American Foreign Policy with Hillary at the Helm

Jana von Stein

Senior Lecturer of Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington.

By most accounts, Hillary Clinton has the Democrats’ nomination wrapped up.[1] The terrain of the November 2016 runoff is still murky, as the Republicans struggle to produce an apparent candidate, as the security environment in the Middle East remains fluid, and as many of Barack Obama’s proposals remain hotly contested. Still, Clinton’s chances of becoming the 45th President are high enough that it’s worth wondering: if she wins, what will her foreign policy look like?

For starters, it’s important to acknowledge that any 45th President will find several core problems on her/his plate come inauguration day in January 2017:

  • Islamic extremism in the Middle East (particularly Syria and Iraq) and its impact on Israel.
  • Managing relations with Iran, China, and Russia.
  • International trade deals (e.g., TPPA).
  • International climate change cooperation.[2]

These problems remain fluid, and the 45th President’s policy proposals will depend on how the situation has evolved between now and January 2017. This being said, Clinton’s diplomatic and senatorial history, as well as recent pronouncements, do allow us to make some predictions about her likely foreign policy approach.

The former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State has a great deal of diplomatic experience under her belt – more than most US Presidents have had when they step into the Oval Office. With experience come mistakes, the most painful being the deadly attacks on US personnel in Benghazi and her perplexing practice of sending State Department emails from her personal email account.[3] Those scandals aside, Clinton’s tenure as Secretary is generally well perceived (although few would place her alongside foreign policy ‘greats’ like Dean Acheson or Henry Kissinger).[4] Many observers applaud her success – built in large part on a ‘soft power’ approach – in helping undo (some of) the damage done by the George W. Bush administration to the US’s reputation around the world.[5]

Of course, the Secretary of State serves at the pleasure of the President. The policies she/he implements may not be those she/he prefers. In fact, it’s no secret that Obama is a bit too dovish for Clinton’s taste. On numerous occasions, she argued in favour of a more hawkish approach and won the President over (e.g., a 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan). But she also lost on many occasions (e.g., a 2012 plan to arm Syrian rebels).[6] Clinton’s more hawkish tendencies are evident in her voting record as well. As Senator, she voted for US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq; and in many instances she supported troop surges.

As President, it’s likely that Clinton would pursue a slightly more hawkish security policy than Obama has. With Russia, that would mean more active deterrence.[7] Putin no doubt has plans for other border areas – deeper into Ukraine or, possibly, the Baltic states.[8] Clinton would push for (more and better) military support for countries under threat, as well as an increase in NATO preparation.[9] An increase in US support to anti-Assad rebels would be a virtual certainty with Clinton at the helm, but if Russia sends troops to Syria – which is no longer a terribly far-fetched notion[10] – she will have to choose between two evils: putting US forces in harm’s way in Syria, a country of little strategic importance to the US; vs. not sending troops, which could embolden Putin to take steps in areas that are strategically important to the US. Whatever happens with Russia in Syria, it is clear that Clinton would fortify efforts to combat ISIS in the region.

How would Clinton manage other tense strategic relationships? Whilst backing the current nuclear deal, she believes that there is “absolutely no reason to trust Iran” and advocates a “distrust and verify” approach.[11] Under Clinton, US military action is not impossible if Iran fails to adhere to the agreement. But that would be a last resort: resumption of economic sanctions would be the preferred approach. Compared to Al Assad, Khameni, Putin, and Rouhani, Xi Jinping seems much more manageable. True, Sino-Japanese disputes in the South China Sea will remain a concern. Clinton opposes “any [Chinese] unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration of the disputed territories.”[12] But unlike with Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran, there is still a certain amount of trust between Washington and Beijing. Clinton would no doubt embrace a policy of ‘trust and dialog’ with Xi Jinping. Both countries have a lot to gain – through the TPP, for example – by maintaining good diplomatic relations.

What approach would Clinton-as-President take to non-security matters, like trade and climate change? Her trade stance is hard to predict. As Senator, she voted in favour of several small trade agreements, but opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement. As Secretary of State, she ‘owned’ the TPPA;[13] but now, as presidential candidate, she is distancing herself from the controversial agreement. Needless to say, Clinton’s views on international trade are complex and seem to depend somewhat on which professional hat she is wearing. As presidential candidate, she needs the electoral support of powerful labour unions. The latter want a TPPA that protects them, or no TPPA at all. 

Those hoping to see Clinton’s international negotiating prowess play out on the international climate change scene will probably be disappointed. Her climate change plan is decidedly domestic... so far, and it is underdeveloped.[14] Questions also remain about her stance on the Keystone XL pipeline, natural gas, tar sands oil extraction, fracking, and Arctic drilling.[15]

If she wins, Clinton will of course be the first woman President in the US. Some scholars have argued that the world would be more peaceful if more women held political office, because women tend to be less aggressive, less likely to favour military solutions, more compromising, and so on.[16] Would Clinton’s gender affect her foreign policy? The thought experiment is to wonder whether Clinton’s foreign policy would be any different if she were a man.

On big-ticket items – those affecting war and peace, US national security, and trade – my strong expectation is that gender will play no role, or perhaps even the opposite role to what one might expect. The former Secretary of State has already revealed herself to be more hawkish than many men. Indeed, in the ‘man’s world’ of international security, she might even feel some pressure to appear more hawkish, as a way of staving off criticisms of weakness from military actors and the media. However, on smaller-ticket items – promoting women’s rights at a rhetorical and practical level, sinking funds into development aid, contraception, and education for women, and so on – I suspect that Hillary’s gender will matter. Perhaps she’ll even submit the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women for ratification by the US Senate.[17] But I wouldn’t wager much on that prediction. Clinton is savvy enough to know there is nothing to gain from stirring up a hornet’s nest when the political payoffs would be small. She might also appoint more women to top national security positions, and area in which women’s representation is dismal.[18] Whether such a move would affect the policies coming out of NSA, the military, etc., is a question of considerable debate.[19]

The above has focused on what Clinton’s preferred foreign policy might look like. Of course, her ability to execute those policies depends on her relations with the Congress at large, with influential members of her party, and with key international interlocutors.[20] On matters requiring Congressional approval or involvement, it hinges on whether the Democrats can regain a majority in Congress. At present, that’s anyone’s guess. If they do, Clinton would be well-placed to execute many of her preferred policies, on security matters anyhow: Democratic pressures to be more dovish would be countered and outweighed by the need to gain the support of some Republicans.[21] If the Republicans hold the balance of power, she may have to be slightly more hawkish. On matters not requiring Congressional approval or involvement, she may find herself under pressure from prominent Democrats to be more dovish. As for her international interlocutors, Clinton is well-placed. She already has relationships with many of the most important global players and is well-regarded on the international scene. This would place her ahead of most past Presidents, and well ahead of all current contenders.



[2] This might be wishful thinking on my part. It is not clear that any US President will place climate change at the centre of her/his foreign policy, even though there are compelling environmental reasons for her/him to do so. President Obama’s Clean Power Proposal is unlikely to pass given the current Congressional climate.





[7] Clinton was a key player in the first Obama administration’s “Reset Russia” campaign, an attempt to renew relations between the two countries when Medvedev was President. As a token of that effort, she presented her Russian counterpart with a mock reset button. Unfortunately, State Department translators transcribed the word ‘pergruzka,’ meaning ‘overloaded’ rather than ‘reset.’ Oops. Some believe that the ‘reset’ effort emboldened Russia. /7930047.stm



[10] Pqmkp






[16] See for example Sarah Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace; and J. Ann Tickner’s A Feminist Voyage through International Relations.

[17] Embarrassingly, the US is one of a handful of countries not to have ratified the agreement.



[20] Of course, the public’s perceptions matter as well. The President’s party almost always loses seats in mid-term elections.

[21] This assumes a thin margin if the Democrats take back the House and/or the Senate. It’s unlikely that the GOP will get crushed in the 2016 Congressional elections.

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