Originally Published 2015-07-02 00:00:00 Published on Jul 02, 2015
Though foreign policy is going to be an important issue in the US Presidential elections next year, the Democrat candidates for the party's nomination have surprisingly devoted little time to this aspect so far. However, as the campaign progresses and the less serious candidates drop out of the race, the issue is likely to gain greater attention.
Democratic candidates' surprisingly low focus on foreign policy

With the challenge from terrorism and the ISIS looming large, turmoil in the Middle East, the rise of China, etc., foreign policy is going to be an important issue in the US Presidential elections of 2016. The Democrat candidates for the party's nomination have surprisingly devoted little time to this aspect so far. But as the campaign progresses and the less serious candidates drop out of the race, the issue is likely to gain greater attention from candidates and the public alike.

The leading candidate for the Democratic Party's nomination, Hillary Clinton, had little to say about foreign policy during her campaign announcement. Only 7% of her speech was devoted to foreign policy -- a total of 319 words out of a total of 4,687 words. This is surprising for someone who has not only served as Secretary of State, but also been First Lady of the US and has travelled around the world. This tactic was probably adopted to distance herself from President Obama's foreign policy. Obama had an approval of over 50% during his first term as President, but this is now down to around 30%.

Hillary Clinton's biggest challenge will be to maintain a delicate balancing act: how to stick by the policies that she helped to draw up in Obama's first term and yet separate herself from an administration her opponents criticise as weak and vacillating. She has already tried to do the latter through her memoir, Hard Choices, where she said that the Obama administration should have been tougher on Putin and should have provided more support to the Syrian Free Army.

But her record as Secretary of State and speeches and interviews do provide more insights into her thinking on foreign policy. As Secretary of State, she was in charge of the outreach to Iran, which has led to the current negotiations. She has supported President Obama on the framework agreement with Iran while saying that Iran should never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. She has said that relations with Israel, which are currently under a lot of stress, should be brought back on a constructive footing. She sees the two-state solution as the way to solve the Middle East conflict. She has also expressed a desire that Israel does not become a partisan issue, in order to appeal to Jewish voters, who have traditionally supported the Democratic Party. On Iraq, she has said that her vote in favour of the invasion in 2002 was a mistake. In the past, as Secretary of State, she has supported military intervention in Libya and providing more arms to the Syrian opposition, suggesting that it was the failure to do so which helped the ISIS gain power.

She has taken a hawkish position on Russia and has been quite harsh on Russian President Vladimir Putin (even comparing him to Adolf Hitler at a fundraiser) and has in the past asked for more sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. She is realistic on China, saying in her memoir that China cannot be neatly fitted into any category as a "friend or a rival". In the past, Clinton has been critical of China's human rights records. She had a key role to play in President Obama's rebalance to Asia policy, making her a hated figure of Chinese netizens. But as President, she is likely to engage with China while reassuring America's allies.

Though she had supported the Trans Pacific Partnership earlier, she is now trying to distance herself from it. In a recent interview, she said that she would probably have not have voted to give President Obama the Trade Promotion Authority is she was a Senator.

Interestingly, while Clinton has pivoted left on domestic issues, she has turned right in her positions on foreign policy. It remains to be seen if this will be a winning strategy for her Presidential campaign. But by taking too far right a position on foreign policy, if she wins the Presidency, she would find it tough to negotiate with countries like China and Russia.

The second most popular Democratic candidate is Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator, who has taken a non interventionist stance on foreign policy. As member of Congress, Sanders voted to authorize the use of military force against al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks but has since consistently been opposed to the use of US military force during the War on Terror. This may mean that he will not authorise the use of force unless as an option of last resort. He is against any intervention in the Middle East and opposed the war against Iraq in 2002, asking quite presciently "Who will govern Iraq when Saddam Hussein is removed?"..."And what role will the US play in ensuing a civil war that could develop in that country?.

Later, as the Syrian crisis unfolded, he campaigned actively against any US intervention. In fact, he has said that Arab countries should fight against the ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

He has consistently opposed the TPP, claiming that it will lead to a loss of American jobs while helping Asian economies. However, he has supported the talks with Iran and sanctions on Russia.

A Sanders administration would cut defence spending so much that Republicans and moderate Democrats would be very nervous.

Sanders' positions on foreign policy might appeal to the liberal base of his party. But this alone will not help him win the nomination. His biggest liability on foreign policy will be his lack of experience in it.

Jim Webb, the former Democratic senator from Virginia, who is also running for the nomination, has said that Congress has to be participate more in foreign policy making and that the President should not establish long-term military agreements alone. Arguing that the US needs a clearly articulated foreign policy statement, he has stressed on the need for the United States to "state its national security objectives clearly, to develop relationships with allies it can trust, to work with countries that are not hostile to its citizens, to honour its treaty agreements, to maintain superiority in strategic systems and technology, and to preserve and exercise the national right of self-defence overseas". He has been quite hawkish on China, describing it as authoritarian.

The fourth contender, Martin O'Malley, the former Governor of Maryland, has focused on the economy saying that the source of America's global strength is its own prosperity. While he has not given any specific proposals for addressing any major foreign policy issues, he has spoken generally about strengthening US cybersecurity, combating climate change and "degrading" the Islamic State, "not only with military power" but with "political solutions."

Other than Clinton, the rest of the Democratic candidates are handicapped by their lack of foreign policy experience. As the campaign progresses, candidates from both parties are likely to come out with more details about their foreign policy choices. But it is unlikely that there will be any radical shift from what they have said so far.

(The writer is a Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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