In a long and often exasperating presidential campaign, Americans and the world have been subjected to Donald Trump’s odious and often incoherent rhetoric, and from both sides much vitriol and endless accusations of deceit, crookedness and sexual misconduct.
In this largely policy-free contest, Hillary Clinton’s approach to the immense challenges facing the United States has escaped serious scrutiny. Yet, how America views its place in a rapidly transforming world has far-reaching implications not only for security at home and abroad, but for the economy, financial markets, the environment and much else.
How is it, then, that a former secretary of state, who loudly proclaims her intimate knowledge of world affairs, has given so little attention to the grave dangers looming on the horizon? Part of the explanation is that Clinton’s campaign has judged the electorate as unwilling or unable to tune in to a serious discussion of international risks and opportunities.
Two other factors are worth noting. The positions Clinton has usually espoused, whether on Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, have generally gravitated towards the use of military force. Nothing in her presidential campaign suggests a change of mind. But at the risk of alienating an increasingly war weary public, her minders have judged discretion to be the better part of valour.
Clinton has an acknowledged grasp of detail on many international issues. But neither her public utterances nor her stewardship of US diplomacy offer a compelling picture of a world in profound transition, or of the challenges this poses for both domestic and foreign policy.
Tension with Russia and other challenges
The first and most obvious challenge is the steady deterioration in Russo-American relations, which are now at their lowest ebb since the mid-1980s.
Perhaps the key factor has been NATO’s expansion right up to Russia’s doorstep, absorbing much of Eastern Europe and even the three Baltic states (formerly part of the Soviet Union). Another factor is US deployment of a ballistic missile defence system in Romania, soon to be followed by a similar deployment in Poland. Russia has denounced these policies as a threat to its security and part of a new American containment strategy.
Putin’s response has been to restore Russia’s influence. This has meant strengthening its position in eastern Ukraine, annexing Crimea, taking issue with western military intervention in Libya, offering the Assad regime in Syria strong military support, and pursuing a far more assertive role at the UN Security Council and in several regional conflicts.
Both Russia and the United States now regularly cite the unfriendly actions of the other side as justification for ambitious nuclear weapons modernisation programs. In the case of the United States, these are estimated to cost some US$355 billion over the next decade.
Another major challenge is posed by China’s rise as an economic superpower and the expansion of its economic and diplomatic influence. There is also the particular challenge of its military muscle, most starkly in the South China Sea. Other critical developments include: North Korea’s expanding nuclear capabilities; the intractable post-intervention conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East; the spreading tentacles of violent jihadism; the proliferation of humanitarian emergencies, whether in Syria, Iraq or Yemen; the unprecedented levels of human displacement resulting from these conflicts; and the rise of the far right in different parts of the Western world.
Clinton’s response to a complex and changing world
How then, does Clinton propose to address these and related challenges? In the words of her election manifesto, by pursuing “a policy of strength”. This includes preserving and strengthening military alliances, notably NATO; “standing up to Putin”; holding China accountable for any actions deemed destabilising of the existing order, whether in relation to trade, cyberspace, human rights or territorial disputes; holding on to a “qualitative military edge”; and maintaining a “rock solid commitment to the values that have made America great”.
These one-liners are strong on rhetoric and dangerously weak on substance. What does “standing up to Putin” or “holding China accountable” mean in practice? The intention, one must assume, is to preserve the military, diplomatic and economic dominance the United States once enjoyed, even though the strategy is tantamount to King Canute stemming the tide.
We are witnessing a dramatic shift towards a multipolar, multi-centric world, in which Russia and China, Europe, India, Brazil and others will increasingly help to shape financial, economic, environmental and security outcomes. We will not always share their perspectives and priorities, but there is no alternative to engaging them in a global dialogue. The complex relationships now taking shape cannot be reduced, as Clinton intimates, to cooperation where interests converge, and confrontation where they diverge.
Similarly, when it comes to a resurgent Iran, an impulsive North Korean regime, or an upsurge of Islamist radicalism, responses that rely on the application of military power are unlikely to yield the desired result. Existing alliance arrangements are also likely to be increasingly problematic. Long term mutually advantageous economic cooperation and dialogue mechanisms, in which civil society as well as governments are active participants, are likely to bear greater fruit.
On all this, the Clinton campaign has said remarkably little, except for generalities reminiscent of Cold War rhetoric. We’ve heard nothing about the lessons to be drawn from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria and Yemen, or the “war on terror” more generally.
Might there be limits to the utility of military power? This is almost certainly not Clinton’s view, if one is to judge from her past pronouncements on the invasion of Iraq, the surge in Afghanistan, the use of force in Libya, or the unqualified support of Israel. Similarly with her voting record in the Senate and her close affinity with Pentagon thinking, and perhaps most strikingly her support for the positions advocated at different times by such key military figures as Generals Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus (who later served as CIA director) and James Keane (also known as the resident hawk on Fox News).
And what of the future of nuclear deterrence and the prospect of a renewed nuclear arms race? Will a Clinton presidency pursue the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons (clearly articulated by Obama in his first year as president but subsequently abandoned)? Or will it connive with other nuclear states and pressure allies to obstruct efforts to negotiate a new treaty on the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons? All the indications are that Clinton will choose the latter course.
Even on such issues as the handling of humanitarian emergencies, responses to the unprecedented number of people displaced by conflict (estimated at 65.3 million), or the urgent need for UN reform and international regulation of financial markets, the Clinton campaign has had virtually nothing to say.
Perhaps the greatest disservice the Trump circus has done to the human future – with the media as its willing accomplices - is the failure to lay bare these deeply entrenched and deeply troubling weaknesses in the Clinton profile. We may be in for a rather torrid time.
Authors: Joseph Camilleri, Emeritus Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University