Foreign policy context of Clinton-Trump race

Policy geek vs. the from-the-gut guy

Third of five parts.

THE TWO MEN WHO SOUGHT the presidency in 1960 shared one important distinction: they were, respectively, the first nominees of each major political party born in the 20th Century.  Both Richard Nixon and John Kennedy were, in Kennedy’s inaugural words, “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace . . . and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed.”

In the early years of the Cold War, Americans were still navigating the moral, financial, and managerial implications of their recently acquired superpower status.  It is no surprise, then, that the primary focus of the 1960 campaign was on foreign policy: on the supposed missile gap between the United States and the Soviet Union, on China’s aggression toward the small islands of Quemoy and Matsu, on the prospects of growing Communist influence throughout the world.  Armed conflict wasn’t yet the issue it would become as the decade progressed: the Korean conflict was behind us, and the Vietnam War was on our doorstep.

The world seen through the lens of the early 1960s was a dangerous place, with the threat of massive global destruction hanging over everyone like a permanent sword of Damocles. The potential for nuclear war was the common thread that linked American anxieties and formed American policies.  Hollywood reflected (and perhaps stoked) the nuclear angst with films like the stomach-churning Seven Days in May, the frightening Fail Safe, and Stanley Kubrick’s multi-layered farce Dr. Strangelove.  The prospect of annihilation was so prevalent that one of the first publications issued by Kennedy’s Defense Department in 1961 was a 47-page report entitled “Fallout Protection: What to Know and Do About Nuclear Attack.”  The report cautioned that people would need to “be prepared to live in a shelter as long as two weeks” following a nuclear attack, and helpfully offered a variety of choices for home shelters, including an underground prefab shelter complete with air vent pipes “for under $150.”  Looking back today, we may think that quaint, even a bit comical, but it was serious business for citizens during the Kennedy presidency.

It was a time when fear was tempered only by the hopeful view that our principal enemies were as apprehensive of mutually assured destruction as we were. “Hot Lines” between Moscow and Washington ensured rapid communication in the event of an emergency or miscue. There was one small comfort: our enemies, and their means and methods, were abundantly clear. There were few ambiguities about the nature of the threat or where it would come from.  It was not a time when it was even thinkable that an airplane would be hijacked to crash into a skyscraper, that pressure cookers would be used for something other than a culinary task, or that the fellow standing next to you in line at Home Depot might be in the news the next day for having killed your neighbors in the name of some foreign caliphate.

In this century of near permanent military engagement, we might be tempted to look back on the clarity of the Cold War era with a perverse nostalgia. Were things better then, or simply different? Khrushchev’s promise to bury us was designed perhaps more to please hard liners in the Kremlin than to frighten Americans, but his crass shoe-banging antics strengthened the hand of those in the United States who sought to accelerate federal spending on a never-ending arms race, and who believed in an aggressive interventionist foreign policy.

During the Cold War, it was an article of faith that Americans supported interventions to preserve governments that were deemed bulwarks against a growing Communist threat. Only two Senators, Oregon’s Wayne Morse and Alaska’s Ernest Gruening, had the courage and foresight to vote against Lyndon Johnson’s cagey Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which became the legal pretext for our ill-fated military escalation in Vietnam.  Johnson did not want to be outflanked – or outhawked – by Barry Goldwater, who in his 1964 GOP nomination acceptance speech cautioned against the “illusion that a world of conflict will somehow mysteriously resolve itself into a world of harmony, if we just don’t rock the boat or irritate the forces of aggression – and this is hogwash.”  Johnson’s relative inexperience in foreign affairs (we now know that his advice during the Cuban Missile Crisis was consistently hawkish and ill-advised), and his insecurity about being perceived as weak, led him to lead the nation into a destructive, irredeemable, and often immoral military conflict in Vietnam.

We know with the perfect hindsight of history that intervention and nation-building generally do not work out well for the United States, not on the beaches of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, not in Vietnam, not in Iraq.  The Obama presidency has steered American foreign policy decidedly away from interventionism and toward more frequent use of diplomacy.  That policy led to the groundbreaking Iran agreement, the introduction of important reforms in Myanmar, and the long overdue opening of relations with Cuba.  But it has also meant that the United States has remained largely on the sidelines and ineffective as Russia props up a brutal Syrian regime, causing death, destruction, and human tragedy on a massive scale. Will the next president follow this new direction?

Hillary Clinton makes her case on foreign policy by pointing to her experience and temperament, a sort of hybrid between Nixon in 1972 (whose powerful message of experience was supported by his breakthrough visit to China and his arms negotiations with the Soviet Union) and Johnson in 1964 (who famously made the case against Goldwater’s temperament by broadcasting, just once, the “Daisy” ad, forecasting the potential of nuclear war if Goldwater got to the Oval Office). Clinton has run two TV ads that might be called “Daisy Redux” – one ad of Trump making bleepable remarks on different occasions, promising at one point to “bomb the [expletive] out of them,” while in the background the sound of a fighter jet is heard roaring past; another showing nuclear warheads and warning that the person making button-pushing decisions must possess a generally unflappable temperament.  Clinton is often deep in the policy wonk weeds, in an uninspiring “just the facts Ma’am” Jimmy Carteresque way, but there may be something reassuring about a candidate with a granular understanding of global dynamics.  She appears to be less reluctant than President Obama to intervene and enforce “red lines,” and she would likely be at least as willing as Obama to unleash the darker forces of technology (drone strikes; cyber attacks) as she responds to the realities of the current global landscape.

If Clinton is a policy geek, Trump is a “from the gut” guy.  Lacking government experience, his views seem less dogmatic, his approach more visceral rather than cerebral. Trump is no Goldwater. Certainly, from a purely electoral perspective, Trump’s national appeal is much broader. Unlike Goldwater, whose views appeared firmly rooted in a clear and uncompromising ideology, Trump’s approach to foreign affairs appears largely informed by his business experience, specifically in the non-ideological flexibility that supports deal-making and negotiation, unconstrained by long-standing strategic alliances. Trump seems sometimes to channel the isolationist fervor of the “America First Committee,” whose spokesperson Charles Lindberg was in his day as much or more a celebrity than Trump himself.  If elected, Trump would have to reconcile his generally anti-interventionist rhetoric with his expressed desire to defeat ISIS. And unlike 1964, where the threat (or perceived threat) of Communism presented itself in a rather clear and straightforward way, the vagaries of who today’s enemies are, where they may be, and how they will behave, may play into Trump’s hands thusly: what America needs (so the argument goes) isn’t really experience, because experience assumes we are dealing with a known commodity, but rather a leader who thinks and acts situationally, in a manner responsive to the unfathomable and unpredictable approach brought to the global stage by violent extremists.

Meet the Author

The never-ending turmoil and distractions of the Middle East, the heightened aggressive posture taken by Russia (including the potential for Russian incursions in the Baltic states and Ukraine), China’s aggression toward its neighbors in the China Sea, and the never-ending concern about an unstable North Korean dictator threatening to trigger a wider conflict in Asia, require presidential leadership that can multitask at a high level of competence and insight. This has been part of the presidential job description since World War II, and it is an especially necessary quality for the person who takes the oath of office in 2017.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of  transportation and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.

The first part of this series focused on how sacrifice is out of style and the second part dealt with how the presidential campaign has evolved over the years.