In a packed warehouse in Brooklyn on Tuesday, June 7, Hillary Clinton addressed a cheering crowd as the first female presumptive nominee of an American national political party. Clinton’s victory is a historic milestone for the United States, and has rightly been hailed as such. However, Clinton’s position as a female nominee is not the only historical feature of her candidacy. With businessman Donald Trump slated to be her Republican opponent in the fall, Clinton stands as the last representative of the bipartisan internationalist foreign policy consensus that has defined America’s international posture for decades since the election of 1952. The 2016 contest will not only be a referendum on the type of society and domestic structure within the United States; more than any election in recent memory, it will also define America’s position towards the rest of the world for years to come.
The core pillars of American foreign policy were established by the Truman Administration in the years immediately after World War II. Under President Roosevelt and later President Truman, the United States was a driving force behind the creation of the United Nations, a body designed to, in Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s words, “maintain peace and security by enjoining its members from using force to settle international disputes.” In order to facilitate Europe’s economic recovery, the Administration announced the Marshall Plan to provide economic aid and reconstruction assistance to Western Europe. This commitment to global economic development was later expanded during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations to encompass decolonizing nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In order to safeguard the United States and its European allies, the Truman Administration was central to creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, binding the nations of Western Europe and the United States in a defense agreement. NATO successfully deterred Soviet aggression against Western Europe for almost five decades and more recently dispatched troops to help the United States drive Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan after September 11. The ideas embodied by these policies—specifically, a commitment to international engagement through diplomacy and economic development, close alliances and acting primarily through the United Nations, and deterrence or rollback of acts of aggression—have formed the basis of American foreign policy from Truman in the late 1940s to President Obama today.
Having served as a senator on the Armed Services Committee and as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s views are generally thought to align with this commitment to an internationalist worldview. While she has been criticized for an occasionally more aggressive approach to foreign affairs, her positions as a senator and the policies she implemented as Secretary of State, especially the concept of “smart power,” have upheld these core ideas of American foreign policy. On the campaign trail, Clinton has promised to promote American security through robust international engagement and leadership abroad, and has criticized Trump for his rejection of these principles. Throughout the primary, she has espoused these internationalist principles which, as she rightly points out, have overall decreased the incidents of conflict around the world while promoting economic growth across the globe.
Trump, for his part, has advocated an unprecedented rejection of core elements of the previous American foreign policy consensus. He has questioned the utility of NATO and other alliances with nations like Japan and South Korea, suggested that greater nuclear proliferation would promote stability, and threatened to slash American economic engagement and trade with China and Mexico, two of America’s closest trade partners. While Trump’s views have shifted depending the time and place of his remarks, his core message has been that the United States is overly stretched abroad and should broadly retrench. These ideas have a historical basis in the “isolationists” of the 1930s and 40s and conservative McCarthyists during the early Cold War. Leaders like Robert Taft rejected American military engagement abroad during the war, and, after it was finished, rejected linking American actions abroad with other nations, preferring a unilateral course that limited engagement abroad. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower effectively purged these views from the Republican Party by defeating Taft for the Republican nomination. On the Democratic side, despite the influence of anti-war groups, foreign policy elites have consistently embraced internationalism, from Dean Acheson and McGeorge Bundy in the 1950s and 60s to Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright in the 1990s to Samantha Power, Ashton Carter, and Hillary Clinton herself today.
As a result of this divide, the American people will be voting in November not only for a new president, but for differing visions of the American role in the world. Voters have not faced a choice of this magnitude for American foreign policy since the early 20th century. Having vanquished every internationally-minded candidate in the Republican primary, Donald Trump stands poised with an isolationist message that is directly at odds with core tenants of American foreign policy. As she goes forward to the general election, Hillary Clinton is not only carrying the banner of the Democratic Party; she is the last internationalist standing between Donald Trump and the bipartisan foreign policy consensus which for the last century has served to promote the causes of economic prosperity and world peace.
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore