Ahead of Super Tuesday: Students Assess Candidate Positions on Foreign Policy

How would American presidential candidates reshape the foreign policy of the United States? Answers to this vital question are often lost in the morass of slogans and sound bites that pass for campaign debates. A group of Brown students, however, is seeking to follow the foreign policy views of each candidate.

These students are participants in a seminar called “Foreign Policy and the 2016 Presidential Election Campaign,” taught by Professor Stephen Kinzer. Part of their work is following candidates and assessing their positions on global issues. As these campaigns progress, the students will use #WatsonFollows2016 on social media to stay current on each candidate. In an effort to focus attention on the way candidates approach foreign policy, the Watson Institute presents their findings:

Republican Candidates

Ted Cruz favors “carpet bombing” ISIS “into oblivion.” Lines like that suggest that he favors strongly hawkish policies. So do his promises to rebuild the American military, and his insistence that the United States must lead the world. Cruz also pledges to reverse several of President Obama’s executive actions. He opposes offering a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and says he will renounce last year’s nuclear deal with Iran.

In fact, however, Cruz is not a traditional Republican hawk. He does not promote open-ended intervention overseas, and shapes his foreign policy around the principle of defending security at home. On his website, he asserts that the United States cannot retreat from the Middle East because “radical jihadists…are on the lookout for every opportunity to attack us here at home.” His focus on global enemies is a way to mask his relatively restrained stance. Rather than proposing or supporting sweeping plans for overseas military operations, he emphasizes the need to defend the American homeland.

John Kasich opposes intervening in the internal affairs of other states, particularly in civil wars, unless it benefits the United States. He asserts that nation-building is a task best left to local populations. His foreign policy is based less on idealism than on securing the national interests of the United States.

Kasich advocates a multilateral approach to global threats. To fight ISIS, he supports invoking Article 5 of the NATO charter, which allows for collective defense. He wants to promote cooperation among the intelligence services of various countries, which he says will aid in identifying and tracking terrorists. He supports deploying U.S. troops—“boots on the ground”—to the Middle East, but in collaboration with other nations.

Kasich supports the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. He wants to cooperate with China on trade and cyber-security issues, but also proposes increasing naval operations in the South China Sea. He says that although he would not have signed the Iran nuclear accord, he would not withdraw from it immediately. Instead he would prepare to re-impose sanctions on Iran if Iran violates the accord. This separates him from other Republican candidates. 

Marco Rubio promises “a new American century.” His neoconservative policies harken back to the George W. Bush presidency. He wants to restore military spending to Bush-era levels and is advised by former aides to Bush and Ronald Reagan. He stresses American strength, believes unabashedly in American “exceptionalism,” and promises to re-assert American leadership around the world.

Rubio, a first-term senator who sits on the Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees, favors expanding the Patriot Act in order to increase American intelligence capabilities. He voted to grant President Obama fast-track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He is open to an eventual path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Rubio sees foreign policy as a way not only to protect American interests, but also to promote democracy and human rights. He wants the United States to stand “on the side of freedom” in its dealings with China, and to give “unconditional support to Cuba’s pro-democracy movement.” He favors military intervention to oppose ISIS and depose President Bashar al Assad of Syria. His aggressive pursuit of worldwide democracy defines him as a unilateral-leaning interventionist.

In Donald Trump’s world, the U.S. “does not win anymore.” He wants to change that by intervening abroad only when U.S. interests or national security are directly threatened. Rather than become entangled in foreign conflicts, he promises to create a military “so powerful, so incredible, we are never going to have to use it.”

Trump takes a hard stance on immigration. He has proposed building a wall along the US-Mexico border to keep illegal immigrants out, and favors at least a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. This reflects his view that immigrants threaten America’s social fabric. He believes that favoring compassion over national security and financial concerns is reckless.

Trump has asserted that the Chinese have “manipulated and devalued their currency” and “destroyed entire industries” in the United States. He says he would leverage China’s dependency on the US market to press China to change its trade policies

Trump says he will expand the American prison at Guantanamo and authorize interrogation techniques “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” His national security proposals are dramatic in style but lack specificity.

Democratic Candidates

Bernie Sanders focuses mainly on domestic issues, but has strategies for dealing with America’s current foreign policy challenges. He opposes military intervention unless it is limited and has specific goals. In his view, “unilateral military action should be a last resort, not a first resort.” As an alternative, he emphasizes the need for diplomacy and working in coalitions. He supports the Iran nuclear deal and a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine. He wants to forge a Muslim-led coalition to defeat ISIS, and opposes efforts to block Syrian refugees from entering the United States.

Sanders opposes American-driven regime change. He voted against authorizing both the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. To finance his domestic programs, he would reduce spending on nuclear weapons and cut the military budget. He proposes closing the Guantanamo prison, banning torture, and limiting government surveillance programs.

Sanders believes the era of hegemonic powers is over. He opposes nation-building overseas and does not want the US to be “the world’s policeman.” Instead, he proposes to ensure America’s security through multilateral action, and to uphold American values in ways that would make it an example to others. 

Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy approach boils down to the exceptionalist argument that the world needs “American leadership.” She favors some form of American action in nearly every international conflict. Her approach, which she calls “smart power,” is to use a mix of military and diplomatic tools to accomplish American goals.

Clinton is generally more interventionist than President Obama. As secretary of state, according to her memoir, she pushed Obama to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, arm rebels in Syria, and support the overthrow of the Libyan government. She is also, however, a strong supporter of multilateral action, military or otherwise, and often used the United Nations to promote her diplomatic agenda.

Clinton’s foreign policy positions fall into mainstream neoconservative thinking—what some call “liberal interventionism.” Her strong focus on the importance of America’s role in the world, and America’s ability to improve it, melds liberal moral impulses with conservative hawkishness.

Students who compiled this report are: Deena Butt, Mackenzie Daly, Emma Dickson, Abraham Evans, Alison Flum, Lily Halpern, Olivia Hsu, Weiwei Liu, Kenneth Lusk, Nikhita Mendis, Matteo Mobilio, Tomas Navia, Katherine Pollock, Seth Rosenbauer, Lainie Rowland, Bernadette Stadler, Seito Yamamoto, and Daniel Ziring.