The next U.S. president faces immense global challenges, all of which will impact domestic policy and the American people.
They include a growing crisis of wealth extremes, long-term stagnation of the global capitalist economy, resource depletion, terrorism, escalating tensions with Russia, immigration and refugee crises, pro-business trade pacts, and numerous hotspots – including the Syrian civil war. Above all, there are the looming existential crises of climate change and the growing nuclear danger.
Change is accelerating. We live in a multi-polar world with the U.S. a descending power, the European Union in crisis, and China and other trading blocs and alliances ascending.
While Wall Street and transnational capital dominate U.S. foreign policy, it is an arena of struggle of contending influences and forces, including U.S. public opinion.
Trump policy: chaotic, isolationist, dangerous
There are stark differences between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on nearly every issue. While some describe Clinton as a “hawk” and Trump as a “dove,” in reality, on every score Trump poses an immense danger to humanity and nature. The foreign policy establishment and officials from past Democratic and Republican administrations are nearly universal in their opposition to Trump, characterizing him as unfit and dangerous.
Trump’s foreign policy approach totally lacks coherence. His advisors are an eclectic collection of right-wingers, kooks, and extremists. Some have no foreign policy experience whatsoever, including two advising him on Israel and Palestine – Jason Dov Greenblatt, a real estate attorney, and David Friedman, a bankruptcy expert.
At least one, Walid Phares, is a prominent commentator on Fox News as a Middle East and terrorism expert. Two others feel Sharia law poses a dire domestic threat, and at least one has re-tweeted anti-Semitic posts. One suggested President Obama is a Muslim.
Add to the mix Trump campaign CEO Stephen K. Bannon, the Breitbart News extremist and mouthpiece of the fascist alt-right, who would push a foreign policy geared to paranoia, conspiracy of an “elite global cabal,” and white supremacy.
When added up, a Trump foreign policy would be more chaotic, impulsive, unpredictable, disruptive, and lead to more dangerous tensions and conflicts, including the possibility of nuclear war. Imagine a brooding Trump awake in the wee hours of the morning fuming over some perceived slight by a foreign leader. Instead of sending a hate-filled tweet, he may order a nuclear strike.
Trump advocates open violations of international law (use of torture including water boarding and killing families of suspected terrorists) and abrogation of treaties and agreements (e.g. Paris Climate Agreement, the Iran Nuclear Deal, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). His policy agenda focuses on what Trump calls the battle against “radical Islamic terrorism.” He sees the “Muslim world at war with the West”.
Trump’s initial call to ban Muslims from immigrating has now morphed into a policy of “extreme vetting,” but it is still fanning Islamophobia at home and anti-American sentiments in the Middle East creating fertile soil for future terror attacks.
And this would be the first time a businessman with his own far-flung global financial empire would be president, creating many serious conflicts of interest. For example, many suspect Trump is hiding business ties with Russia, which would explain his attitude toward Putin and his dismissal of Russian hacking of DNC emails and apparent efforts to manipulate the U.S. elections.
The Trump Organization is an “enterprise with deep ties to global financiers, foreign politicians and even criminals,” writes Kurt Eichenwald in Newsweek. “If Donald Trump wins this election and his company is not immediately shut down or forever severed from the Trump family, the foreign policy of the United States of America could well be for sale.”
“America First” policy
Trump advocates an “America First” foreign policy, akin to the 1940’s right-wing isolationism pushed by figures like Charles Lindbergh and other Nazi sympathizers. He draws much of his plan verbatim from the right-wing Heritage Foundation, which centers on restoring U.S. economic and military domination.
Trump calls for the abrogation of important treaties and global agreements and takes a hostile stance toward the United Nations, reminiscent of the Bush administration. During a foreign policy speech in Philadelphia, Trump called for a massive military buildup including expanding the number of U.S. Army troops by 50,000, additional Marine battalions, Navy ships and submarines and Air Force combat aircraft, modernization of missile defense, and strengthening cyber security. The estimated additional cost would be $450 billion over 10 years.
Trump vows to defeat what he terms “radical Islamic terrorism” with a “secret plan.” But he also says, once elected, he would command his generals to draft a plan to destroy ISIS that includes sending U.S. combat troops.
Like Clinton, Trump says he advocates a “no-fly zone” in Syria, but in the vice presidential debate Oct. 5, his running mate Mike Pence went further and indicated a Trump administration would take military action against the Syrian government, putting the U.S. in direct conflict with Russia. Trump denied this during the Oct. 9 presidential debate.
During a speech in Youngstown, Trump called for taking complete control of Iraq’s oil supplies in violation of the Geneva Conventions, a move that would also require redeployment of a vast U.S. occupation force.
He also sees the U.S. relationship with Israel as pivotal. But many, including in the U.S. Jewish community, have become alarmed with the takeover of Trump’s campaign by the alt-right, white supremacists, and anti-Semitic elements.
Greenblatt and Friedman are right-wing extremists who favor deeper ties to the Netanyahu government. A Trump administration would radically redefine relations with Israel and Palestine. Trump promises to recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, provoking a confrontation with Palestinians who also regard it as their historic capital.
The Republican Party platform also dropped support for a two-state solution. This would green light expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and their ultimate annexation. Palestinians would be forced into a Greater Israel, radically heightening tensions throughout the Middle East and inevitably provoking a radical escalation of the conflict.
In addition, Trump wants to scuttle the Iran Nuclear Deal and re-impose sanctions. The position of right-wing religious clerics would be strengthened if that happened, and Iran might then resume its nuclear weapons program. It could lead to Israel taking military action against Iran.
Nuclear policy: why can’t we use ‘em?
Trump’s stance on nuclear weapons is a muddle and alarming. He talks of nuclear weapons as dangerous, but says he’s “not taking any card off the table.” He cavalierly says he wouldn’t rule out use of tactical nuclear weapons against ISIS and would be deliberately unpredictable in ordering their deployment.
“They’re hearing a guy run for president talk about using nuclear weapons. Nobody wants to hear that,” said NBC Hardball host Chris Matthews. To which Trump responds, “Then why do we make ‘em?”
The campaign had to deny reports that Trump “had repeatedly asked an international foreign policy expert why the U.S. couldn’t use nuclear weapons.”
Abrogating the Iran Nuclear Deal and Trump’s call for Japan, South Korea, and even Saudi Arabia to develop their own nuclear weapons would undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, greatly increasing the global nuclear danger.
As former missile launch officer Bruce Blair wrote, “Mr. Trump is seemingly blind to the importance of restraint in nuclear decision making. He shows no humility toward the civilization-ending destructiveness of nuclear weapons, and offhandedly entertains their use.”
Immigration, Cuba, and the Americas
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said in June 2015 when launching his campaign. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
He went on to say, “It’s coming from more than Mexico… It’s coming from all over South and Latin America.” Trump’s racist scapegoating of Mexicans and Latin Americans and his call to build a border wall and deport 15 million undocumented immigrants has inflamed anger and anti-American sentiments everywhere south of the border.
Such a plan is fantasy but its mere advocacy has created bitter animosities and unleashed racism, discrimination, and violence against Latinos. In an about face, Trump is now pledging to reverse the historic process of normalization with Cuba initiated by the Obama administration, in the hopes of winning Florida.
Action on climate crisis
Trump calls global warming a hoax invented by the Chinese. He vows to withdraw the U.S. from the historic Paris Agreement on climate change, signed by 197 parties, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Recently, in an unprecedented open letter, 375 scientists including 30 Nobel laureates warned of the danger of electing Trump. They are alarmed he would imperil the Paris Agreement and increase the existential threat to life on Earth.
Trump vows to repeal Obama policies curbing emissions through the Clean Air Act and radically ramp up production of coal. Achieving this pledge is highly debatable given the economics of fossil fuels as the cost of green technology plummets.
All in all, a Trump presidency would leave the world in a far more dangerous and precarious place.
Clinton – more hawkish?
Overall Clinton is likely to continue the broad framework of the Obama foreign policy, including his “pivot” to Asia, with emphasis on diplomacy and multilateralism.
Clinton will uphold the Iran Nuclear Deal and normalization of relations with Cuba and pursuing immigration reform with a path to citizenship. She has spoken out against any ban on Muslims.
Clinton has also vowed to uphold the Paris climate agreement and build on the Obama administration’s achievements to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental and climate plan in the Democratic Party platform is the strongest ever.
While many observers think Clinton will be to the right of Obama on foreign policy as an exponent of “liberal interventionism,” and some on the left describe her as a “warmonger” or “hawk,” there are others who are less certain.
Clinton’s history as U.S Senator and Secretary of State would indicate she favors a more interventionist foreign policy. This assessment is based on her vote on the Iraq war, support for the Iraq troop surge, intervention in Libya, and her role in the Ukraine and Honduras coups. Her policy team is studded with “liberal interventionists.” And she will likely, unfortunately, continue the drone policy.
But Clinton’s history also shows she has been responsive to public pressure, including during the primary battle with Sen. Bernie Sanders. She will face new realities both global and domestic, including shifts in public opinion, all of which make her approach a little uncertain.
As Stephen Wall wrote recently in Foreign Policy, Clinton’s primary aim must be to consolidate her domestic support, which entails addressing slow economic growth, jobs, and wages. With severe budgetary limitations, the priority would be a large-scale infrastructure project.
The last thing Clinton wants is to get bogged down in a costly quagmire at the outset of her administration. And at this point, the American people are war-weary and divided on any military action – especially one involving deployment of U.S. troops to any of the global hotspots.
The New York Times also reported Clinton has expressed doubts about going forward with a $1 trillion nuclear weapons modernization program initiated by the Obama administration, something the president is apparently also reconsidering. She would kill a pet project of the Pentagon – the nuclear-tipped cruise missile.
Middle East and Syria – dangerous flashpoint
A Clinton administration is sure to keep the U.S. deeply entrenched in the Middle East. While she has ruled out sending ground forces, Clinton has called for increasing aid to Arab and Kurdish forces battling ISIS.
The foreign policy establishment is exerting intense pressure to ramp up direct U.S. involvement in Syria. Serious concerns have been raised with Clinton’s call for a “no-fly zone.” Implementing a “no-fly zone” would place the U.S. in direct conflict with Russia and the Assad government since ISIS has no air force. It would require a larger U.S. military commitment.
The disastrous outcome of the intervention in Libya looms large. Deeper involvement in Syria could have a similar result. Syria is in much deeper crisis, opposition forces to the Assad government are entangled with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist outfits, and Russia has deepened its involvement. Mass migration across Europe would only intensify.
It appears there will be little change in the approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Clinton supports a two-state solution, she has so far not outlined a clear path to achieve this. She and the Democratic Party platform refused to call for “an end to occupations and illegal settlements” in Palestinian territories. The recent U.S.-Israeli $38 billion agreement makes it harder to reverse the path to an “apartheid” state.
Return to the Cold War?
U.S. policy has historically been to encircle and contain Russia (and the Soviet Union before that), including through NATO expansion. This is colliding with Russia’s efforts to expand its own sphere of influence, perhaps evidenced in the apparent involvement in hacking emails and the open support for Trump by Putin and his oligarch allies. The next administration will inherit an increasingly tense relationship.
Trump’s relationship with Russia is based on business and corruption. Clinton has had experience with negotiating the New START treaty but also had a hand in the coup in the Ukraine.
There are many pressures to return to a Cold War-style adversarial relationship, which Clinton will have to resist. The American people, including the peace movement will have to pressure for a diplomatic solution to whatever crises arises.
Action by the people
Any substantive change in domestic and foreign policy begins by blocking Trump from the presidency and breaking the GOP majorities in Congress. The present electoral coalition united behind Clinton will have to continue post-election to fight to implement the Democratic Party platform – the most progressive ever – including a massive infrastructure project.
But it will take a broader intervention of the American people, bigger movements, and higher levels of mass consciousness and a changed composition of Congress to dislodge Wall Street and the military industrial complex from their domination of U.S. foreign policy.
Only then will it be possible to advance a radical new demilitarized foreign policy marked by peaceful relations, respect for sovereignty, equitable and mutually beneficial trade, special assistance to developing countries, and sustainable development.