U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the Union of Carpenters and Millwrights Training Center in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., May 15, 2016.
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the Union of Carpenters and Millwrights Training Center in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., May 15, 2016. 
Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters

On April 27, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivered his first foreign policy speech of the campaign. In the statement, Trump promised to ensure “global peace,” rebuild the U.S. military, eliminate the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and change Washington’s approach to NATO. His platform is as ambitious as it is contradictory and implausible. He advocates for a U.S. withdrawal from international conflict even as he wants to boost Washington’s role in promoting world peace. This is a far cry from the likely Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, who has called on the United States to intervene more directly in global conflict. 

Not only are Clinton’s and Trump’s foreign policy platforms vastly different from each other, they are both miles apart from that of U.S. President Barack Obama. The “Obama Doctrine,” as it has become known, has kept the United States out of conflicts that did not pose a direct threat to national security in the White House’s view, but not without consequences. This policy has had its successes, such as the raid that killed former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. But it has also had its failures, such as the missed opportunity to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which would have prevented the conflict from spawning incipient threats. When Obama departs, this foreign policy will go with him; no matter who wins in November, the next president will take a different approach to the world's varied challenges, making foreign policy a crucial issue in this year’s election.


The crux of the Obama Doctrine has been to seek multilateral intervention when possible and unilateral action when necessary. Over the last eight years, Washington has avoided intervening in conflicts that, in the view of the administration, did not pose core national security threats, whether in Asia, Europe, or the Middle East. 

But this seemingly credible foreign policy approach was overshadowed by the administration’s “pivot to Asia,” wherein Washington chose to focus more on Asian security and less on transatlantic concerns. The United States sent fresh troops to Australia, bolstered its presence in Japan, and established new naval access in the Philippines and Singapore. European and Middle Eastern allies, sensing that Washington was neglecting their needs in order to counterbalance China’s ascendance, reacted negatively. The Obama administration soon rebranded the policy as the “rebalance to Asia,” but it was too late to reassure allies sufficiently.

For its part, Beijing condemned the policy as “containment,” despite the fact that the military shift also coincided with a wider set of more palatable diplomatic and economic policies aimed at the country. With this in mind, China fast-tracked younger hard-line leaders into power, such as President Xi Jinping, who has worked to counterbalance U.S. influence in the region and pursue a more militaristic grand strategy. Xi’s foreign policy now threatens U.S. allies and has led to a tense fight over land rights and sovereignty in the East and South China Seas. Although China’s rise may have been inevitable, Washington mistakenly provided the catalyst that hard-liners needed in order to alter China’s grand strategy. Now, it has changed from a peaceful rise to an aggressive expansion. 

The administration eventually refocused its efforts in the Middle East and Europe despite the Asian pivot, resulting in a pivot to all three. In the Middle East, Obama has sought to avoid noncritical interventions while also pursuing what he views as more critical interventions, such as the fight against ISIS. This approach has fared somewhat better in Iran and Iraq than it has in Syria. But in Ukraine, the administration’s approach faltered and allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to create fresh threats in east-central Europe and Syria.

U.S. President Barack Obama arrives home aboard Air Force One after his visit to Saudi Arabia, England and Germany at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. April 25, 2016.
U.S. President Barack Obama arrives home aboard Air Force One after his visit to Saudi Arabia, England and Germany at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. April 25, 2016.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
In assessing Obama’s foreign policy as a whole, his critics tend to highlight instances where he chose strategic restraint instead of intervention. In the April 2016 issue of The Atlantic, for example, author Jeffrey Goldberg focuses narrowly on the president’s policies in Syria to argue that Obama walked a path of restraint across the world. The president’s grand strategy, however, is at least mildly activist in nature. This is true even in areas where the administration has exercised the most caution, such as the Middle East. Obama recommitted to U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, oversaw the Iranian nuclear deal, attacked al Qaeda and ISIS, and focused (albeit belatedly) on Syria by pushing hard for a diplomatic deal.

Although Obama deserves fair marks for his overall foreign policy record, his administration has made a series of critical strategic errors: it bungled the pivot to Asia, and it failed to regain the trust of Washington’s allies in the Gulf. Moreover, the overdue rebalance back to Europe failed to prevent Putin from outfoxing Western allies in Ukraine and Syria.  


If the Obama Doctrine gets a decent grade, the Trump Doctrine should fail before he gets a chance to put it into practice. His perspective on U.S. foreign policy is contradictory, confusing, and destined for the historical dustbin if enacted. For example, Trump has promised to restore “global peace,” rebuild the U.S. military, eliminate ISIS, contain “radical Islam,” and act as a reliable ally. At the same time, he has also promised to withdraw from NATO if allies do not take more responsibility for their own security. Moreover, Trump has referred to U.S. interventions in Iraq, Libya, and Syria as “disasters,” promising to “get out of nation building and focus instead on instituting stability everywhere.” 

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Spokane, Washington, U.S., May 7, 2016.
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Spokane, Washington, U.S., May 7, 2016.
Jake Parrish / Reuters
But Trump would not be able to get allies to spend billions on their own national defense easily. And even his closest foreign policy advisers would persuade him to remain in NATO. Plus, he would not be able to augment the number of troops or weapons systems used to fight ISIS and al Qaeda, even if he wanted to. His economic policies are highly unlikely to generate sufficient budget flexibility to pay for new troops and weapons systems while also spending billions on fighting extremist groups in the Middle East.

Despite rhetoric about “keeping the peace” and “rebuilding the military,” Trump’s foreign policy is not very activist. After all, he has made clarion calls against intervention. How it could do both at the same time remains unclear. If Trump is to make good on his claims, his foreign policy must undergo significant and painful changes. There is very little the Trump and Obama Doctrines have in common, with the sizable exception of using military tools to try to eradicate ISIS.


Clinton’s foreign policy may be the most sound of all three. Her policies are more robust than Obama’s on every major security challenge and are better positioned to help the United States secure favorable outcomes to a range of global conflicts. The world’s challenges require a determined use of U.S. leadership­, not isolationism. And in the areas where Obama’s restraint has failed, the more activist Hillary Clinton Doctrine (not to be confused with that of her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s doctrine of humanitarian intervention) could likely prevail.

The Hillary Clinton Doctrine would counter Russian aggression by strengthening the European Reassurance Initiative, which would permanently place larger amounts of allied troops and weaponry in eastern Europe. Obama’s ERI focused on the installation of equipment and modest, rotating brigades of multinational troops. Most important, the administration has failed to negotiate reciprocal commitments from its European allies. 

When the Free Syrian Army could legitimately have crippled Assad’s regime, Clinton favored creating a no-fly zone that would have facilitated the attack. This would have prevented Russia from entering the conflict and tipping its outcome in Assad’s favor, as well. She also called for a refugee safe zone, which could have stopped the migration crisis before it started. Had Obama supported regime change in Syria, Clinton would likely have helped orchestrate the UN’s biggest peacekeeping operation to date. This would have prevented ISIS from taking root in the country and could have led to a stable and successful transition of power. At any rate, the world would have likely avoided a prolonged civil war that has turned into a proxy battle that threatens Middle Eastern and European security alike. Even now, Clinton favors a no-fly zone and a refugee exclusion zone. Under her plan, NATO would guard the sky, Turkey would provide ground forces, the EU would oversee refugee zones, and the UN would monitor Syria’s diplomatic channels.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers a policy statement during a global conference to review the Biological Weapons Convention banning biological and toxic weapons, at the European headquarters of the United Nations (UN) in Geneva, Switzerland
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers a policy statement during a global conference to review the Biological Weapons Convention banning biological and toxic weapons, at the European headquarters of the United Nations (UN) in Geneva, Switzerland December 7, 2011. 
Martial Trezzini / Reuters
The former secretary of state received blame for mishandling the Benghazi siege, but her assessment of Libya’s challenges following the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi was nevertheless correct. It took nearly two years for Libya’s government and security apparatus to deteriorate. There was ample time for the international community to support a civilian stability operation that could have disarmed or disbanded the country's militias. Instead, Western allies failed to secure the peace after NATO’s successful military operation, and a civil-cum-proxy war gradually emerged. These forces also failed to prevent regime weapons from spreading across the region. This was the case in Mali, where arms helped propel a brutal conflict that ended only after a costly French intervention. As president, Clinton would refocus Washington’s attention on Libya—not only to root out ISIS training camps but to support the country’s coalition government as well. 

The Ukraine crisis provides another instance where Obama’s restraint proved costly. By failing to support Ukraine's fight against Russia, the Obama administration squandered the West’s opportunity to deter Moscow from future aggression. A Clinton administration, however, would have provided Ukraine with lethal weapons at the onset of the crisis. This would have prevented Russia from aiding separatist rebels in Crimea and could have made Putin think twice before intervening in Syria. Furthermore, her administration would not only raise the cost of Russian aggression and restore conventional deterrence in Europe, it would give the Ukrainian government a more complete set of tools that could help restore the country’s freedom from Moscow.

Obama missed opportunities to force allies to shoulder more of their own security responsibilities as well. The administration failed to renegotiate European military aid deals, which could have cajoled allies into providing more troops and weapons systems. Instead, the White House agreed upon two aid packages that have accomplished nothing in terms of allies shouldering more of their own defense. A Clinton administration would make allies more responsible for their own security through a measured, insistent approach of brokering significant U.S. commitments in exchange for significant European commitments. Clinton’s strategy would likely have a greater effect than Trump’s bullying, as our allies are already grousing about Trump’s presumptive nomination. 

Of course, the Clinton Doctrine doesn’t get perfect marks. She would have a hard time building sufficient support for her robust foreign policy platform among the American people. But her policies do offer promise, whereas Obama’s efforts and Trump’s incoherent policies come up short. 

Global instability is set to continue, and likely increase, after Obama leaves office. The next president will have a slim margin of error for solving these problems. But had the Clinton Doctrine been in place over the last four years, odds are that the United States could have kept Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council happy, deterred Putin from intervening in Syria, removed the Assad regime from power, and gotten the UN to shepherd a governance transition after his removal. Libya would have been a more stable (albeit struggling) country as well. In Asia, Washington would have seen Beijing’s hard-liners have less influence in Chinese affairs. And in Europe, Clinton could have made U.S. allies provide a greater share of their own security burden. Plus, a Clinton administration would have also been able to negotiate a successful nuclear deal with Iran. The number of security crises is more than likely to increase over the coming years, and the Clinton Doctrine is better equipped than that of Obama or Trump to deal with them.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now