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Clinton and Trump: A Foreign Policy Primer

November 03, 2016
As we gear up for the next Presidential election, the Trade and Foreign Policy team of the Public Policy Initiative Student Group presents the central foreign policy proposals for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, broken down by several key functional and regional issues: Combatting Terrorism, Syrian Crisis and Migration Policy, Russia, and Military Spending.

Donald Trump

Combatting Terrorism

From “Making America Great Again,” to “Making America Safe Again,” Donald Trump has not failed to utilize rhetoric to amass support for his policies. In his discussion of the crisis in the Middle East, Trump has consistently maintained that its destabilization came as a direct result of President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s foreign policies as well as the initial decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Trump’s actual stances regarding the Middle East have varied from coming on strong during primary season, by promising to carry out an extensive bombing campaign of ISIS, to developing a multifaceted plan that involves a war on radical Islamic ideology, which was outlined in a speech he gave on August 15. His most recent stance has been developed in the course of the debates leading up to the election, where he has mentioned a strong American fight against ISIS: planning to involve NATO, our Middle Eastern allies, and even possibly Russia in the fight in order to relieve the U.S. of the role as the world’s “policeman”. In the first presidential debate he remarked, “I think we have to get NATO to go into the Middle East with us,” and in the third debate he even posited the possibility of a US-Russian coalition, “If Russia and the United States got along well and went after ISIS, that would be good.” Lastly, he has repeatedly called for international cooperation to cut off ISIS’s funding, expanded intelligence sharing, and the application of new sanctions against ISIS and its allies. In terms of Syria, Trump holds that “Syria is no longer Syria”v as he said in the second debate. His primary aims seem to focus around defeating ISIS, which will in turn begin to bring stability to the entire region. For, as Trump states, “We have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much more involved.”

Syrian Crisis & Migration Policy

Due to the drawn out conflicts in the Middle East, the world has been forced to confront the biggest refugee crisis since WWII. On the immigration front, Trump has been a vocal opponent of increasing immigration numbers, citing an influx of people from crisis zones such as Syria and Iraq as a threat to national security. His opinion has evolved from imposing a blanket ban on all Muslims from entering the country in December to his proposal in the second debate to implement a new system of “extreme vetting” on new immigrants in order to insure that they “share our values and respect our people.” Although Trump’s exact definition of this extreme vetting remains unclear, he has proposed screening tests as one means to achieve a secure border, which he again addressed during the second presidential debate. From the beginning of his campaign he has been outspoken against terror groups and those who espouse ideologies of hatred. He calls on Muslims to speak out against and report “radical Islamic terrorism” in order to prevent a “breeding ground for violence and terrorism to grow.” To target the refugee crisis within the Middle East, Trump has also proposed “safe zones,” which will allow form some inflow of refugees within the region itself; Trump suggested that the Gulf States provide funding to them during the second debate.


Trump breaks from typical Republican doctrine regarding actions in response to Russian aggression in Europe. Broadly speaking, the Republican candidate has expressed a more optimistic view of dealing with Russia than other leaders within the Republican or Democratic parties. In regards to incursions into Crimea, Trump has expressed little concern with Russian control over the territory. In fact, during an interview with ABC, Trump remarked “the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.” Moreover, Trump has taken a relatively uncommon position on the United States role in NATO in response to Russia, with his advocacy for cutting funding for the alliance, citing the high and disproportionate cost the United States accepts to fund the group as compared to other NATO members.

Military Spending

In order to follow through with all his military planning, Trump plans to increase military spending and has often lamented the fact that our military has decreased in size and capability. His main objection to the state of our military now is its failure to grow productively, while threats of Russia, Iran, and an expanding ISIS continue to invest in their respective militaries and nuclear programs. He highlights this goal on his website, mentioning in a press release on April 27th that “We will spend what we need to rebuild our military. It is the cheapest investment we can make. We will develop, build and purchase the best equipment known to mankind. Our military dominance must be unquestioned.” He has also highlighted the importance of expanding our country’s cyber warfare capabilities in order to eliminate ISIS’ rampant social media presence for recruitment purposes.

Clinton and Trump at one of this year's presidential debates

Clinton and Trump at one of this year’s presidential debates (Source: ABC News). 

Hillary Clinton

Combatting Terrorism

On the issue of ISIS, Hillary Clinton’s policies seem to be a continuation of those of President Obama in many ways, but also do involve important distinctions in certain aspects. One similarity between both leaders is that Hillary aims to continue and strengthen the coalition air assault that has consistently been taking place on ISIS leaders and infrastructure for some time now. The difference between the two here, however, rests in Clinton’s strong support of arming the Kurdish rebels, while Obama has refused to pursue this course of action. Although Turkey, a key ally, disagrees with armament, Clinton believes that the Kurds have the tactical ability to help defeat ISIS. Clinton, moreover, seeks to take back the land that was lost to ISIS using Iraqi ground forces that have been trained by American soldiers. Lastly, Clinton also plans on working toward a diplomatic solution to the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict in Iraq, which in her view is partially responsible for the rise of ISIS.

Syrian Crisis & Migration Policy

Another major area of policy interest involves the Syrian Civil War, wherein ISIS has accumulated large amounts of land and influence in what was once a stable region. Clinton has stated that she plans on ordering a full review of US policy on Syria as a “first key task” for her administration. One of the agenda items Clinton aims to accomplish is the implementation of safe zones on the ground for civilians. To do this, she calls for a “no fly zone,” which will ensure these safe zones are actually safe from air bombardments. Although creating these no fly zones, carries the risk of escalating the conflict with both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Russian and Iranian governments, Clinton has not backed down from her position; she supports her policy for humanitarian reasons, as well as due to her belief that a no fly zone would provide the United States with much needed leverage in negotiations and thus help hasten an end to the conflict in Syria. Moreover, a byproduct of the Syrian conflict is the refugee crisis that has and continues to take place. The entire world has been gripped by the question of what to do with these refugees. Clinton has said she would support admitting about 65,000 new Syrian refugees to the country.  She has consistently stated that every migrant let in would undergo intense vetting, stating “we should only let people into this country after we have thoroughly screened them, no matter how long it takes and no matter, you know, what the pressure might be to act more quickly.”


The issue of how to deal with Russia has become one of the hot button topics of this campaign, as diplomatic ties and power struggles within the Middle East in particular have incited a renewed interest into Russo-American relations. This issue has come to the forefront of the election as Trump has touted his willingness to ally with Russia; Clinton, on the other hand, has reaffirmed her belief that Russian president Vladimir Putin is a “bully”. Regardless of who becomes the next U.S. President, collaboration between the two countries will be necessary, particularly in the Middle East where support from Russia is necessary to accomplish foreign policy goals, such as putting an end to the Syrian Civil War. Although Trump has traditionally seen in this election as the one interested in teaming up with Russia, Clinton has been reminding voters of the time she built “a coalition that included Russia and China to impose the toughest sanctions on Iran.” The idea here is that Clinton could use her prior experience to create a similar coalition to help fight ISIS. Her plan seems to be a bit more nuanced than her opponent’s, as she has clarified that a cooperative bombing of ISIS is conditional on the promise that Russia stop attacking other groups who are fighting both ISIS and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Russia supports. Furthermore, while Clinton sees the idea of working with Russia as temporarily viable she does not see a relationship working in the long term. 

Military Spending

Clinton’s position on Russia is intertwined with her stance on NATO in general. In a democratic presidential debate, Clinton replied to the statement that “Russia is the most important national security threat” by stating that Russia is putting constant pressure on our European allies and “we’ve got to do more to support our partners in NATO, and we have to send a clear message to Putin that this kind of belligerence will have to be responded to.” She is both slightly more hawkish on Putin and entirely more supportive of NATO than her opponent in this year’s presidential election. Trump believes that NATO is too costly and ought to be dissolved, while Clinton declares, “NATO… is one of the best investments America has ever made” and it is key in opposing Russian expansion. In a speech at Stanford University on March 23 of this year, Clinton affirmed, “NATO allies have fought alongside the United States, sharing the burdens and the sacrifices.” She believes the U.S. ought to do more to strengthen those allies, especially against Russia, and be prepared to support them the way they supported the U.S. after the September 11th attacks. In response to Trump, she asserted, leaving NATO would embolden Russia. Furthermore, Clinton strongly disagrees with the accusation that NATO expansion either caused or exacerbated Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in early 2014. She wrote about it in her book Hard Choices; imagine, she proposed, “how much more serious the crisis would be… to contain further Russian aggression if Eastern and Central European nations were not now NATO allies. The NATO door should remain open, and we should be clear and tough-minded in dealing with Russia.”

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