Alexander Hamilton Society Examines Foreign Policy in 2016 Presidential Election


September 23, 2016 by Matt Raab

As Election Day approaches, foreign policy questions have taken a fair share of the spotlight. With both candidates responding to a variety of issues central to national security,  and international interventions, Georgetown’s chapter of the Alexander Hamilton Society invited several professors to debate and discuss the foreign policy strategies of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Dr. Matthew Kroenig, Georgetown  Government and Foreign Service professor moderated the talk, while Dr. Colin Dueck, professor at the George Mason School of Policy and Georgetown Government and Security Studies professor Daniel Byman, shared their thoughts on the contentious election cycle.

“There is a very troubling tendency, which is that both parties are looking inward much more than they used to be, or at least the inward-looking voices are louder and more organized,” Byman said in his opening remarks. “If you look at Bernie Sanders … this is a candidate who philosophically is actually more akin to Trump on foreign policy than he is to Democrats. He is someone who is very suspicious of U.S. engagement in the world, he does not believe the United States is a force for good, he is someone who is suspicious of use of force, suspicious of free trade, and he did quite well. I don’t think Hillary was winning points on foreign policy, I think people who supported Hillary did so mainly in spite of her views on foreign policy.”

Reflections on Obama’s Foreign Policy

The event began with commentary on the foreign policy of President Barack Obama, viewed holistically. Reflection on the Obama administration offered several chances for disagreement between the two speakers, who discussed the initial motivations of Obama’s foreign policy and how his strategy played out from 2009 to the present.

“There’s no way to understand [Obama’s] presidency and his foreign policy without understanding that he really wanted, compared to Bush, to put more time and energy into a domestic policy legacy, a transformative one, ‘nation building at home,’ as he called it,” Dueck said. “And he set up his national security staff and his foreign policy apparatus deliberately in a way to keep out of trouble.”

Dueck took issue with some tenets of Obama’s foreign policy, pointing towards issues in Libya, Iraq, and Syria.

“I give him credit for having a strategy. Unlike some of his supporters, I’m more of a critic, but I think he had a strategy at the macro level,” he said. “At the micro level, when you look at specific cases, particularly cases like Syria, there never really was a coherent strategy.”

Byman viewed the Iran Nuclear Deal and opening to Cuba more favorably than Dueck, highlighting the benefits of those accomplishments as more valuable than potential losses engendered by concessions to historically adversarial countries.

How Obama’s Foreign Policy Affects Hillary Clinton

Both, however, agreed on certain elements of Obama’s efforts, including a commitment to free trade exemplified by his pursuit of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. Issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership highlighted Hillary Clinton’s unique perspective on foreign policy issues this election as a former Secretary of State. Both speakers touched on what association with any of Obama’s policies meant for Hillary, and how much agency she could claim or should be assigned to her towards those policies, along with her anticipated stances as President.

panel-hamilton-event“Hillary is actually remarkably interventionist and globalist by Democratic Party standards. I think she is more cautious by temperament than Obama, and that is something that can go for better or for worse,” Byman said. “Where I think [of] something like the Iran Deal or the Cuba Opening, she would be more skeptical, at the same time, I think she would have been more likely to embrace intervention whether it is with supporting European allies against Russia or whether it is supporting Middle Eastern countries against the Islamic State earlier. She is someone that is more cautious, I would say, about change in general.”

The issue of terrorism during the Obama administration was also broached, with Byman, a terror and counterterror expert, offering his thoughts on the relative success of counter-terror efforts in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Byman argued that Obama maintained critical counterterror strategies begun in the Bush administration that have helped prevent major attacks.

“94 Americans have died from jihadist-linked terrorism on U.S. soil since September 11. Almost every expert, myself included, said on September 12, 2001 a lot more people would die. And that 94 is 94 too many,” Byman said, “but truly random acts are much higher. That has become politically a bar of success.”

Donald Trump’s View of Foreign Policy

After providing their thoughts on Obama’s foreign policy, both speakers offered succinct, and generally shared, criticisms of Donald Trump’s view of foreign policy and the United States’ role in the world, finding him unfit to serve at the helm of U.S. foreign policy.

“When I look at Trump’s decision-making model, his personal character, his manner of approaching issues, I don’t see anyone who is even above the bar,” Dueck said. “He is the first Republican president since the 1930s who seems to have no commitment to a U.S. alliance system for engagement overseas. He doesn’t get it.”

Trump’s opposition to the various commitments the United States has made around the world was objectionable to both speakers, threatening both America’s well-being and the protection of allies. Dueck and Byman spoke against tendencies towards a United States less engaged with the rest of the world, tendencies which included some of Hillary’s similar positions, such as on TPP.

“Why we have a School of Foreign Service at Georgetown is actually directly against those tendencies,” Byman said, “to expose people to other cultures and ideas and deal with an open and free world. So I’m disturbed that both parties are headed in this direction.”


Foreign Policy Challenges for Next Administration

Altogether, the conversation focused on the problems the United States will face in coming years and how we will be equipped to respond to them. Questions from the audience gave Byman and Dueck opportunity to offer their thoughts on a number of areas of concern for the United States in the near future, including the increasing bellicosity of North Korea, rising tensions in East Asia, the Islamic State, and continued war in Syria.

For both Dueck and Byman, the challenges  approaching the United States in the foreign policy realm will require experienced and measured leadership. While their thoughts on many specific scenarios differed, concerns for the future drove them together in their thoughts on the election.

“As a professor I try not to favor one candidate or another,” Byman said. “I really feel Trump is dangerous to Republicans, and so my question to myself is: does my duty shift, where I should be proselytizing rather than trying to be more balanced. Part of it is, he is someone who doesn’t seem to care about the truth in any way … and in foreign policy where we spend lots of time trying to craft statements that carefully reflect an American consensus, the idea that someone would knowingly distort, but then change his mind the next day, so it’s not even lying for some grand design …  that is very troubling to me and needless to say very upsetting for our allies.”