With most election forecasts pointing toward a victory for Hillary Clinton, her top advisers are beginning to think about how to stabilize a world that has been rocked by the presidential campaign and by recent reversals for U.S. power.
The paradox for the Clinton team, if it wins, will be how to signal continuity with an Obama administration in which many were involved, but also a tightening of U.S. policy so that the United States doesn’t appear on its “back foot” in dealing with Russia, China and other problems. Clinton would have to reassert American primacy amid what one member of her team describes as “an unusually large range of volatile situations” around the globe.
Asked for historical analogies to the current moment of global uncertainty and challenge, this adviser cites the periods immediately after the Vietnam War and the fall of the Soviet Union. In both cases, he says, the key to managing crises was “strategic initiative” from the United States. By actively managing U.S. diplomacy, Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker were able to shape events, even amid global instability.
Because Russia and China will be testing the United States, the first year of the next administration may see considerable friction around the world. Clinton would have the advantage that her team is well known to allies and adversaries, and probably wouldn’t make rookie mistakes. And they would be bound by the obligation to continue the unfinished business of destroying the Islamic State and fighting terrorism.
Should Clinton take office, her team sees rebuilding U.S. economic power as its essential first step. The first 100 days would see major fiscal initiatives to build infrastructure and stimulate investment, moves that should encourage slow-growing Europe and other allies.
“The world is looking to the U.S. to take command and accelerate economic demand,” says the first adviser. “Reinforcing our foundations at home is the most important thing we can do in terms of global alliances,” argues a second top member of Clinton’s team.
Jousting with Russia has already begun. Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin have a history of bad blood, which may be a factor in Russia’s covert hacking of Clinton campaign emails. To the Clinton camp, Putin’s recent machinations signal the end of the post-Cold War strategy of trying to integrate Russia into Western economic, political and security institutions. “Russia is not interested in integration,” insists the first adviser.
The first step in recontainment of Russia is bolstering a fragmented, shaky Europe. If Clinton is elected, her aides are telling European diplomats, she will seek a quick NATO summit to reaffirm that alliance. Clinton will similarly try to reassure other traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia that the United States is back. The message to Arab allies: “We will be a clear and predictable partner on Middle East security,” says the second adviser. As the Sunni nations become more confident, he notes, the United States could pursue diplomacy with Iran.
European security politics will be complicated by Brexit, which has quieted Europe’s most traditionally pro-U.S. voice. Clinton and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have a “deep bond of sympathy,” says one European diplomat. And the Clinton team’s desire for a tough Russia policy will be easier because economic sanctions against Moscow are all but certain to be maintained at a European Union summit in December.
Clinton’s advisers are already thinking hard about the Syria nightmare and how to rebuild Iraq, post-Islamic State. If she wins, her transition team is likely to start a quick “Syria Review Process” to develop options for the president-elect. The biggest challenge is how to make good on Clinton’s campaign promise to create “safe zones” in areas that aren’t controlled by the Syrian regime.
Asia policy may pose the trickiest test. Clinton’s team sees North Korea’s drive toward nuclear weapons as a failure of U.S. policy and potentially the biggest early crisis. The Clinton team would start by quick consultations with Japan and South Korea about strategy for dealing with Pyongyang. One goal would be economic sanctions as crippling as those that were imposed against Iran.
A President-elect Clinton would have a peculiar mixed message: She would want to show the world a tougher face, while simultaneously projecting continuity with Obama. Her words would be about change, but the music would be about the status quo. A victorious Clinton would try to move from the back foot to the front one — but that won’t be easy at a time when adversaries are trying to knock her over.
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