This year’s astonishing presidential campaign has thrown foreign policy orthodoxy into chaos. Both parties have been torn by deep debate over how the United States should face the world. For the first time in generations, major presidential candidates have seriously questioned long-sacred American policies toward Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
A group of students at Brown University has spent several months closely tracking the foreign policy views of presidential candidates. As we watched, Republican voters rejected every candidate who favored their party’s traditional hardline foreign policies, including Lindsey Graham, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio.
Not one of the final three GOP candidates — Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Donald Trump — embodied the tough neo-conservatism normally associated with their party. Cruz said the United States should stop trying to export democracy. Kasich vowed to stop fighting the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Trump, the presumptive nominee, has broken with foreign policy dogma on a host of issues. He asserts that decades of foreign wars have not been good for the United States — hardly a traditional Republican view.
The Democratic Party is also going through a foreign-policy identity crisis. Hillary Clinton, the likely nominee, is an activist by nature and supports escalation from Afghanistan to Syria to Ukraine. Her opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, has condemned her “very aggressive policy of intervention” and said he does not believe the United States should be “the world’s policeman.” Yet though Sanders effectively pushed Clinton further left in terms of domestic policy, he was unsuccessful in changing her deeply held foreign policy views.
Trump has signaled that he will continue Sanders’ line of attack. He describes Clinton as “trigger-happy,” and wants the United States to reduce its ties to NATO, cut support for Saudi Arabia, reshape its strategic alliance with Japan and South Korea, and become a neutral broker between Israel and the Palestinians. All these policies are anathema to the Washington foreign policy establishment that Clinton embodies.
Republicans are traditionally the party of hawkish nationalism, but in this fall’s campaign, voters are likely to see a remarkable role reversal. Clinton, the Democrat, will pledge to use American power more freely. Trump, the Republican, will warn of the dangers of intervention. It is a sign of how unpredictable foreign policy debate has suddenly become.
Clinton believes the United States is the “indispensable nation” that assures global stability. Her world view combines humanitarianism with a hard-liner’s willingness to use coercive force. She is the reassuring choice for those seeking continuity in foreign policy.
Trump threatens that continuity. He blithely rejects sacrosanct principles that Clinton embraces — and that have guided American foreign policy for decades. His insults to huge groups of people in other parts of the world, and his theatrical displays of emotion, convey the image of a trigger-happy advocate of total war. At the same time, though, he promises restraint and non-interference in other countries.
Many voters evidently appreciate the way Trump talks about foreign policy. He paints simplified pictures of good and bad guys. By promoting drastic and aggressive plans for dealing with issues like terrorism, he seems tough — and reinforces the sense that he tells it like it is. He does not have to worry about consistency because voters who sympathize with him are focused mainly on his rhetoric and style, not the logistical implications of what he says.
Why is the American foreign policy consensus, unquestioned for so long, suddenly under attack in a national political campaign? One reason is the legacy of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many Americans have lost their appetite for “shaping” the world, especially given the country’s domestic needs. That gives Trump another chance to capitalize on feelings of American failure and mistrust of the establishment.
This campaign has widened the spectrum of “acceptable” opinion on foreign policy. Voters did not punish candidates who questioned longstanding assumptions about America’s role in the world. That exposes a rift between parts of the voting public and the Washington foreign policy mainstream. Americans seem to be moving away from foreign intervention, in favor of focusing on domestic concerns. Humanitarianism and democracy promotion are losing their appeal as justifications for intervention.
The surprising debate that has broken out in this campaign does not signal the dawn of a new era for US foreign policy. Political campaigns magnify the differences among candidates, as well as between candidates and the status quo. Campaign discussion of foreign policy in particular tends toward oversimplification and caricature. America’s foreign policy consensus has not survived for over a century simply because individual leaders agreed with it. Domestic pressures, international politics, and the Constitution prevent sudden change.
Nonetheless this campaign is the first one in generations to feature deep debate about America’s role in the world. Republican voters rejected every candidate with traditional foreign policy views. Many Democrats cheered Sanders’ sharp critique of foreign intervention. This debate will shake both parties in the years to come.
Students who carried out this study were Deena Butt, Mackenzie Daly, Emma Dickson, Abraham Evans, Lily Halpern, Olivia Hsu, Weiwei Liu, Kenneth Lusk, Nikhita Mendis, Matteo Mobilio, Tomas Navia, Seth Rosenbauer, Lainie Rowland, Bernadette Stadler, Seito Yamamoto, and Dan Ziring. Their tweets about candidates’ foreign policy statements—more than 1,000 of them—are at #WatsonFollows2016.