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The US foreign policy stereotype of “Democrats: good, Republicans: bad” is dead; so who’d be the most destabilising? And no, it’s not who you think – Nicholas Harrington
There is a tendency to fall victim to foreign policy binary in the US political landscape. On one hand, you have Republicans who enjoy bombing sovereign countries, regime change and pillaging natural resources around the globe. On the other, you have the Democrats who form international coalitions, are more humanitarian, and tend to use diplomacy and economic sanctions more readily than military force.
Well, that all was true, but stereotype no longer is a guide. So, let’s have a look at Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump, and see what kind of Commander in Chief they would be.
The first thing to know is that she’s very hawkish. That means she likes confrontation and intervention, and she’s not shy about military force. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton advised Barack Obama to take out Muammar Gaddafi. She was excited about the prospect of regime change and began using the classic talking points of genocide and humanitarianism as a pretext for US intervention. Hillary is more decisive than her husband, who was seen by many foreign policy analysts as sheepish and vacillating. Where Bill hesitates, Hillary acts. In an early democratic debate (October 14, 2015) she confirmed her view that a no-fly zone over Syria was a good idea.
Let’s be clear: a Syrian no-fly zone is a poke in Russia’s eye. It has nothing to do with domestic Syrian combatants since neither the Assad regime nor the opposition rebels are operating meaningful air power. What it would demand however is that Russia responded by calling her bluff or withdrawing from a national security priority. Withdrawal is not an option for Moscow – so that puts the US face-to-face with Putin over the outcome of Syria’s civil war. In addition, Clinton believes that removing Assad is the priority. She’s still convinced (despite the debacle that is Libya, the debacle that is Iraq, the debacle that was Iran and the debacle that was Egypt) that regime-change is a salient option.
Hillary was one of the chief authors of the Iran Nuclear deal – something which has caused tensions between the US and its longest-standing ally in the region: Israel. It’s too soon to tell what the long-term consequences of the Iran deal will be, but initial signs don’t indicate significant benefits for US national interest or regional security. The French and Russians are benefiting most from economic normalisation with Tehran. Saudi Arabia is increasingly nervous and consequently signed a ten-billion-dollar military contract with a European ally (a direct snub to the United States, who they blame for changing the balance of power in the region) to offset a rising Iran.
Lastly, Clinton, as the architect of the “Pivot to Asia” US foreign policy, is in favour of enhancing military capabilities (to offset Chinese hegemony in South-East Asia) in Australia, South Korea and the Philippines. As we have seen, China’s recent response to US military posturing has been the militarisation of reclaimed islands in the South China Sea. Even Russia is alarmed at the suggestion that THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) might be established in the region.
The world with Hillary Clinton as Commander in Chief is far less stable and far more dangerous. The United States may well benefit from increased arms trade (as all sides to new conflicts engage in various arms races), but at the cost of how many lives and years of civil war? Maybe this is part of the Clinton strategy? Since there is declining advantage in Middle East oil (given low prices and US energy independence in 2012), the US could potentially make up the economic shortfall through the sale of arms to warring Middle East nations. I foresee unnecessary destabilisation of regimes that don’t conform to Clinton’s worldview and increased tensions with both Russia and China. I believe a Clinton administration would be more, rather than less, likely to provoke the kind of collapsed states that have given rise to elements like ISIS in recent years.
This scion of the Republican establishment, recently minted and soon to be anointed, is a classic Republican Hawk. Unlike like Bush W (who was a neocon), Rubio is more like Ronald Reagan. He doesn’t want to remake the world in the US image, he wants the US to be the world – and he’ll use the military to make sure that happens. His catchphrase is “The New American Century” – that’s scary. He’s tough, martial and focused on American national interests, key strategic assets and traditional alliances.
Rubio wants to wind the clock back to 2000 and press pause on the good ol’ days of US global hegemony. The problem is you can’t wind back the clock, and a lot has changed since then. Using the US military juggernaut like a DeLorean for American prestige is going to necessitate a large amount of confrontation.
He is a junior member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. While he knows names, places and dates, he falls victim to the traditional American assumption that the rest of the world stands still while the US makes all its moves.
Rubio believes the global chessboard is stamped “Mattel” and other international actors are just pawns.
He wants to tear up the nuclear deal with Iran. He wants to threaten Russia back into its burrow. He wants to reestablish strong relations with Israel. He wants to knock off Assad and eradicate ISIS everywhere. And he wants to push China out of the South China Sea. Marco Rubio wants the world to look like it did before 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq.
The problem with Rubio’s foreign policy is that despite what he thinks, it doesn’t operate in a vacuum. He can’t just scare Russia back into a box. He’ll have to force them in. He can’t tear up Iran’s nuclear deal. The US was only one signatory of six (in addition to Germany, France, Russia, the UK and China). He can’t get rid of Assad without taking on Russia. He can’t defeat ISIS everywhere because no-one knows where they are anymore. (Yemen? Libya? Pakistan? Afghanistan? Iraq? And Syria?) Rubio talks tough because his head overflows with grandiose ideas of reclaiming former US glory and he’s being patted on the back by a whole lot of old white guys in dark rooms. But when push comes to shove – to do any of the things he says he wants to do – he’ll have to start a war – a real war – and send tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of troops into combat. Its more than likely with Rubio as Commander in Chief that the US will commence conventional hostilities, on some scale, with Russia, China or Iran. Brilliant for the military industrial complex; not so good for the rest of us.
I know what you’re thinking: “He’s gonna burn the world down; he’s the worst of the lot; World War III, here we come.” Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but that’s not even close. Donald Trump is an accommodationist. He’s a big believer in national sovereignty (shock-horror, not just US sovereignty) and most importantly, he respects power and toughness in others. If you’re a strong country, he believes you can do whatever you want with your weaker neighbours. Trump applauded Chinese ingenuity in building their South China Sea Islands; never said it was a problem. He hates ISIS, but he’s got no beef with Assad. Trump was flattered by Putin’s praise and encouraged his initiative to involve himself in Syria. The Don wants the Europeans to do more of their fair share for their collective security (even if it is just paying the US more cash). Trump is opposed to the Iran deal (although he’s not going to revoke it) – but not because of its geopolitical implications, just because it was a bad business deal. The US didn’t get its hostages back right away and the $150 billion in released sanctions funds didn’t benefit American business – that pissed him off!
Under Donald Trump there will be less international conflict in the short to medium term, but God knows what will happen in the long term. He’ll let Russia take as much of the Ukraine as the Europeans would allow. He’ll permit China to take the South China Sea while assuring his Asian allies. Assad will regain control of Syria, execute the rebels and join forces with Iran – provided America accrues tangible financial benefit. Trump will do deals with any regime, any time. He doesn’t care of they’re dictatorial or not. So long as America is making money off the accommodation, he’s happy. Trump has no interest in fixing other countries because quite frankly he doesn’t give a shit about them. Trump’s only concern is America and he doesn’t see the benefit of engaging the US military in needless wars in pursuit of idealistic goals that have not delivered on their promises in the past.
The electoral takeaway
If you want regime change, nation building, uncertainty, evolving alliances and the prospect of being dragged into a conflict with Russia and China: vote Hillary Clinton.
If you want a return to a pre-9/11 unipolar world, buying US hegemony at the cost of military conflict between America and China, Syria, Iran or Russia: vote Marco Rubio.
If you want stability, less war, deals with tyrants, and you don’t mind if China, Iran and Russia increase their regional influence: vote Trump.
There is no perfect scenario – each has plusses and minuses – but go into this with open eyes, free from the inadequate paradigm that Democrats are good guys and that Republicans are bad.
It is far more nuanced than that.