Global Education

Former rivals put heads together on foreign policy

By Rebecca Goldstein
Published: December 2008

During the primary campaign, the foreign policy differences between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama seemed like a classic conflict between hawk and dove.

But with the campaign season over and the challenge of governance looming, Obama and Clinton have both changed their foreign policy tunes, and at the same time, the foreign policy challenges facing the President-elect have come into sharp focus.

The true tension in foreign policy is that between realism and idealism. Foreign policy realists favor strong relationships with nations in key strategic positions geographically, economically, and demographically, while idealists favor strong relationships with nations whose ideals reflect our own.

The Bush Administration has pursued a largely idealistic foreign policy, stressing the spread of democracy, the war on terror, and the fight against so-called “Islamofascism. Barack Obama’s is a much more realistic view, preferring to take a pragmatic approach to international counterterrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the War in Iraq.

In this context, the choice of Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State seems puzzling. As a “hawk, she supported the War in Iraq and has refused to apologize for that support and took a much harder line on Iran during the primary season. However, a primary campaign often becomes about candidates differentiating themselves from opponents who agree with most of their views, and it is likely that much of her “tough talk was a political move to distance herself from Obama, with whom she agreed on every major domestic issue.

Since the appointment, Obama and Hillary have both been careful to say that Obama will be making foreign policy and Hillary will be carrying it out.

Hillary is certainly qualified for the job. She commands respect from world leaders, many of whom she met either as First Lady or as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and she gave an oft-quoted speech at a women’s conference in China.

The staff she brings to the State Department will certainly be more hawkish and more seasoned than many of Obama’s foreign policy advisers, but they will likely be balanced out by foreign policy higher-ups such as Samantha Power, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author on genocide who famously called Hillary Clinton a “monster, and future United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, a longtime Obama supporter.

The proverbial “wild card in terms of Obama’s foreign policy, the factor whose specific effects will be unclear, is Obama’s overwhelming international popularity. From Paris to Beirut to Beijing, Obama is seen as heralding a new era of internationalism and cooperation. Will that make international policymaking easier at first? Probably. But high expectations can also lead to high levels of disappointment if the situations change in Iran, North Korea, or Russia and Obama decides to take a harder line, or if rapid troop withdrawal causes chaos in Iraq. All signs indicate that Obama’s foreign policy will be more popular than President Bush’s was, but as has often been said, the bar is quite low.

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