Despite a campaign where, to a great extent, the erratic and offensive behavior, intolerance and vulgarity is the message, there are some issues where Donald Trump has differentiated himself from most other Republicans as well as his Democratic opponent. His views on trade, efforts to, rhetorically at least, make the Republican Party the tribute of the white working man, and strong anti-immigrant views separate him from most of his vanquished GOP opponents. However, the biggest issue where Trump has separated himself from his opponents in both parties is foreign policy. In recent weeks, the increasingly convincing evidence that Trump is, wittingly or not, a Russian stooge has dominated the foreign policy component of this election, but there is more to Trump’s foreign policy than that.
Trump has appealed to voters by proposing an American foreign policy that, while reflecting the anger and intolerance at the heart of his campaign, also calls for a US that is considerably less involved with the rest of the world. The second half of that message, were it coming from a more effective and balanced candidate, could resonate with voters, especially as Trump is running against Hillary Clinton who, to her core, is an interventionist and establishment figure on foreign policy.
This contrast between the candidates has been clear In recent days as Clinton has sought to take advantage of Trump’s sputtering campaign by highlighting her support among prominent Republicans and people who have served in Republican administrations. Similarly, many Republicans are now realizing that the best way to salvage their career, or in some cases in an effort to do what they genuinely believe is best for the country, have begun to distance themselves from Trump and even to endorse Clinton.
The news that fifty Republican foreign policy leaders have now stated that they will not vote for Donald Trump, and that Clinton, for her part, is courting Republican foreign policy giants like Condaleeza Rice, and most significantly, Henry Kissinger, should be understood in this context. By demonstrating that so many Republicans do not support Trump, Clinton can increase her chances of winning votes from moderate Republicans and other swing voters while continuing to hammer away at Trump’s negatives, or at least that is the campaign theory driving her actions.
The problem with Clinton’s approach is that it overlooks the reality that many voters, particularly those on the left wing of the Democratic Party, but also some Republicans and others as well, are not happy with the conduct of American foreign policy in recent years, or indeed decades. Bernie Sanders was unable to fully exploit this the primary because he was woefully unprepared to discuss most issues of foreign policy. Nonetheless, the Clinton campaign should be aware that many Democrats support her in spite of, not because of, her record as Secretary of State.
The Trump campaign has responded to these pronouncements by Republican satchems by arguing that these foreign policy experts are part of the problem. Rudy Giuliani, whose descent into Trump madness cannot be very surprising to long time observers of New York City politics, made this point very succinctly when he commented on the letter and those who signed it. “These are the people who have been running policy for the last eight or ten years, twelve years, The American people have delivered a judgment on that. They say America is headed in the wrong direction. These are the people who headed it in the wrong direction.” While Guiliani trying to present himself as somebody not of the GOP establishment is absurd, you would be hard pressed to find many people at a Bernie Sanders rally last spring or at an antiwar demonstration anytime in the last few years who would disagree with Giuliani’s assessment of the Republican foreign policy establishment.”
While Clinton cannot be held responsible for what a large group of Republicans, concerned about the temperament and aptitude of their party’s nominee, do, her decision to reach out to Henry Kissinger is different. The Democratic nominee must know that many in her party view Mr. Kissinger as at best the symbol of all that is wrong with American foreign policy, and at worst as a war criminal. Clinton’s relationship with Kissinger is not new and has been evidence to many of her hawkish approach to foreign policy for some time. The question, even from a campaign angle, of why Clinton is wants Kissinger’s support is interesting as well. Kissinger does not exactly move a lot of votes; and Clinton is already doing well with the foreign policy establishment types of both parties. A Kissinger endorsement would increase her strength there, but would give fodder to those who continue to believe that Clinton is too conservative on foreign policy.
By seeking to reinforce her conservative foreign policy credentials, Clinton is seeking to move even more to the center while assuming that fear of Trump will keep her left critics from abandoning her in large numbers. While she is probably right in that calculation, these decisions by the Democratic nominee can also be seen as insight into what her foreign policy might be. Moreover, Trump and Giuliani took time away from a campaign that is deteriorating into threats of violence, groundless accusation of election fraud and hatred to make a point about the foreign policy establishment that those thinking about the Democratic Party beyond 2016 would be foolish to ignore.