By Dr Mara Oliva

 As First Lady, Senator for New York and Secretary of State, the Democratic Presidential nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has a long foreign policy track record. She has travelled extensively, visiting more than 112 countries while at the State Department. If elected, she will have more foreign policy experience than any other President since Richard Nixon. Yet, such familiarity may not play in her favour.

Clinton is perceived as a military hawk, an advocate of US involvement in world affairs. She voted for the Iraq war as a Senator. As Secretary of State, she pushed for US intervention in Libya, lobbied President Obama to take military action against Bashar al- Assad in Syria and was an unenthusiastic supporter of the nuclear deal with Iran. In March 2016, she gave a major foreign policy speech to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (APAC) where she stated her support for Israel and completely ignored the plight of Palestinians.

She is also in the difficult position of having to distance herself from the decisions made by her husband and former President, Bill Clinton, (particularly those related to free trade deals – NAFTA was signed in 1994) as well as President Obama’s policy, without appearing to be rejecting her past and party.

As the primaries have shown us, an isolationist mood prevails in a large segment of the electorate today. Both the far right, represented by Donald Trump, and the far left, represented by Bernie Saunders, have been promising a retreat from globalisation in order to focus on domestic economic problems. If Hillary wants to win, she needs to reassure progressives, independents and liberal democrats (who have been voting in large numbers for Saunders during the primaries) that despite her record, she is willing to abandon, at least partially, her internationalist and interventionist foreign policy outlook.


Her first step in appeasing these groups is her open questioning of international trade agreements. Mrs Clinton (like Trump) has come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP), a trade deal she once championed as Secretary of State, having argued that it was a crucial point of America’s “pivot” to Asia.

But if history teaches us anything is that rejecting free trade and withdrawing into isolationism, not only fails to solve domestic economic problems, but also endangers national security. For more than 70 years, free trade has kept America in charge of world’s economy and it is essential to the survival of the American Way of Life.

The 1898 Spanish-American War put an end to the illusion that the US was a self-sufficient nation protected by two oceans and two friendly neighbours (Canada and Mexico). Coming out from a terrible economic recession caused by surplus production, the country finally realised that isolationism was self-defeating and it needed to take a bigger role in world affairs. Unsurprisingly, the main battle of “this splendid little war”[1] fought over Cuban independence took place in Manila, the Philippines, at the doorstep of the China market. One million customers could take care of American economic problems while learning about the American Way of Life and converting to Christianity. America’s informal empire was born, and under President Theodore Roosevelt, the country quickly turned into an industrial and naval power.

eagle usa

Very much like today, the country’s economic and international political standing was hit by the re-emergence of isolationist feelings in the 1920s and 1930s. American involvement in Europe had brought war in 1917 and unpaid debts throughout the 1920s. In 1929, the stock market crashed and each passing month brought greater hardships. Having grown weary with the course of world events, citizens were convinced that the most important issues to tackle were domestic.

President Hoover and his administration responded with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. The Act raised tariffs, provoked retaliation from the rest of the world, and exacerbated the Great Depression. It took FDR’s New Deal and the massive industrialisation generated by WWII to get America back on its feet. At the end of the conflict, the US emerged as the world’s strongest economy. Since then, it has played an active foreign policy role in order to prevent another economic downturn. Indeed, protecting access to free markets was the main reason why the US fought an almost 50 years long Cold War with the Soviet Union.

nytNew York Times, 1930

Without free trade the American way of Life cannot expand. And if it does not expand, it shrinks and eventually dies. As in the past, the US cannot afford to withdraw back to isolationism. Mrs Clinton needs to make sure that what she promises for immediate political gain during her campaign does not come back to haunt her, if she gets into the White House.

[1] Secretary of State John Hay’s description of the war

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