By George Jaeger
Among the most disturbing aspects of this bizarre election season is the absence of any serious discussion of America’s foreign affairs.
Endless debates have produced simplistic themes that play to the gut feelings of parts of the electorate. But relatively little attention has been paid to the most critical world issues America will have to face in the years ahead.
Of course ISIS and Islamic terrorism, which have held center stage, pose significant dangers which we must guard against. But while terrorists can cause mayhem, they are not capable of destroying our country as major wars with China and Russia, the two other great nuclear powers, certainly could. That’s the core problem we face and must learn to manage wisely.
What makes this urgent is the fact, as the New York Times has just confirmed, that the U.S., Russia and China have entered on a new, potentially highly destabilizing phase of the nuclear arms race involving dramatically upgraded weapons and delivery systems. The U.S. alone expects to spend close to a trillion dollars on these projects in the coming decades. Neither the wisdom of these grave decisions, nor the urgent need for new arms control initiatives to curb them, have been issues in this election year.
This is all the more disturbing given Washington’s current, increasingly tense military confrontations with both Russia and China, since even small miscalculations, particularly in the Baltic and the East China Sea, could quickly escalate and get out of control. Wise management of these core relationships should therefore be the cornerstone of American policy. They are hardly being discussed.
Nor have second-level questions fared much better. How much longer do we plan to slog on in Afghanistan and for what reasons? What roles should Iran and the Saudi-led alliance of Sunni states play in the ongoing reordering of the Middle East? What is the endgame in Syria? How should we deal with potentially loose nukes in Pakistan and the very real North Korean nuclear threat? Is waging drone and covert warfare wherever we choose defensible or counterproductive? And what of the dangers posed by cyber warfare and, the most important issue of all, of global climate change?
Of course the candidates have “plans” and websites which abound in fine print. But the conundrum facing voters is who is more likely to guide this nation wisely through the coming, probably more dangerous years and lay the basis for a coherent new long-term foreign policy?
Trump, the erratic Republican frontrunner, hardly qualifies, even though he is the only candidate who says that he could get along with Putin. Cruz is an unabashed foreign policy hardliner who spouts what far right-wing followers want to hear. Kasich, the most moderate of this threesome, waffles on issues like Iran and said in a debate that “it was time to punch Putin in the nose.”
Which leaves Hillary and Bernie.
Bernie’s problem is that he has had only limited practical exposure. But he has sound instincts, as shown in his key vote against the Iraq war. His call to move away from constant unilateral military action, to emphasize diplomacy to resolve conflicts, and to go to war only as a last resort would be a highly sensible new start. As would focussing much more on deep-rooted domestic problems, including some of the adverse effects of trade agreements, to strengthen us as a nation without going isolationist.
As to Hillary, there is no question that she has experience. She knows how the system works and how to work it. As secretary of state she accomplished all sorts of helpful things, particularly the transformation of Burma into a more open, democratic state.
But where it counts most, her record is one of short-term activism, as in her famously wrong-headed vote for the Iraq war, her calls for a more interventionist policy in Syria and her insistent advocacy for military intervention in Libya, which swayed the president and proved counterproductive. It seems that in none of these cases did she reflect long enough on the key question: “What happens next?”
Nor, for that matter, is there any indication in her approach that American foreign policy again needs a wise long-term conceptual framework, like the policy of containment in the Cold War, which could help frame key national decisions facing us in the dangerous tripolar world in which we now live and moderate the action-reaction cycle in which we seem trapped.
A Clinton presidency may therefore be a higher-risk continuation of Obama’s but would certainly be much better than Trump. Bernie, the sagacious wild card, might, with luck and a very good team of advisors, even be better.
George Jaeger is a retired senior Foreign Service officer who lives in New Haven.
By George Jaeger