed that she saw "on the faces of the people I meet as I travel" a desire for America "not just to engage, but to lead." The whole world, she said, "looks to us because America has the reach and resolve to mobilize the shared effort needed to solve problems on a global scale, in defense of our own interests but also as a force for progress." For the United States, "global leadership is both a responsibility and an unparalleled opportunity."

But as we are likely to find out under President Clinton, global leadership can also get a lot of people killed.

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  • Brian||

    Oh come on. We know that Republicans all have war bonded, while Democrats just want to do nation building right here at home.

    Stop confusing me.

  • Zero Sum Game||

    I'm not sure of this strategy either. Is the public spoiling again for more blood in foreign wars? I was under the impression that most are adamant that we should be seeking other options than sending our own off to die in someone else's desert.

    I guess this is an attempt to court military voters. Your CIC would be crazy if you vote for the other guy, who knows what he'd do?!? We know what she would do though. She's out to paint some more red on the red-white-and-blue.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Do you really want a commander-in-chief who can't be reasoned with or bribed?

  • Zero Sum Game||

    I won't stump for either of the clowns. At this point the only reason I can see anyone would vote for either of them (rather than against the other) is to fill the vacancy on the supreme court with an elephant or an ass.

    Military voters are traditionally Republican, and maybe she's speaking the language of some of the leadership, but I'm not so sure about the rest of the military. So far that bloc's squarely Trump's. I don't know where the general public's at, and it may well be that the constant news of terror attacks worldwide has got the bloodthirst back up, but the public usually seems to be strongly for interventionism up until we've got "boots on the ground" and then backpedals pretty hard from that stance. So, probably more of the same... the occasional air strike and drone strikes so we can avoid bringing home coffins draped in flags.

  • straffinrun||

    Kill a despot and make shit worse. Pretty coherent if you ask me.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush—the presidents most driven to make the world democratic, capitalist, and amenable to American interests—promoted and oversaw U.S. involvement in wars that killed, by great magnitudes, more Americans and foreign civilians than all the other presidents combined...

    If only they'd seen the efficacy of a cold war.

  • Libertarian||

    Clinton declared, "and a strong, confident America that leads to keep our country safe and our economy growing."


    Yep. I looked it up. Hillary's picture is there in the dictionary right next to the word "platitude."

  • straffinrun||

    That was pic for Platyrrhine.

  • Jerryskids||

    ...a century-long project initiated by progressives to remake other countries in the image of the United States. That project, which historians of U.S. foreign relations typically refer to as Wilsonianism...

    The British referred to it as "the white man's burden". Rockefeller Republicans like, well, pretty much all of the nominees and their supporters except Reagan, understand the universal human desire for cocktail parties at the country club and seeing that Ashleigh and Biff get into the right prep school.

  • CatoTheChipper||

    The thing that is really disturbing about Clinton's foreign policy is her insistence that the US should exploit every opportunity that arises to antagonize Russia. The US government flaks hype a narrative about every border dispute, internal turmoil, athletic doping, and even its own IT incompetence to create the impression among the American ignorantia that Russia is an enemy of the US.

    Certainly the Russian government is no less nefarious than other governments, but it no longer has the USSR's vision of global revolution that could reasonably be argued to have posed an existential threat to the US. NATO is in fact obsolete and there is no clear rationale to continually antagonize Russia. To what end does US policy continue to do this?

  • R C Dean||

    it no longer has the USSR's vision of global revolution that could reasonably be argued to have posed an existential threat to the US.

    Aggressive regional hegemon is probably more where the Russian State is at right now.

    Existential threat to the US? Probably not, assuming they keep their nukes in their pants.

  • Robert||

    The Establishment is anti-Russia partly out of habit, & partly because they don't want to finally lose an excuse for fear-mongering.

    Last night I was on the phone w one of my Bill friends, and he was groping for reasons to be anti-Russia and anti-Putin (as part of Trump Derangement). It bothered him that the GOP national platform had been softened re Russia by the Trump delegates. I asked him about the particulars of USA-Russia relations, and why the US should oppose Russia on various particulars, of which he had none in mind. I asked about Syria, about Ukraine, couldn't get a reason from him. He criticized Putin because he was KGB, I pointed out Bush 1 was CIA, he said, yeah, but Putin's killed people. I asked him where he thought Russia should elect their presidents from that could reasonably be said to be in the running. The whole biz was like a dog chasing its tail.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    I'm watching the PBS coverage of the convention and the headline story is the DNC email leak. Their talking head experts are convinced that Wikileaks got the documents directly from the Russian government.
    I think most Americans think of post Soviet Russia as a bit player on the world scene that we can push around. The Russians don't see the world that way at all. This convention looks every bit as chaotic as the one last week with pissed off Bernie bros raising hell on the street and on the floor. Trump has been pretty conciliatory towards Putin. Hilary not so much. Wikileaks dumps chapter 1 of the Clinton emails on the eve of her triumphant victory. Sanders electors are furious. The party splinters.
    Clinton's been pokin that bear for a long time. Looks like Putin's revenge to me. Wikileaks is promising much more. If they've got real evidence of Clinton corruption coming before November, it could be check and mate.

  • Uncle Jay||

    RE: Hillary Clinton's Dangerously Coherent Foreign Policy
    Unlike Donald Trump, the Democratic nominee's ideas are frighteningly clear

    Heil Hitlary will continue the time honored Amerikan tradition of interventionism.
    This foreign policy has been proven sound and prudent time and again.
    Vietnam and Iraq come to mind as examples.
    We all know how those two interventionist policies worked out for the betterment of both the USA and the countries we invaded.

  • Uncle Jay||

    RE: Hillary Clinton's Dangerously Coherent Foreign Policy
    Unlike Donald Trump, the Democratic nominee's ideas are frighteningly clear

    Heil Hitlary will continue the time honored Amerikan tradition of interventionism.
    This foreign policy has been proven sound and prudent time and again.
    Vietnam and Iraq come to mind as examples.
    We all know how those two interventionist policies worked out for the betterment of both the USA and the countries we invaded.

  • Uncle Jay||

    Sorry about the double post.

  • Daniel||

    We know that Hillary will enjoy continuing the Democrats platform of continuing conflict.

  • dunce||

    All of her criticisms of Trumps positions were just ad hominem attacks ,she never identified one that she disagreed with because for instance muslim immigration is a tough sell with weekly and daily slaughters all around the world.

  • Rockabilly||

    Hillary Clinton = Give more wars a chance.

  • centipedefarmer||

    The "ian" and "ism" in "Wilsonianism" are redundant. It should properly be called "Wilsonism"

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Actually, I'm not sure the construction is wrong. Possibly a mistake, but not wrong per se.

    Think of it this way; Wilsonian describes a mythic philosophy that that witless and bigoted bungler Woodrow Wilson almost certainly never subscribed to. Therefore a political philosophy based on that myth would be not Wilsonism but Wilsonianism.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The core problem breaks down as this;

    Conquest can work. It isn't currently fashionable, but we COULD conquer the Muslim countries and place our heels firmly on their necks. The complete nutjobs, who have been a feature of Islam essentially forever, would retreat back into the hills and be a minor nuisance, mostly to their close neighbors.

    Gunboat Diplomacy can work. We could make it a policy to thump the government of any nation that a) harbors a large bunch of these pests b) won't keep them under some semblance of control and c) doesn't ask for help and seriously cooperate. This worked pretty well all through the 19th century. Again, it isn't fashionable.

    Isolationism combined with open borders WON'T work. It is fundamentally incoherent as a policy. Why Reason seems to advocate it baffles me.

    Nation Building, which both Parties seem fascinated by, has no chance of working. In brutal fact it can only be said to have worked, sorta, once, in British India. And it took hundreds of years.

    Shrillary has a coherent policy that has the chance of a tissue paper dog chasing an asbestos cat through Hell. Trump just might play whack-a-mole with terrorist sponsor states .... which is the closest to a working policy we are being offered.

  • Rational Exuberance||

    "We're choosing our next commander-in-chief—the person we count on to decide questions of war and peace, life and death."

    Yeah, that's what makes it so frightening that Hillary is even in the running.

  • jeffrey fein||

    This comment may be deemed inappropriate, but I still need to get it off my chest.

    What role might sexual frustration play in Hillary Clinton's behavioral tendencies. When was the last time Bill was "intimate" with her? When was the last time Bill "satisfied" her? When was the last time she had an orgasm? Does she "self-pleasure" on a regular basis,...does she ever?

    Then too, what effect might Bill's neglect -- if that's in fact the case -- or any "side-action" he might be having to satisfy his own needs -- have on Hillary's "crankiness"?

    Really, I'm not trying to be rude, but humans are sexual creatures, and when one's physical needs go unsatisfied there are consequences, ie "crankiness".

    I can't say for sure, of course, but just guessing, it seems Trump likely would be okay on that score.

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