Hillary Sidelines Her Foreign Policy

Charlotte Gorman


Hillary Clinton in Des Moines, Iowa on June 14, 2015 – Gregory Hauenstein via Flickr Creative Commons

On Saturday June 13, Hillary Clinton officially kicked off her presidential campaign at a rally in New York City. Though very little of her time was spent on foreign policy or her experience as Secretary of State, her speech did serve to indicate how her team will be broaching these issues in her upcoming campaign for the Democratic nomination.

One advantage of being a long-time public figure and past candidate is that much of Clinton’s pre-Secretary of State foreign policy points have already been picked over to death. Her vote in favor of the Iraq war in the Senate in 2002, though still a thorn in the side of many left-leaning Democrats, has long been declared a “mistake, plain and simple” and chronicled in her book Hard Choices. Though it was certainly a factor in her 2008 loss to Obama in the primaries, it will most likely not be a hot-button issue, especially with Republicans much more interested in criticism of her handling of the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya. However, Clinton’s tendency to be hawkish goes far beyond the Iraq vote, and isn’t something she has shied away from. She prevailed versus Vice President Joe Biden in the 2009 debate over General McChrystal’s recommended 30,000 troop “surge” in Afghanistan, which cost billions of dollars and produced little effect, aside from being viewed as an early misstep by the Obama administration.[1] She has underlined her outlook that America, “cannot be afraid or unwilling to engage. Our focus on diplomacy and development is not an alternative to our national security arsenal,” posturing herself as a foil to Obama’s thoughtful decision-making approach.[2] Emphasizing her strength in her kick-off speech, Clinton reminded the crowd that, “I’ve stood up to adversaries like Putin and reinforced allies like Israel. I was in the Situation Room on the day we got bin Laden.”[3]

Of her foreign policy record, Clinton’s campaign and supporters will certainly emphasize the fact that she would be the president-elect with the most international experience in the memory of most living citizens, as well as her record of extensive travel (112 countries, a new record) and internal improvements during her tenure as Secretary of State. Those on the fence will qualify that she took few risks and had limited successes, especially as compared to her successor John Kerry. Those not in support of her candidacy would be wise to push her to debate policy issues rather than letting a glib, “There are a lot of trouble spots in the world, but there’s a lot of good news out there too,” slide from a candidate as well-versed as her.[4] Two of her rivals for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders and Jim Webb, are well-known critics of the Iraq war and are sure to challenge Hillary on her foreign policy points, which fall squarely to the right of Obama’s “don’t do stupid shit” doctrine.

Usually a presidential election cycle primarily calls into question the record of the outgoing president as fodder for debate, with the opposing party promising a change in direction. Clinton’s campaign however, will be a protracted exercise in contested memories of the Clinton administration’s successes and failures, although Hillary was First Lady and not a policymaker per se, as well as the administration of her former rival whom she served under as Secretary of State, that of Barack Obama. Much of this debate will be perceptions of public opinion presented as fact, with little historical or factual truth, digging deeper than usual into American voter’s political memories. But atop this, there has been another President’s legacy brought into the fray. Clinton has already made much of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in office from 1933 to 1945, as an inspiration for her would-be Presidency, even kicking off her presidential campaign campaign at Franklin D Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. She described his ‘Four Freedoms’ as, “ a testament to our nation’s unmatched aspirations and a reminder of our unfinished work at home and abroad” and promised a new deal, pun intended, of “four fights”.[5]

FDR is a wise choice for a historical running mate for a few reasons- he receives the highest marks from political scientists, was a skilled rhetorician who left a treasure trove of inspirational remarks for her to utilize, and is minimally controversial, having presided over America’s involvement in World War II and the upbringing of the “greatest generation”, long before a Vietnam or Iraq became codewords for quagmires rather than far-flung places on a map.[6][7] Having already cited her admiration of Eleanor Roosevelt when she was First Lady, Clinton is now vying for the role of the other half of the power couple, Commander in Chief. According to Kristina Schake, Clinton’s deputy communications director, “She has long been inspired by FDR’s belief that America is stronger when we summon the work and talents of all Americans. Her fight, like his, is to work to ensure that everyday Americans can achieve not just a sense of economic stability, but prosperity.”[8]

The question for international observers, though, is Clinton’s attempt to stand in the sunshine of FDR’s legacy mere political posturing or an indication of her future foreign policy?

Something few have pointed out is Clinton and Roosevelt’s synchronicity on free trade, despite the difference in the global economy 70 years on. FDR’s “bombshell” message in 1933, as well as distaste for imperial interference, gave him a reputation as a free trade crusader. Similarly, Clinton’s commitment to corporate welfare, as a former member of the Wal-Mart board of directors, as well as her previous praise for NAFTA and support of Obama’s fast-track authority Trans-Pacific Partnership, even describing the latter as the “gold standard in trade agreements” despite later hedging her bets.[9]

When it comes to other forms of global engagement, though, FDR and Clinton share little. Roosevelt’s famous ‘Quarantine’ speech in 1937, wherein he suggested isolating aggressive states, is a polar opposite approach to Clinton’s coining of “smart power” an arsenal of strategies and tools designed to reap the maximum benefits using minimal force, technology, and aid, acutely adapting to a globalized economy replete with many rising powers.[10] Though FDR’s belief that the US should be an “arsenal of democracy” fits hand in glove with Clinton’s perceived mandate of the restoration of “American leadership”, there are only so many tenuous historical connections to draw before admitting that FDR took office amidst the Great Depression and presided over a shift from isolationism to involvement in WWII, and while Hillary could be aptly described as hawkish, the contexts are so different that the link makes little sense aside from a clever public relations device. [11]

Following that point, then, it is clear there are real limitations in using historical figures as campaign fodder, although this is by no means new or confined to Hillary’s campaign. Just as she asks us to go back to the context of 2002 to remember what she knew before her ill-fated vote for action in Iraq, by that same logic we must not pluck FDR’s actions from his own time to attach them to generalities and rally voters around an age long gone. It is indicative of American disenchantment with contemporary foreign policy challenges that Hillary must reach back so far to find a popular narrative to couch her promises in. It would be far too simplistic to conclude that the world system America must act as a part of from 2016 onwards is more or less challenging or noble than FDR’s time, but it is necessary to make the fundamental point that it was a different time altogether. Clinton’s campaign must be challenged, both in the primary and the general election, to address her own positions on foreign policy issues. Though it would be unfair to attach her to Clinton or Obama policies, she has a record formidable enough to be considered by the electorate on its own merits, and in the months to come, Hillary need not be allowed to shy away from past positions, or to pacify with generalities or cling to times long gone. After all, in 2016 American voters will not be asked to judge the past; they will be asked to make a decision affecting the global future, what US foreign policy will look like in years to come.


[1] http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/hillary-clintons-afghanistan-problem-9574, http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/03/12/why-afghanistan-was-obamas-biggest-mistake/#sthash.HuHXUJow.dpbs

[2] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/31927044

[3] https://www.hillaryclinton.com/feed/campaign-kickoff-speech/#

[4] https://www.hillaryclinton.com/feed/campaign-kickoff-speech/#

[5] https://www.hillaryclinton.com/feed/campaign-kickoff-speech/#

[6] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/02/16/new-ranking-of-u-s-presidents-puts-lincoln-1-obama-18-kennedy-judged-most-over-rated/

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/books/first/b/brokaw-generation.html

[8] http://www.vox.com/2015/6/9/8749733/Hillary-Clinton-Roosevelt-FDR

[9] http://www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2015/04/21/401123124/a-timeline-of-hillary-clintons-evolution-on-trade

[10] http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2097973,00.html

[11] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2013-04-03/clinton-legacy

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