Event Summary: ‘A Fork in the Road: Looking Ahead at US Foreign Policy under Trump or Clinton’


By Talia Jessener

On Monday 10th October, the Henry Jackson society welcomed Gordon Dee Smith, CEO of Strategic Insight Group, to share his views on what American foreign policy might look like under either a  Trump or Clinton administration.

Smith began by reminding us that constraints exist for all Presidents, whether Democrat or Republican, and also of the long-standing traditions of protectionism and isolationism.  However, he also claimed that there has been a shift in the attitudes of the American public; there has been widespread fear of American decline, anxiety over the rise of her adversaries, and most keenly, the feeling that the United States is no longer the sole author of its own story. He claimed that this disquiet in turn has led to the rise of two such contrasting nominees, and to the success of populism, even calling Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump ‘two sides of the same coin’.

Smith went on to explain a second external factor that may lead to change regardless of who sits in the Oval Office; namely Sestanovich’s theory of Maximalism. This is the idea that American foreign policy is rhythmic, operating in nine to eleven year cycles that alternate between activism and retrenchment. American foreign policy often undergoes huge change simply as a reactive measure. According to Sestanovich, by 2016 America will have seen the end of a cycle of retreat and will be ready to begin a new cycle of expansionism, and hence Smith believes it will be interesting to see how the pressure for a robust foreign policy affects the next President’s behaviour, whoever that may be.

After describing the constraints on both administrations, Smith then went on to highlight his predictions of how both a Trump and Clinton Presidency would differ with regard to foreign policy. Under Clinton, he claimed we would likely see a continuation of fundamental principles of past establishments such as the upholding of the liberal international order, an emphasis on treaties, multilateralism and international law, and a further entrenchment of the Westphalian system. However, he claimed that Clinton was not simply an Obama part two, as she is more hawkish when it comes to military intervention and activism, as seen from her record supporting American action in Libya. He also believed that, based on her experience at the centre of the political establishment, Clinton is likely to make decisions more rapidly than Obama, and to be more trusting of her cabinet. He predicted a greater emphasis on NATO and other alliances, and a greater pressure on adversaries, and emphasised that Clinton may be far more outspoken on human rights, and especially on women’s rights, than her predecessor ever was.

With regards to Trump, Smith predicted tighter borders and a Jacksonian policy based on ‘putting America first, and putting Americans first’ centred on the idea that American allies need to take more responsibility for their own actions and their own protection. This could lead to a dramatic re-evaluation of NATO’s role, and of security agreements with countries such as Japan, with treaties linked to trade to increase America’s bargaining power. However, Smith was quick to point out that, with regard to this latter policy, and indeed Trump’s plans for economic nationalism, practices that brought success in the his private businesses may not translate well on a national stage. More worryingly still, Smith highlighted that Trump’s efforts to be seen as unpredictable and bellicose on the world stage may well lead to instability

Smith concluded on a somewhat alarming note, questioning whether a narrow win would be accepted as legitimate by the followers of both sides, or if Trump would concede with grace or continue to make trouble should be defeated. He claimed that the issues brought to the forefront of the election campaigns were here to stay, and left the audience with the advice to buckle their seatbelts, as ultimately, regardless of who wins on November 8th, the future is likely to be a bumpy ride.


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