US Election 2016

Trump v Clinton on foreign policy

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Image copyright AFP/AP
Image caption Foreign policy may play a greater role in this election

He has called her incompetent and blamed "the disasters" of Iraq and Libya on her and President Barack Obama. She has publicly revealed that panicked world leaders have been calling to ask if they can somehow endorse her to stop her opponent.

They're not officially the nominees yet until the conventions in July but Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton look set for an historic clash between candidates on everything from trade to immigration but also, crucially on foreign policy and their divergent world views.

Past presidential elections have often brought speculation about the importance of foreign policy in the debate but it is rarely a determining factor in how people vote. But this election comes at an inflection point for the US and beyond the specifics of policies on the Middle East or China, the general theme of America's role in the world has been on the mind of deeply anxious voters. Trump has tapped into an isolationist mood in the country that will prove a challenge for Clinton, a strong proponent of America's continued, engaged leadership.

Most of Mrs Clinton's attacks against the New York billionaire have so far focused on his domestic policy statements and rhetoric. In response to his plan to build a wall on the border with Mexico, Clinton has talked about "breaking down barriers", in reaction to his call to ban Muslims she has released an ad about "love and kindness".

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Image caption Clinton promises to provide more specifics about foreign policy in the coming weeks

But Mrs Clinton has not yet focused fully on drawing a contrast with the Republican candidate on foreign policy, including because Mrs Clinton herself yet to fully incorporate her worldview in her stump speech. Aside from detailed speeches to rarefied audiences at think tanks and universities, the former secretary of state has mostly spoken about foreign policy when asked specific questions in debates or town halls.

A senior Clinton aide told me the campaign is now working on building a more forceful case for her vision of how and why American leadership matters for American voters and explaining the impact on their lives.

If Mrs Clinton has a traditional outlook on the exercise of American power, Mr Trump sees it all as a business deal. His approach was perfectly summed up in a recent article by Thomas Wright who argued Mr Trump's views have been long standing and consistent.

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In a 1990 interview with Playboy, Donald Trump said "we Americans are laughed at around the world for losing a hundred and fifty billion dollars year after year, for defending wealthy nations for nothing, nations that would be wiped off the face of the Earth in about 15 minutes if it weren't for us. Our 'allies' are making billions screwing us."

Trump thinks the US foots too much of the bill for Nato and that other allies should spend more on their own protection and even defend themselves with nuclear weapons, if necessary in the case of Japan and South Korea.

"Of course they should pick up all the expense. Why are we paying for this?" Mr Trump said again this week on American television. His comments were widely reported in Japan with one of the biggest newspapers, Asahi Shimbun, saying "Triumphant Trump takes most of Japan by surprise as well"

Japan spends $1.7bn in direct support for the American military bases. The US is set to spend $5.5bn in 2016 to maintain its military bases there. But the cost of returning American troops based Japan or South Korea back to the US would be even bigger. Mr Trump also misses the ways in which America benefits from these alliances: the military presence underwrites the global system, helping to secure shipping lanes for example, the freedom of which is essential for global commerce.

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Image caption Trump has pushed an "America First" worldview

Like many of President Obama's critics in the GOP, Trump also believes that the US is no longer dependable as an ally because of this administration's policies. But Mr Trump undermines his own argument when he then criticizes allies for short changing America- in essence he believes they are free-riders, a word President Obama has used as well.

As different as the Republican candidate and the American president are they share this disdain for allies they feel have become too comfortable relying on America, as well a view of American engagement with the world that favours retrenchment based on a narrow definition of US interests. Mr Trump's slogan "Make America Great Again" feeds off this anxiety about America's future and its role in the world. And in this now war wary nation, several polls also show he has substantial support among active duty military personnel.

This will be a dilemma for Mrs Clinton on the campaign trail: how to differentiate herself from Mr Trump's isolationist worldview without criticizing a president who holds a somewhat similar view but remains very popular.

In the words of Barack Obama's deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, Mrs Clinton is part of the "blob" of foreign policy establishment that whines about the collapse of the American security order. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton often quietly expressed frustration about President Obama's reluctant approach to American power.

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Image caption Obama and Clinton have big differences in their approach to foreign policy

Speaking in Washington at an awards dinner at the Atlantic Council this week, former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said that "contrary to the views of some politicians, continuing American global leadership is in our own economic, political, and security interest, not simply and only an altruistic act." He did not name Mr Trump but had a stark warning, saying "America turning inward not only will make the world more dangerous for others, but also for us."

This is what Mrs Clinton believes too but writing in the Washington Post, columnist David Ignatius warned that "if Clinton can't counter Trump's 'America first' rhetoric and make the case that U.S. leadership is still crucial for our security, she won't be a strong president. And she won't have public support for the policies needed to rebuild US credibility."

Before she can start worrying about public support for her policies as president, Mrs Clinton still needs to make the case to American voters that her vision of American power and leadership will serve them, their economy and their jobs, better than Mr Trump's worldview.