In the most recent episode of the Brookings Cafeteria podcast, Brookings Executive Vice President Martin Indyk discussed a wide-range of foreign policy issues, including peace in the Middle East, the liberal international order, and his own journey in foreign affairs leadership and policymaking. He also described the contours of an “Obama doctrine” in foreign policy, and whether the next president will bring continuity or change. Indyk said he thought that Hillary Clinton, if she becomes the Democratic nominee, as president “will continue a lot of Obama’s policy,” but with “greater emphasis on our interests in the Middle East.” On the other hand, if Donald Trump becomes the next president, “it’s a complete guess as to where exactly he’s going to come down, partly because it’s not clear that he actually means what he says at any particular moment, partly because in the [April 27] foreign policy speech … there were a lot of contradictions.”
A transcript of this portion of the discussion is below. Listen to the entire podcast here:
“I think that Hillary Clinton—if she is the nominee of the Democratic Party, which seems to be a fair assumption at this point—will continue a lot of Obama’s policy as I’ve outlined it [earlier in the episode]. In particular, she was instrumental in the pivot to Asia; also supportive of and engaged with the Iran nuclear deal. But I think that she will shift back to put greater emphasis on our interests in the Middle East than he has been willing to do. She was more willing to get involved in Syria, for instance, than he has been. And she takes a tougher line on most of the issues, particularly Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region, where she feels the United States needs to be active in countering that. Whereas I think Obama wants to depend on others, and actually, in the [Atlantic Monthly] interview with Jeff Goldberg, argued that in fact the Saudis and the Gulf Arabs should share the region, share the neighborhood I think is what he said, with Iran. That’s not something that I think that Hillary Clinton believes is possible. She’s much more focused on a strategy of containment …
“That’s not to say that she won’t place an emphasis on Asia. As I said, I think she played an important role in that turn to Asia, but I think she’s going to rebalance a little bit in terms of focus on the Middle East.
“In the case of Donald Trump, it’s a complete guess as to where exactly he’s going to come down, partly because it’s not clear that he actually means what he says at any particular moment, partly because in the foreign policy speech that he outlined [April 27], which was the most coherent expression of his foreign policy, there were a lot of contradictions …. On the one hand, he’s going to be a reliable ally, but on the other hand he’s going to make our allies pay for our part of defending them, as opposed to paying for their own part of defending themselves, paying more for that. And if they don’t do that, then he’s going to break the alliances, and that doesn’t make us a very reliable player.
“Then there’s the whole suggestion that he would enter into trade wars; [and] the big question mark over what he would to do with ISIS, because he says he’s not going to let anyone know about that. So we don’t have a really good, clear sense of where he’s going except that he’s clearly much more in the kind of nationalist, populist, and perhaps isolationist mode of America foreign policy.”
Falling apart? The politics of New START and strategic modernization
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.
Over the arc of his presidency, Trump has shed himself of cabinet secretaries he doesn’t trust and surrounded himself with loyalists. That will continue and escalate. But the big problem is, he doesn’t know where he’s going.