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PS21 Report: What Would a Hillary Clinton Foreign Policy Look like?

Likely a more assertive, American exceptionalist foreign policy

Personal relationships with other leaders more central than under Obama

Like all White House incumbents, would have limited bandwidth. Other appointments important

Asia pivot would continue to be challenged by Mideast, Europe events

Mideast peace process seen unfinished business by Clintons

Gender less important than persona, reputation

On Thursday, June 4, 2015, PS21 held a discussion on What would a Hillary Clinton foreign policy look
like? It will hold a further discussion later in the year on a likely Republican approach to foreign affairs.
A full transcript of the event can be found here and video here.
Participants were speaking as individuals rather than as representatives of institutions.
Ali Wyne (moderator): PS21 Global Fellow. Member of the adjunct staff, RAND Corporation
Ari Ratner: PS21 Governing Board Member. Fellow, New America. Former State Department political
appointee 2009-12
Leigh ONeill: Policy Director, Truman National Security Project
Warren Strobel: Chief Diplomatic Correspondent, Reuters
Key Takeaways
American foreign policy tends to oscillate between a more muscular, approach and a more modest
pullback. A Clinton presidency or, for that matter, a Republican one would likely see a more
assertive approach than that pursued by the Obama administration.

Ratner: In many respects, shes just a tougher person, I say that with pride and its no criticism of the
President, but Hillary is tough. Thats a very commendable quality in a leader and its something that will
serve America well on the global stage if she ends up being president.
In some ways a broader, less nuanced and more ideological approach. In August 2014, Clinton
told The Atlantic: Great nations need organising principles and dont do stupid stuff is not an
organising principle (this appeared to be reference to one of Obamas reported foreign policy
In her most recent book Hard Choices, Clinton said she was more persuaded them ever before but it
was Americas duty and rolled to lead in the world.
Strobel: I think its fairly clear from Clintons history and her rhetoric that shes an American
exceptionalist which is the mainstream of US foreign policy. She says America has a unique role to
play and the world is better off because of that.
A tougher line on selected issues, a broader approach on others.
ONeill: Its a balance of what shes going to have to inherit and deal with and wants to push forward
herself. I dont think theres any question she would be tough but also open to resolving some of these
major questions.
Strobel: I think there will be a slight course correction towards a more muscular attitude on things like
Syria. Shes said that and she writes that. I think there will be a lot more personality in foreign policy.
I think shell bring the soft diplomacy stuff to bear, a lot of the economic stuff. I think its harder for the
president to do soft diplomacy womens issues, Internet freedom, etc. Its easier for a Secretary of
State to lead on those issues that the president who is much busier. But I do think that will be part of that
As Secretary of State, Clinton travelled more than 1,000,000 miles, further than most others. The
nature of the period threw her to the front on multiple foreign policy issues. In particular, she often
prioritised going to a place and meeting people in person.
With foreign leaders, her personal relationships may be more important than in the Obama
ONeill: I think she deserves a lot of credit for being able to recognise that it would take star power,
genuine star power to arrive in some of our partner nations and supposing friends and repair relationships
(after the Bush administration).
Her influence on major policy issues under Obama, however, was limited.
Strobel: She was Secretary of State under Obama, an administration in which who was Secretary of State
and Secretary of Defense frankly didnt matter that much. Im exaggerating a little for effect but its
really about five people who really make most of the major foreign policy decisions: Obama, Ben Rhodes
(speechwriter now deputy national security adviser), Susan Rice (National Security Adviser), Dennis
McDonough, Valerie Jarrett.

Thats not to say Hillary was inconsequential Secretary of State. It is only to say its very difficult to have
a huge impact in this administration if youre Hillary Clinton.
Should she reach the White House, however, she will face many of the same pressures.
Ratner: the President has a very limited bandwidth for what they can do in the world and make the
strategic framework at the highest level. There will be lots of efforts through social media as there is
with President Obama to reach out to a diverse cross-section of people and it certainly true she will
pursue personal diplomacy more. Thats the type of leader she is. But shell be taken up with a lot of
There will almost certainly be a considerable crossover between domestic and foreign policy.
Ratner: There is an old saying that politics stops at the waters edge. Thats certainly not true anymore.
The fundamental principle that she talked about, the sense of crisis, collapsing faith in institutions is
something you see not only quite startlingly in this country, you see it in many countries around the
world. The first part of foreign policy and you saw this at the State Department is that we need to
get our own house in order politically, economically, restore that sense of opportunity and progress thats
been the guiding principle of our nation since its inception. How we look to the world is much more
important than whether we have one additional F-16 or naval carrier.
She will probably bring across many of her previous colleagues at State. Michele Flournoy is widely
seen front runner for the Pentagon, although Ashton Carter may stay in role initially. There is less
clarity over State.
Ratner: It will matter who her Secretary of State is and the Secretary of Defense. The reality is from
State Department she had a very talented team. Im talking about people well above my level like Jake
Sullivan, who is probably going to be her National Security Adviser.
She will likely pursue a somewhat tougher approach with potential adversaries such as Iran or
ONeill: There is a tremendous amount of continuity in that she knows the world. She understands the
actors. She understands the context, she understands the characters and not just the relationship bilaterally
but also the need for contacts, the character of the state and how to be effective
I think the underlying theme is: of course you talk to your adversaries. Maybe not directly. Maybe there
is a timing and sequencing issue depending on the context but you cant just will things to happen as the
US. We tried that for years. It did not work.
I dont think theres any question that she would be tough but open to resolving some of these major
Again, personal relationships will be key.
Strobel: Its funny. Obama was elected to office in large part on the basis of his personality and his
personal history, charisma. People loved him all over the world. Over time, it has become clear he doesnt

have close personal relationships with almost any other world leader. Thats just not how he operates. Im
not saying they hate each other, but he just doesnt build any bonds with selected leaders.
Two things stand out (from Clintons time at State): her breadth of travel and knowledge of leaders, even
at the local level and NGOs. Her network is amazing. She compares very favourably in some ways to
John Kerry in the sense that Kerry has a reputation for not always connecting with his staff and not
empowering people.
The next president will inherit a complex world. In Asia, relations with China are struggling. There
may or may not be a deal with Iran but the rest of the Middle East is in a poor state. The reset
with Russia has headed in an entirely unpleasant direction. Many of Americas allies have real
worries but also have their own confrontations and may bring with them real dangers.
Ratner: One of the difficult thing shes going to have to balance is not only how to engage our
adversaries but our alliances. A lot of wars have got started by smaller states dragging in bigger states.
Shes really going to have to strike the right balance. Its very difficult.
There is some truth in the reality that the US is in a weaker position than it was, certainly during the last
Clinton administration, by most measures you can look at. I think she will be tougher in a lot of ways,
especially public diplomacy. But the country as a whole is in a weaker position than we would like it to
In a 2007 Foreign Affairs article, Clinton was an early identifier of the growing importance of the
China relationship. The Middle East, however, will continue to take a very large volume of time.
She may also, some suspect, put a higher priority on the Middle East peace process perhaps the
most important takeaway from her husbands presidency.
Strobel: I dont know but I strongly suspect that for Secretary Clinton and President Bill Clinton that is
unfinished business. They came into office not really knowing much about foreign affairs, frankly. They
made a few mistakes early with Somalia though that was carried over from Bush 41. They made some
mistakes dealing with other issues that over time they grew and they put a huge effort into IsraeliPalestinian Peace and ultimately the Camp David accord.
I think that is formative for her and that she would try to restart the Middle East peace process in a serious
While it might be an issue in the election, gender may be less of a factor when it comes to
international relationships. Persona may be more important.
ONeill: Of course shes tough. Shes beyond gender. Shes Hillary Clinton and she did not get that by
being sugary sweet all the time. Thats not how it goes. I think, by far, all the accumulated experiences
she has had it deserves to be said that she is the most qualified. I think she understands how to be
Ratner: I hope the country is ready. The country should be ready. The question of whether she will be
challenged because shes a woman is an interesting academic question but she still Hillary Clinton. If

Im Vladimir Putin, Im way more scared of Hillary Clinton and I am Marco Rubio. She has a lot more
credibility, of course, a lot more temper and knows what shes doing a lot more than Jeb Bush might.
Report compiled by Peter Apps. Transcript by Christopher Stephens