PS21 Report: What Would a Hillary Clinton Foreign Policy Look like?


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  • Likely a more assertive, “American exceptionalist” foreign policy
  • Personal relationships with other leaders more central than under Obama
  • Like all White House incumbents, would have limited bandwidth. Other appointments important
  • “Asia pivot” would continue to be challenged by Mideast, Europe events
  • Mideast peace process seen “unfinished business” by Clintons
  • Gender less important than persona, reputation 

On Thursday, June 4, 2015, PS21 held a discussion on “What would a Hillary Clinton foreign policy look like?”. It will hold a further discussion later in the year on a likely Republican approach to foreign affairs.

A full transcript of the event can be found here and video here.


Participants were speaking as individuals rather than as representatives of institutions.

Ali Wyne (moderator): PS21 Global Fellow. Member of the adjunct staff, RAND Corporation

Ari Ratner:  PS21 Governing Board Member. Fellow, New America. Former State Department political appointee 2009-12

Leigh O’Neill: Policy Director, Truman National Security Project

Warren Strobel:   Chief Diplomatic Correspondent, Reuters

Key Takeaways

American foreign policy tends to oscillate between a more muscular, approach and a more modest pullback. A Clinton presidency — or, for that matter, a Republican one — would likely see a more assertive approach than that pursued by the Obama administration.

Ratner: In many respects, she’s just a tougher person, I say that with pride and it’s no criticism of the President, but Hillary is tough. That’s a very commendable quality in a leader and it’s something that will serve America well on the global stage if she ends up being president. 

In some ways a broader, less nuanced and more ideological approach. In August 2014, Clinton told The Atlantic: “Great nations need organising principles and “don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organising principle (this appeared to be reference to one of Obama’s reported foreign policy mantras).” 

In her most recent book Hard Choices, Clinton said she was more persuaded than ever before that it was America’s duty and roll to lead in the world.

Strobel: I think it’s fairly clear from Clinton’s history and her rhetoric that she’s an American exceptionalist which is the mainstream… of US foreign policy. She says America has a unique role to play and the world is better off because of that. 

A tougher line on selected issues, a broader approach on others.

O’Neill: It’s a balance of what she’s going to have to inherit and deal with and wants to push forward herself. I don’t think there’s any question she would be tough but also open to resolving some of these major questions. 

Strobel: I think there will be a slight course correction towards a more muscular attitude on things like Syria. She’s said that and she writes that. I think there will be a lot more personality in foreign policy.

I think she’ll bring the soft diplomacy stuff to bear, a lot of the economic stuff. I think it’s harder for the president to do soft diplomacy — women’s issues, Internet freedom, etc. It’s easier for a Secretary of State to lead on those issues than the president who is much busier. But I do think that will be part of that doctrine.

As Secretary of State, Clinton travelled more than 1,000,000 miles, further than most others. The nature of the period threw her to the front on multiple foreign policy issues. In particular, she often prioritised going to a place and meeting people in person.

With foreign leaders, her personal relationships may be more important than in the Obama administration.

O’Neill: I think she deserves a lot of credit for being able to recognise that it would take star power, genuine star power to arrive in some of our partner nations and supposing friends and repair relationships (after the Bush administration).

Her influence on major policy issues under Obama, however, was limited. 

Strobel: She was Secretary of State under Obama, an administration in which who was Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense frankly didn’t matter that much. I’m exaggerating a little for effect but… it’s really about five people who really make most of the major foreign policy decisions: Obama, Ben Rhodes (speechwriter now Deputy National Security Advisor), Susan Rice (National Security Advisor), Dennis McDonough (White House Chief of Staff), Valerie Jarrett (senior advisor).

That’s not to say Hillary was inconsequential Secretary of State. It is only to say it’s very difficult to have a huge impact in this administration if you’re Hillary Clinton.

Should she reach the White House, however, she will face many of the same pressures.

Ratner: the President has a very limited bandwidth for what they can do in the world and make the strategic framework at the highest level. There will be lots of efforts through social media — as there is with President Obama — to reach out to a diverse cross-section of people and it certainly true she will pursue personal diplomacy more. That’s the type of leader she is. But she’ll be taken up with a lot of things.

There will almost certainly be a considerable crossover between domestic and foreign policy.

Ratner: There is an old saying that politics stops at the water’s edge. That’s certainly not true anymore. The fundamental principle that she talked about, the sense of crisis, collapsing faith in institutions is something you see not only quite startlingly in this country, you see it in many countries around the world. The first part of foreign policy — and you saw this at the State Department — is that we need to get our own house in order politically, economically, restore that sense of opportunity and progress that’s been the guiding principle of our nation since its inception. How we look to the world is much more important than whether we have one additional F-16 or naval carrier.

She will probably bring across many of her previous colleagues at State. Michele Flournoy is widely seen front runner for the Pentagon, although Ashton Carter may stay in role initially. There is less clarity over State. 

Ratner:  It will matter who her Secretary of State is and the Secretary of Defense. The reality is from State Department she had a very talented team. I’m talking about people well above my level like Jake Sullivan, who is probably going to be her National Security Adviser.

She will likely pursue a somewhat tougher approach with potential adversaries such as Iran or Russia.

 O’Neill: There is a tremendous amount of continuity in that she knows the world. She understands the actors. She understands the context, she understands the characters and not just the relationship bilaterally but also the need for contacts, the character of the state and how to be effective

 I think the underlying theme is: of course you talk to your adversaries. Maybe not directly. Maybe there is a timing and sequencing issue depending on the context but you can’t just will things to happen as the US. We tried that for years. It did not work.

I don’t think there’s any question that she would be tough but open to resolving some of these major questions.


Again, personal relationships will be key. 

Strobel: It’s funny. Obama was elected to office in large part on the basis of his personality and his personal history, charisma. People loved him all over the world. Over time, it has become clear he doesn’t have close personal relationships with almost any other world leader. That’s just not how he operates. I’m not saying they hate each other, but he just doesn’t build any bonds with selected leaders.

Two things stand out (from Clinton’s time at State): her breadth of travel and knowledge of leaders, even at the local level and NGOs. Her network is amazing. She compares very favourably in some ways to John Kerry in the sense that Kerry has a reputation for not always connecting with his staff and not empowering people.

 The next president will inherit a complex world. In Asia, relations with China are struggling. There may or may not be a deal with Iran but the rest of the Middle East is in a poor state. The “reset” with Russia has headed in an entirely unpleasant direction. Many of America’s allies have real worries but also have their own confrontations — and may bring with them real dangers.

 Ratner: One of the difficult thing she’s goings to have to balance is not only how to engage our adversaries but our alliances. A lot of wars have got started by smaller states dragging in bigger states. She’s really going to have to strike the right balance. It’s very difficult.

There is some truth in the reality that the US is in a weaker position than it was, certainly during the last Clinton administration, by most measures you can look at. I think she will be tougher in a lot of ways, especially public diplomacy. But the country as a whole is in a weaker position than we would like it to be.

In a 2007 Foreign Affairs article, Clinton was an early identifier of the growing importance of the China relationship. The Middle East, however, will continue to take a very large volume of time. She may also, some suspect, put a higher priority on the Middle East peace process — perhaps the most important takeaway from her husband’s presidency.

 Strobel: I don’t know but I strongly suspect that for Secretary Clinton and President Bill Clinton that is unfinished business. They came into office not really knowing much about foreign affairs, frankly. They made a few mistakes early with Somalia — though that was carried over from Bush 41. They made some mistakes dealing with other issues that over time they grew and they put a huge effort into Israeli-Palestinian Peace and ultimately the Camp David accord.

I think that is formative for her and that she would try to restart the Middle East peace process in a serious way.

While it might be an issue in the election, gender may be less of a factor when it comes to international relationships. Persona may be more important.

 O’Neill: Of course she’s tough. She’s beyond gender. She’s Hillary Clinton and she did not get that by being sugary sweet all the time. That’s not how it goes. I think, by far, all the accumulated experiences she has had it deserves to be said that she is the most qualified. I think she understands how to be effective.

Ratner: I hope the country is ready. The country should be ready. The question of whether she will be challenged because she’s a woman is an interesting academic question — but she still Hillary Clinton. If I’m Vladimir Putin, I’m way more scared of Hillary Clinton than I am Marco Rubio. She has a lot more credibility, of course, a lot more temper and knows what she’s doing a lot more than Jeb Bush might.

Report compiled by Peter Apps. Transcript by Christopher Stephens

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