Hillary Clinton’s major speech on foreign policy was surely a disappointment for anyone who wanted to hear about, well, foreign policy. Take away the many digs at Donald Trump and the many mentions of Hillary’s time as Secretary of State, and what remains are very few indications of what she would actually do as commander-in-chief.
Instead, one should look at the language Hillary uses and the broader narrative that she attempts to lay out with it. What emerges is that, despite her insistence that she and Trump are so drastically different, both Hillary and Trump rely on the same vision of a “strong” and “decisive” America that must stand up against those who see it as “weak” or “fearful.” This is not mere rhetorical posturing. Rather, this mentality has profoundly influenced Hillary’s hawkish stances towards foreign policy in the past and, barring some fundamental change of heart, is likely to do so in the future.
First, it is worthwhile to review what was said and, indeed, not said, in Hillary’s speech:
“First, we need to be strong at home.” This “means investing in our infrastructure,” “reduc[ing] income inequality,” and “break[ing] down barriers of bigotry and discrimination.” These are all unobjectionable, albeit vague, promises. However this is, of course, domestic policy, not foreign policy.
“Second, we need to stick with our allies.” Here, Hillary discusses how important her negotiations with countries like Japan and South Korea were in developing an anti-missile defence system to guard against a potential attack from North Korea. Trump, she says, would pull America out of NATO and let Japan and North Korea engage in a nuclear war if they wanted to. She does not explain what “sticking with our allies” would actually mean in her future agenda. Instead, she simply references her former diplomatic experience, and implicitly promises not to do all the crazy stuff that Trump says he wants to.
“Third, we need to embrace all the tools of American power, especially diplomacy and development.” Here, Hillary recounts how non-violent diplomacy was crucial to the Iranian nuclear agreement, even when there were some who “called for military action” that “could have ignited a broader war.” She conveniently leaves out that she advocated American intervention in Iran during the Green Movement of 2009.1 She also does not bring up the second tool she mentions, development, for the rest of the speech. Instead, Hillary reaffirms that “the United States will act decisively if necessary, including with military action to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” Thus, it is only mere minutes after promising to embrace “all the tools of American power,” that Hillary only outlines a role for one of them: the military.
“Fourth, we need to be firm but wise with our rivals.” Here, Hillary talks about her experience going ‘toe-to-toe’ with American adversaries to reduce nuclear stockpiles in Russia and negotiate a deal in Copenhagen on climate change. Trump, by contrast, wants to rip up this climate deal and start a trade war with China. Again, there is no clear indication of what being “firm but wise” would really mean in a Clinton Administration.
“Fifth, we need a real plan for confronting terrorists.” Here is Hillary’s first, and indeed only, sustained explanation of her foreign policy. Her plan for combatting ISIS would involve intensifying the US-led air campaign, stepping up support for Arab and Kurdish allies in the region, and continuing diplomacy and intelligence-sharing with our allies. Hillary doesn’t outline how diplomacy or intelligence-sharing would differ from how it is right now.
This would mean that, for those keeping track, the speech contains only three concrete pieces of a Clinton foreign policy platform so far: 1) acting “decisively if necessary, including with military force” against Iran, 2) intensifying the air campaign against ISIS and 3) stepping up the (predominantly military) support for Arab and Kurdish allies.
These three proposals are all unmistakably belligerent. This is further magnified by her sixth point, the “need to stay true to our values.” Trump, explains Hillary, “says over and over again [that] the world is laughing at us” and that America “lack[s] a backbone.” A Trump presidency, Hillary says, would create a narrative that America is “weak”, “fearful,” and “not confident.” Yet “if you really believe America is weak,” she responds, “then you don’t know America.”
It is important, however, to remember that Trump does not refer to the United States as being “weak” and “fearful” because he wants it to stay that way. Rather, Trump uses this language to advocate and romanticize his own alternative of a “strong” and “decisive” America in which he would do things like “make China pay” or “bomb the shit out of ISIS.” More importantly, when Hillary positions her campaign as one that will make a “strong” and “decisive” America instead of “weak” and “fearful” one, she does exactly the same thing. The only difference is that she conveniently has Trump to call the country “weak” instead of doing it herself.
In Hillary’s vision of a “strong” America, “we lead with purpose, and we prevail. [Because] if America doesn’t lead, we leave a vacuum – and that will either cause chaos, or other countries will rush in to fill the void.”
Americans would do well to remember that it was a fear of looking “weak” and “fearful” that helped push the country into a war in Iraq in 2003, a decision that Hillary supported. They should also remember it was a fear of “other countries filling the void […] if America doesn’t lead” that justified circumventing UN Security Council clearance before the invasion. In addition, Hillary wanted to combat the image of not having a “backbone” when she advocated military action in Syria after Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons.”(“If you say you’re going to strike,” she later remarked, “you have to strike. There’s no choice.”2
In fact, some of the biggest power “vacuums” of recent memory were created precisely because of American intervention, not its absence. One need look no further than Iraq and Libya, where the military interventions that Hillary advocated may have toppled corrupt dictators, but also allowed militant groups like ISIS to rush in and “fill the void.”
Hillary has spent so much of her energy trying to turn Trump’s positions into impotent straw men, that she has almost succeeded in concealing the commonalities that underlie both of their campaigns. The choice in this election is not, as Hillary says, between “a fearful America that’s less secure” or a “strong, confident America that leads.” Rather, it is between two campaigns that both exploit the dichotomous language of “strong” and “confident” versus “fearful” and “insecure” to promote their own brands of hostile American exceptionalism. If one looks to Hillary’s past which, judging by her speech, is all she wants them to do, then there is very little reason to think that her vision of a “decisive” and “strong” America will lead to anything but more violence-begetting violence.
For Full Text of Hillary Clinton’s Speech see: http://time.com/4355797/hillary-clinton-donald-trump-foreign-policy-speech-transcript/