The Democratic Party has never faced a less qualified candidate for president on foreign policy in the modern era. But that’s had a peculiar consequence: The party no longer has a coherent vision for America’s place in the world.
Donald Trump’s foreign policy is so absurd, so cartoonish, that it has driven virtually every responsible observer of international affairs into the Democratic camp. The Democratic convention featured speakers from every wing of the foreign policy establishment — from relative doves like President Obama to uber-hawkish generals.
The result was a convention without a positive foreign policy vision. There wasn’t much of a case for Clinton other than, “At least you can trust her with nuclear weapons.”
That might be enough in this very, very strange election. But this dynamic can’t hold forever. Win or lose in November, the Democratic Party will need to figure out how it sees the world. The tensions within the coalition — between hawks and doves, or between realists and liberal interventionists — will start to reappear.
And I’m not sure what they’re going to decide.
Trump has transformed the way Democrats talk about foreign policy
Between the 2008 and 2016 campaigns, America’s foreign policy debate was pretty simple.
Democrats were the party of Obama and liberal realism. They believed in negotiating with American enemies, avoiding big wars, and employing limited uses of force to kill terrorists or protect civilians. Republicans were still the party of Bush: hawkish neoconservatives who criticized Obama for weakness on terrorism and appeasement of dictators.
Trump scrambled this debate entirely.
His criticism of regime change, his support for stealing other countries’ oil, his vocal support of torture “much worse than waterboarding,” his plans to shake down US allies for protection money — put that all together and you get a package of ideas that nobody on any side of those Obama-era debates could support, Republican or Democrat.
Foreign policy conservatives were dramatically overrepresented in the #NeverTrump ranks, because Trump trashed everything they believe in.
Full NatSec spectrum from anti-war to interventions now falls under the Democratic tent because Trump's foreign policy is torture fantasies— Kelsey D. Atherton (@AthertonKD) July 29, 2016
Until the Democratic National Convention, it wasn’t obvious how Democrats would deal with this Republican chaos. Under Obama, they were used to contrasting their more measured policies with Republican hawkishness — but that standard playbook wouldn’t work against Trump.
In Philadelphia, we got our answer: The Democrats would invite the dissident Republicans in.
The Democratic convention didn’t really focus on the more controversial parts of Obama’s foreign policy, like the Iran deal. It didn’t really have anything of substance to say about Hillary Clinton’s record as secretary of state.
Instead, the convention focused on Clinton’s personal qualities: her steadiness, her knowledge, her experience. The basic message was that Clinton would make the right calls on foreign policy — but it had nothing to say about what “the right calls” actually were.
You can see this very clearly in the major foreign policy speeches. A small, typical sampling of comments:
- Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “We need a leader who has the experience and judgment to keep America, strong, secure, and safe.”
- Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta: “In an unstable world, we cannot afford unstable leadership.”
- Former Navy Judge Advocate Gen. John Hutson: “At a minimum, he’ll order our troops to commit war crimes.”
- Former Marine Gen. John Allen: “We trust in her judgment. We believe in her vision for a united America. We believe in her vision of an America as a just and strong leader against the forces of hatred, the fortunes — forces of chaos and darkness.”
- Hillary Clinton herself: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons."
See how divorced from policy issues they are, how focused on Clinton’s qualities versus Trump’s erraticism? The whole point was to paint a picture of steady leadership versus dangerous unpredictability.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn’t really talk about foreign policy at the DNC. But the most famous line from his speech is, in many ways, the entire Democratic message on foreign policy:
“Together, let's elect a sane, competent person.”
But Democrats are eventually going to face a reckoning on foreign policy
This new Democratic message is actually the polar opposite of their message in 2008.
Back then, the Democrats were running a candidate with little actual foreign policy experience but a very clear vision of American foreign policy. The campaign focused on a break with the Bush administration’s ideas: an end to war and torture, a diplomatic approach to hostile states, a restoration of America’s standing in the world. After the victory, Democrats mostly united around Obama’s policies.
Clinton’s approach, by contrast, is designed to welcome Republicans who might have some reservations about these policies. She isn’t running against Republican foreign policy in general, as Obama did; she’s running against Donald Trump the person.
That might be a smart approach, electorally speaking. Donald Trump isn’t a normal candidate: He’s a thin-skinned blowhard who’s constantly doing things like threatening to destroy NATO and encouraging Russia to hack US citizens’ emails.
This might be so scary to voters of all stripes, including mainstream Republicans, that they’re willing to vote for a Democrat just to keep the nuclear codes out of Trump’s hands. “I won’t wreck everything” is a better pitch to these people than “remember how I’ve backed the Obama policies you hate?”
The problem, though, is that the coalition Clinton is trying to put together is totally unsustainable. If she wins, she’ll have to make hard, divisive decisions on tough foreign policy questions. Even if she loses, the Democratic Party will have to take a position on the way Trump handles those same issues.
That means the Democrats are due for an identity crisis: They will need to decide if, in the coming years, they will remain the party of Obama when it comes to global affairs.
I honestly don’t know what they’re going to do. Clinton herself has more hawkish instincts than Obama, but there’s fierce debate over how much more hawkish she is than her predecessor in Democratic leadership. Debates over liberal interventionism versus liberal realism — the dominant intra-liberal conflict during the Bush and early Obama years — will likely come back in a big way in the coming years.
Depending on what Clinton does in office, the Democrats may also have to deal with a resurgent anti-war left. We saw a little of that on display during this convention: The Bernie die-hards interrupted some of the more hawkish speakers with chants of “no more war!” They were drowned out by Clinton supporters yelling, “USA!” — which works in a convention, but you can’t exactly shout down demonstrators from the White House.
A campaign whose basic pitch is “we’re not Trump” doesn’t help us see how these issues are going to be resolved if Clinton wins. And who the hell knows what the two parties will look like at all in a world of President Trump, let alone what the Democratic foreign policy will be.
I’m not saying the Democratic Party will fracture. The party is defined by its inclusive social policy and egalitarian economic policy, not foreign policy. A leadership debate over just how hawkish to be isn’t a threat to the party’s electoral viability.
But the pro-Clinton elite coalition in this election is absolutely going to fracture. You cannot maintain the support of factions ranging from Barack Obama to his most hawkish neoconservative critics. It’s just impossible. Something is going to have to give — and when it does, the fractures that emerge will come to define the Democrats in the immediate future.
The DNC, then, was a great vague step into the unknown. The future of Democratic foreign policy is genuinely up in the air.