The mainstream and left-wing media has slapped the label “hawk” on Hillary Clinton, but if we are to believe the words of her senior policy advisor, Jake Sullivan, a more accurate description would be call her a “coalition-builder.” It’s clear from the comments Sullivan made in front of an audience of about 250 people at the Asia Society on Park Avenue in New York this week that, whether engaged in peaceful or war-like activities in other parts of the world, Clinton will only act after deliberations with other nations and within the context of an organized coalition.
A Google News search yielded seven media stories about Sullivan’s remarks at the Asia Society, including the Society’s own blog, all of which focused exclusively on Sullivan’s short comments on Donald Trump’s lack of qualifications and dangerous statements. This comment took about one minute of the more than an hour Sullivan devoted to presenting how Clinton will approach foreign affairs.
The more important message—and story—is the Clinton approach to dealing with a wide range of problems, from Syria to global warming, which is to build a coalition of all parties, look for common ground and act collectively. Implied but not stated by Sullivan, who is Vice President Biden’s national security advisor and a senior advisor to the Iran nuclear negotiations, is that collective action assumes collective responsibility and financing.
Her approach to the knot of problems in the Middle East demonstrates how Clinton hopes to implement this vision of cooperation. Sullivan says that Clinton sees three main challenges in the Middle East:
- The destabilization of regimes, often brought about by terrorists and violent extremists.
- The rise of militant right-wing Islamists.
- The long-term hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States.
Clinton will be willing to ensure that Iran will not destabilize Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, but in return the United States will expect the Saudis and other Gulf rulers to:
- Contribute to the fight against ISIS
- Stop funding terrorism
- Begin internal political and social reforms in their countries.
Sullivan calls Clinton “clear-eyed” about Iran, by which he means that she still considers the regime hostile to U.S. interests, but she sees the benefit of working with the Iranians, especially in Syria. Clinton does not believe the Syrian problem can be solved without a new government and that any solution to the Syrian problem must have the agreement of both Russia and the United States to succeed. My understanding of a “hawk” is someone who knee-jerks to calling in the military like John McCain. Clinton’s first step to solving the Syrian crisis is decidedly unhawkish: to negotiate “safe areas” within the country for refugees.
Sullivan kept stressing that the United States cannot be a unilateral player, but must always act in concert with other countries, whatever the region or issue. She will put a particular reemphasis on working more closely with China, seeing no reason why China and the United States can’t be friendly competitors. Clinton sees five important areas where the interests of China and the United States coincide:
- Climate change
- The stability of Afghanistan, which borders China (and five other countries!)
- What Sullivan labeled “G-20” issues of trade and international economics.
- North Korea
Clinton wants the United States and China to cooperate to force North Korea to renounce development of its nuclear capability. Sullivan pointed out at the Asia Society that every major economy was engaged in sanctions against Iran, which produced the nuclear deal. He cautioned that the relationship between China and the United States has not reached the point at which the two nations would act in concert on North Korea.
On issue after issue, Sullivan described Clinton as taking a studied, cautious approach that focused on alliance-building and not saber-rattling. The sense I got from Sullivan is that Clinton is not afraid to use force, but will depend first on peaceful resolution of international issues that protects the United States’ interests but recognizes the interests of other countries.
Whether left-wingers like the Clinton foreign policy depends on whether we look at the glass as half empty of half full. Thus, I would prefer it if the first thing Sullivan said was that Clinton would unilaterally shut down the United States’ nuclear capability and stop selling and facilitating the sale of military-grade weapons to all foreign countries. She did not and will not. That’s the empty part of the glass.
But in the context of 70 years of America imperialistically pushing its weight around, undermining democratic regimes such as in Chile and Iran and pursuing useless wars like Viet Nam and Iraq, Clinton’s approach, which echoes that of President Obama and her husband, looks promising and dovish. I don’t believe the nonsense that Obama’s mishandling of foreign affairs led to the rise of ISIS and the splintering of Syria. George W. Bush’s ill-conceived Iraq War definitely caused ISIS; it also contributed to the destabilization of Syria and to the growth or terrorism by giving proof to the Islamic extremists who consider the United States the real rogue, devil state. Nothing Bernie Sanders has said has convinced me that he will be any more left-wing in his foreign policy than Clinton.
All the Republicans—including Donald Trump—proclaim that they will be quick to use force to address international disputes. Trump talks about being a better negotiator than the representatives of other countries, a kind of naïve American exceptionalism masquerading as global bullying. It remains to be seen whether Trump keeps spouting isolationist rhetoric when it comes to trade and immigration, or retreats to Republican orthodoxy. On the most significant long-term global issue—climate change—Clinton is light-years ahead of the GOP, which still has its official policy the denial of global warming. Compared to the unstable Trump and the war-mongering Republic foreign policy establishment, Clinton’s foreign policy is definitely superior, with more positives than negatives. She remains within the mainstream of the last 70 years, but will move that mainstream further left, as Barack Obama has done. Yes, the idealist in me is disappointed, but the realist understands that electing Clinton (or Sanders) is critical to making the United States safer while implementing a more moral and less bellicose foreign policy.
The moderator at the Asia Society presentation was the very witty and knowledgeable Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia and current president of the Asia Society Policy Institute. He pointed out that Asia Society had offered a forum to discuss foreign issues to every announced candidate for president and only Hillary Clinton had agreed. Let’s hope that Donald Trump presents before the Asia Society membership (and Sanders, too, if he does it before the convention). More significantly, let’s hope that more of the news media cover the presentation and that coverage focuses on the strategies the candidates propose and not the name-calling to which the news media seems to want to reduce all campaign stories.