At last night’s debate, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump went toe-to-toe on national security, a topic very much on the minds of the American people these days. While they mainly repeated tired lines about NATO and the Iran deal, the debate did showcase the personalities and dispositions of these two less-than-ideal candidates—especially on the difficult questions of national security and foreign policy.
The exchanges between Clinton and Trump bring up an important question: what are the qualities we ought to look for in our next president, specifically for dealing with foreign policy challenges?
Last week, the University of Texas at Austin held a conference titled, “Security in Transition: National Security Challenges Facing the Next President,” that touched on this very question. The overall consensus of the conference is that we live in an increasingly dangerous and complex world. The panelists, many of whom have served at the highest levels of our national security agencies, underscored the gravity of the kinds of decisions the next president will have to face.
Surveying the foreign policy looming landscape, it’s not at all clear that either of the two frontrunners are up to the task.
Our Old Habits Can’t Handle New Dangers
One of the themes of the conference was the need to have clear international goals and a broad strategic vision. America can no longer rely on reflexive habits, as it has for years, not only because it’s reckless but because the landscape has become more dangerous.
We have to deal with an unstable post-Arab Spring Middle East, including the humanitarian crisis caused by Syria’s civil war, which in turn has become a proxy war for Russia. In Asia, an emergent China is flexing its muscles in the South China Sea. In Europe, a belligerent Russia is setting its sights on the Baltic States. Then there’s ISIS and its nearly weekly attacks in the West. All of this is occurring in the context of an America that’s been taking a back-seat on leadership.
We need a cohesive foreign policy based on principles, and a vision for America’s role in the international order. We need to assess our approach for a given crisis with this larger picture in mind, rather than sticking our finger in the dam each time it springs a leak. But this requires a leader who can shape a long-term vision and not waver from it, even if it calls for uncomfortable and difficult decisions.
Kimberly Kagan, president of The Institute for the Study of War, said the United States errs when it thinks of conflicts in the Middle East (or anywhere, for that matter) as merely regional. Syria isn’t just about the Middle East. It involves Russia and ISIS, both of which are global problems because both want to change the international order and America’s dominant place in it.
Syria is also a serious problem for Europe because it’s the source of the ongoing migrant crisis. Kagan’s point is that the next president must resist the temptation to be near-sighted about conflicts in any given region or country. He or she must see that the world is increasingly interconnected, and what happens in one region affects others.
Grand strategy also requires a president who can balance strength with a soft touch. In a panel on Asia, one speaker noted that while America does need to be able to defeat China militarily, we must not think of our relationship with China as purely adversarial. We ought to be able to dissuade and deter China, and, when necessary, give the Chinese reassurance. A myopic president might miss this, which could be potentially disastrous.
Spending two days in the company of such accomplished and experienced members of the national security community brought to mind the importance of appointing high-caliber individuals to positions like national security adviser. This entails being a good judge of character. Numerous speakers also noted a vital quality for any president in foreign affairs and national security: humility.
How Trump Measures Up
Do Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump possess the qualities needed to meet the national security challenges that America faces today?
First, let’s consider Trump. It’s hard to imagine him comprehending the level of nuance that grand strategy requires. After all, he envisions the world as a dichotomy between winners and losers. To him, everything is about strength, including international conflicts. He sees the world, whether it’s trade, immigration, or foreign policy, as a zero-sum game in which we’re either in first place or last. He thinks China’s “beating” us, and now it’s our turn to “win.”
He also seems unlikely to have the attention span to stick to a broad strategy with long-term goals. What if another country’s leader makes a disparaging comment about him? Will he be able to tame his impulsive nature and resist the urge to make off-the-cuff decisions that go against a broader strategic plan? Trump has a penchant for coming up with new policies on the spot (like his comment that he might not defend NATO allies) and constantly flip-flopping.
The next president needs to understand that decisions made in one conflict will change the landscape of the next. The concern for either a President Trump or a President Clinton is that they’ll make the same mistake as Obama, who underestimated the degree to which other world leaders were paying attention to his foreign engagements. Surely Russian President Vladimir Putin took note when Obama’s “red line” was crossed in Syria without consequence. It went into his calculations when he annexed Crimea. There’s little doubt Putin will test the next president with some minor infringement on sovereignty to see how he or she reacts, and this in turn will inform Putin’s disposition toward the Baltic States.
Trump, although assuring us that he’s surrounding himself with “the best” people, has had a bumpy track record so far. Think of Cory Lewandowski or Paul Manafort. Or take his chief policy advisor, Sam Clovis, who’s nearly as brash as his boss. But when it comes to foreign policy advisors, Trump has concerns beyond his own lack of judgment. In August, a list of 50 GOP national security officials signed a letter opposing him. It appears many in the national security community are reticent to work with a known admirer of Putin.
The great irony of Trump, of course, is that his approval ratings seem to go up with every terror attack at home or in Europe. Yet he lacks some of the fundamental qualities needed to engage successfully in effective counter-terrorism and, more importantly, the art of grand strategy—humility, patience, sustained policy, and nuance—despite Trump saying Monday night after a long rant that he has a “winning temperament.”
Clinton Has Her Own Major Flaws
Now let’s consider Clinton. She’s certainly more experienced than Trump with the inner workings of the national security apparatus and its many demands. Yet her record on grand strategy is discouraging. As secretary of State, Clinton wasn’t successful in crafting and seeing through a strategic vision for America abroad.
Take Libya, for example. Clinton had no long-term plan for the country or for our ongoing presence there, beyond supporting the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. She didn’t want American boots on the ground, but also wanted to have a diplomatic presence in Benghazi. She couldn’t have it both ways, and others paid the ultimate price.
As for personnel choices, Clinton certainly has experienced generals and ambassadors ready to join her team. But one concern is that, rather than choosing the best people, she will choose cronies and people she owes; those who’ve been waiting in the wings for years for their chance—like Sid Blumenthal.
While “humble” isn’t a word anyone would apply to Clinton, she is nothing if not patient. After all, she’s been steadily paving the road for this election since her last stay in the White House (or earlier). But this quality could turn out to be a liability. Would a President Clinton be so determined to leave a legacy that, like Obama, she would sacrifice grand strategy for a headline or some other chimerical foreign policy “achievement”?
Based on the debate, in which she refused to criticize President Obama’s foreign policy, Clinton is unlikely to depart from Obama’s negligent “lead from behind” foreign policy. But then again, so is Trump. That should be a concern to anyone interested in international stability.
The takeaway, after listening to our nation’s top officials in national security and then watching Clinton and Trump “debate” the topic, is that America has no good options. Both candidates bring significant risk to the table regarding the international order and America’s foreign policy future. So hold on. We have a rough road ahead.