Mrs. Clinton’s secretive foreign policy


The Democratic and Republican parties have now chosen their candidates for the presidential election to be held on November 8. The winner will take office at noon on January 20. In the coming weeks, the Vimy Report will be posting a number of backgrounders on the election and the candidates. Following is the first.

The Clinton record

Hillary Clinton has been in politics a very long time – something like 40 years. One of her first jobs was working on the Watergate hearings. Next, she was the activist wife of the Attorney General of Arkansas (1977 to 1979) and of the Governor of Arkansas (1979 to 1981, 1983 to 1992) and of the President of the United States (1993 to 2001). And then she was the Senator from New York (2001 to 2009) and the US Secretary of State (2009 to 2013). So there is a lengthy record to draw on in trying to understand how she sees the world and how she might conduct US foreign policy if elected president.

Clinton’s two terms in the Senate overlapped with those of George W. Bush in the White House, and she was in the thick of the controversies of the time. According to her biographer, Carl Bernstein, in A Woman in Charge, Clinton had her eye on the White House the whole time. She resolved to use her tenure in the Senate to dispose of voters’ concerns about a woman becoming commander-in-chief by burnishing her credentials as a “defence intellectual, muscular in her approach, a master of the arcana of policy, weaponry, and strategy”.

Her major test was the war in Iraq. She voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq “because bipartisan support for this resolution makes success in the United Nations more likely, and therefore, war less likely, and because a good faith effort by the United States, even if it fails, will bring more allies and legitimacy to our cause”. As the war went badly, Clinton shifted her position. “If I had known then what we know now … I would never have voted to give the president the authority”. It was a shift many others made, but how she managed it became a political problem once she announced her candidacy for president in January 2007. By then she was arguing that she had never expected the Bush administration to use the Congressional authorization to go to war, only to get UN inspectors back into Iraq – and that National Security Adviser Condi Rice had personally guaranteed this. Rice disputed this.

Quoting a Democratic colleague in the Senate who admired her, Bernstein writes that Clinton’s handling of the war issue “subjected her to the kind of broader examination that she wasn’t expecting. It put her in the position of looking backward, not forward, of caving to conventional wisdom instead of moving in the direction of new leadership, new ideas, being bold … The war revealed something about her that she may not be able to get past: the idea that she is a throwback to another time, that she is looking like a tired version of herself”.

Clinton also has her admirers from her time at the State Department. A common theme has been that she was a pragmatist in foreign policy and much less ideological than President Obama or those in his White House and NSC entourage, a kindred spirit with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – both of whom have lauded her publicly. According to writer James Traub in Foreign Policy, Clinton was “always on the bleak side of the spectrum of opinion” about the “reset” with Russia and what could be gained from it. She was in the “realist camp” on the “pivot” to Asia and the establishment of the “strategic and economic dialogue with China”.  She thought Obama was naive about the Arab Spring and foolish to abandon Mubarak. And she held out little hope that any new US-led peace initiative would help to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.

In The Dispensable Nation, Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins University, an expert on Iran who served briefly as an advisor in the State Department, described Clinton as “the lone voice making the case for diplomacy”. Others, however, have pointed out that she was not averse to the use of force, particularly if she thought it could help to bolster diplomacy. One example was Libya where she was successful in convincing the White House to mount a NATO military mission to protect Libyan rebels threatened by Gaddafi, which led to the dictator’s demise; another was Syria where her advocacy of the use of force did not succeed and Assad stayed on to bring wreckage to an entire region.

In summing up his assessment of Clinton’s term as Secretary of State, Traub writes that he could find few current or former Administration officials who could cite “specific accomplishments in specific places”. For the most part, what they flagged were Clinton’s contributions to the “restoration of America’s image abroad … her emphasis on non-traditional issues, her faith in diplomacy”.

Outside the administration, there were those who found fault with her behaviour as distinct from her policies as Secretary of State. Many were appalled by her use of private e-mail accounts for top secret communications (FBI Director Comey cited “evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information” but curiously did not recommend prosecution). On her watch, the American ambassador to Libya and three other officials were murdered by Islamist terrorists. And there were persistent reports foreign governments and corporations had donated to the Clinton Foundation in return for favours present and future. The Washington Post has reported that, in the fall of 2015, the State Department issued a subpoena to the foundation for “documents about the charity’s projects that may have required approval from the federal government during Hillary Clinton’s term as secretary of state”.

Clinton on the campaign trail

If Clinton’s record in office turns out not to be especially enlightening or encouraging about how she would conduct US foreign policy if elected president, what she has said on the subject during the current presidential campaign doesn’t clarify things much. For the most part, Clinton has limited her public pronouncements to enunciating general principles that would guide her actions, rather than describe what those actions might be. To the extent that she has devoted any time to foreign affairs, it has been to criticize her opponent.

The one speech Clinton has delivered (so far) devoted to foreign policy, on June 2, was an extended critique of what she portrayed as Donald Trump’s positions. Writing in the Washington Post, Daniel Drezner of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy described it as almost impossible to analyze because it was all about Trump. “Politicians ranging from Bernie Sanders to Marco Rubio could have said 95 percent of that speech without any alterations whatsoever.”

In the speech, Clinton declared that her foreign policy would be driven by six principles:

  1. We need to be strong at home.
  2. We need to stick with our allies.
  3. We need to embrace all the tools of American power, especially diplomacy and development.
  4. We need to be firm but wise with our rivals.
  5. We need a real plan for confronting terrorism.
  6. We need to stay true to our values.

She explained briefly the rationale for each, but did not lay out anything like a platform of measures she would take in each case. What she did do in each case was to decry how she believed Trump would deal with them. Her overall view:

Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different – they are dangerously incoherent. They’re not even really ideas – just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds and outright lies. He is not just unprepared – he is temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility. This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes – because it’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into war just because somebody got under his very thin skin.

clinton trump unfit 1

clinton trump unfit 2

clinton-obama trump unfitClinton’s acceptance speech at her party’s national convention on July 28, traditionally the occasion when presidential candidates outline why they are running and what they hope to achieve, was even less illuminating on her foreign policy intentions. She covered just four points very briefly.

Clinton described the international security situation facing the United States as replete with “threats and turbulence”. “From Baghdad and Kabul, to Nice and Paris and Brussels, to San Bernardino and Orlando, we’re dealing with determined enemies that must be defeated.” To defeat ISIS, she said:

We will strike their sanctuaries from the air, and support local forces taking them out on the ground. We will surge our intelligence so that we detect and prevent attacks before they happen. We will disrupt their efforts online to reach and radicalize young people in our country. It won’t be easy or quick, but make no mistake – we will prevail.

On all other international issues, Clinton devoted just three sentences:

I’m proud that we put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program without firing a single shot – now we have to enforce it, and keep supporting Israel’s security. I’m proud that we shaped a global climate agreement – now we have to hold every country accountable to their commitments, including ourselves. I’m proud to stand by our allies in NATO against any threat they face, including from Russia.

What Clinton did do at length in her acceptance speech was take issue with her opponent’s perspective on the world and fitness for high office. What Donald Trump wanted to do, she said, was “divide us – from the rest of the world, and from each other … He wants us to fear the future and fear each other”. Well, she said, FDR had had the perfect rebuke: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Americans, she said, were clear-eyed about what their country was up against but they were not afraid. They would rise to the challenge. They would not “build a wall”, they would not “ban a religion”, they would work with their allies to fight and defeat terrorism. The United States was not weak, it was strong. It had the “most powerful military”. It would say “no” to unfair trade deals and “stand up to China”.

Reprieving themes from her June 2 speech, Clinton questioned whether Trump had “the temperament” to be Commander-in-Chief. “Imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis. A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons”. In contrast, she herself would be a Commander-in-Chief who relied on “smarts, judgment, cool resolve, and the precise and strategic application of power”.


Clinton is navigating a difficult course between defending the record of an administration she was a member of and laying out an independent position of her own going into the election. While liberals and conservatives will disagree over the success Obama achieved in foreign policy, the achievements the administration itself points to have not given Clinton much to build on. During the 2012 election, Obama placed great emphasis on his success in the war on Islamist terrorism: “Al Qaeda is on the run and Osama bin Laden is dead”. But in 2016 Clinton has had to lay out a strategy to defeat ISIS. The United States “put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program”, Clinton says, but now it must be enforced. There is a global climate agreement, but now the signatories must be held “accountable to their commitments”. Clinton had her reservations about the “reset” with Russia and the “pivot” to Asia, with cause as it turned out, but it would be difficult for her politically to disavow them in mid-election.

So it can be argued that vilifying her opponent is sensible strategy. But it leaves the world in the dark about her foreign policy.



Paul H. Chapin

Paul Chapin is Executive Editor of The Vimy Report. During a 30-year career in the Canadian foreign service, he served in Tel Aviv, Moscow, at NATO, and in Washington where he was head of the political section. He can be reached at

Comments are closed.