Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has long been in the spotlight dealing with foreign policy issues, most notably as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state. A hawkish Democrat, during her tenure at the State Department Clinton backed the surge in Afghanistan in 2009, regime change in Libya, the raid into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden and the administration’s pivot to Asia to counter Chinese influence. While serving in the Senate, she famously voted in favor of the Iraq War — something she now says was a mistake based on intelligence at the time.
For those seeking insight into Clinton’s foreign policy stances through her past positions, there is plenty in the public sphere to examine thanks to her recent stint as secretary of state and her time as a U.S. senator from 2001 to 2009, particularly her work on the Armed Services Committee.
Even before that, however, as first lady in the 1990s, Clinton lent heft to the largely ceremonial role. At a 1995 Beijing women’s conference hosted by the U.N., she famously declared that “women’s rights are human rights,” foreshadowing her focus on the issue.
During Clinton’s 2009 nomination hearing to be secretary of state, she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “We must use what has been called ‘smart power,’ the full range of tools at our disposal — diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural — picking the right tool or combination of tools for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy.”
Clinton basked in high approval ratings during her tenure as Obama’s secretary of state after losing the Democratic presidential nomination to him in 2008. She applied her wonky work ethic to the job, hopscotching around the globe to visit over 110 countries spanning nearly 1 million miles. She also elevated the profile of women in world affairs, making gender equality a central element of U.S. foreign policy (during her trips abroad, she often made it a point to talk with women farmers, students, business owners and activists, among many others).
Since then, however, her record has been tarnished by pervasive questions over her use of a private email server while at State. Although the FBI decided not to pursue criminal charges over the matter, the flap has added to doubts over the candidate’s trustworthiness and potential conflicts of interest with the Clinton Foundation, the charitable venture run by the Clintons that aims to improve global development.
Clinton has also been dogged by the controversy surrounding the 2012 terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. While several costly, Republican-led investigations on Capitol Hill never uncovered a “smoking gun” linking Clinton to security lapses that contributed to the Islamist-inspired attack on the lightly guarded mission, the tragedy continues to haunt her.
Benghazi has provided endless fodder for Clinton’s more zealous right-wing critics on the campaign trail. Beyond the largely discredited conspiracy theories, however, experts continue to debate whether Clinton abandoned Libya too soon after pushing for an intervention, exacerbating the country’s descent into chaos.
While she has advocated for military interventions in the past — in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, for example, she supported airstrikes to stanch the bloodletting in the Balkans — Clinton’s worldview, like her rival Donald Trump’s, doesn’t neatly fit into one box. (She sided with Pentagon officials who wanted a more aggressive response to North Korea’s missile tests in the region, for instance, while spearheading a historic diplomatic opening with the military regime in Myanmar.)
An antiwar liberal activist in college, Clinton developed strong relationships with top military brass as secretary of state. In addition to her hawkish bent, she has also embraced an internationalist approach. She argues that America must nurture its alliances, engage in robust diplomacy and uphold a rules-based international order to promote stability, democracy and economic development. She has combined hard-nosed realism with the idealism that underpins American exceptionalism — asserting that the U.S., as the world’s “indispensable nation,” is a “force for progress, prosperity and peace.”
But looking beyond her past record, what is Clinton running on now?
Clinton’s website — which features 38 different policy proposals totaling over 100,000 words — emphasizes her strategies for ensuring that America is “stronger at home” while supporting its allies, from NATO to Israel.
She touts her “comprehensive plan” to defeat the Islamic State, which calls for taking out the terrorist group’s stronghold in Iraq and Syria on the battlefield with an intensified coalition air campaign and increased support for local forces on the ground.
“We will surge our intelligence so that we detect and prevent attacks before they happen. We will disrupt their efforts online to reach and radicalize young people in our country. It won’t be easy or quick, but make no mistake — we will prevail,” the candidate said during her speech at the Democratic National Convention in July.
In 2012, she reportedly advocated for an expanded program to arm vetted Syrian rebels, which was rejected by Obama but embraced two years later. Since then, she has blamed the president for failing to create a credible fighting force early in the war that could’ve challenged Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Clinton admits that equipping rebels runs the risk of simply adding to the glut of weapons already flowing into Syria. But she insists that training the rebels is the “least bad option among many even worse alternatives” — not only because it might help defeat Assad’s forces, but also because it could prevent the Islamic State from finding safe haven in the country’s ungoverned spaces.
The U.S. must also work with European countries to improve intelligence sharing and counterterrorism coordination, according to Clinton.
“There is much we can do to support our European partners: helping them improve intelligence and law enforcement, facilitating information sharing, working more closely at every level. There’s also more they can do to share the burden with us. We’d like to see more European countries investing in defense and security, following the example of Germany and others have set during the Obama administration,” she said in March after the terrorist attacks in Brussels. “The most urgent task is stopping the flow of foreign fighters to and from the Middle East.”
On that note, she has spoken out against “offensive, inflammatory rhetoric that demonizes all Muslims,” arguing that it could alienate law-abiding Muslims and help breed resentment and radicalism.
“There are millions of peace-loving Muslims living, working, raising families and paying taxes in this country. These Americans are a crucial line of defense against terrorism. They are the most likely to recognize the warning signs of radicalization before it’s too late, and the best positioned to block it,” she said in March.
On immigration, which has emerged as one of 2016’s most contentious issues, Clinton has called it a “clear, high priority for my administration.” She has advocated for comprehensive immigration legislation — akin to Obama’s 2007 legislation, which died in the Senate — and claims she will introduce a plan within her first 100 days. Her legislative proposal, which would likely hinge on Democrats winning Congress in November as well, involves creating a path to citizenship; ending the three- and 10-year bars on people who have stayed in the U.S. illegally and then attempt to return legally; and promoting naturalization by lowering costs and increasing access to language programs.
“I think it’s important that we move to our comprehensive immigration reform, but at the same time, stop the raids, stop the round-ups, stop the deporting of people who are living here doing their lives, doing their jobs, and that’s my priority,” the Democratic candidate said at a debate in March.
Clinton says she will improve ties with Cuba, following Obama’s rapprochement with the communist island, and work with Congress to lift the trade embargo.
She has also appealed for the United States to take more refugees from Syria (the State Department recently announced that it hit its goal of admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees for fiscal 2016, though that is still a fraction of the estimated 4.8 million who have fled the country).
“Look, we’re facing the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II, and I think the United States has to do more,” Clinton told CBS’s “Face the Nation” in September last year. “I would like to see us move from what is a good start with 10,000 to 65,000 and begin immediately to put into place the mechanisms for vetting the people that we would take in.”
On Iran, another country that has emerged as a crucial foreign policy flashpoint in 2016, Clinton said she supports the Iran nuclear deal but will hold the Islamic republic to account for noncompliance. Clinton, who was not secretary of state when the nuclear deal was finalized, has noted that she “put together the coalition to impose sanctions” against Iran during the early part of Obama’s administration — something that supporters of the accord say helped force Tehran to the bargaining table.
“My approach will be distrust and verify,” she said of the deal last September. “We should anticipate that Iran will test the next president. They’ll want to see how far they can bend the rules. That won’t work if I’m in the White House.”
Russia, meanwhile, has also taken center stage in this year’s election. Clinton, as secretary of state, in 2009 led the “reset” to spur cooperation and strengthen diplomatic ties with America’s former Cold War-era adversary. Clinton symbolically presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a big red button featuring a translation error of “reset” to herald the announcement of the hoped-for thaw in relations.
The “reset” effort has not aged well, from Russia’s annexation of Crimea to its meddling in Ukraine, for instance. And Clinton, whose party has been beset by hacking incidents that some experts have linked to Russia, has called Trump’s praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin “scary.”
Clinton’s website insists she will “stand up” to Putin.
“Hillary has gone toe-to-toe with Putin before, and she’ll do it again. She’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with our European allies and push back on and deter Russian aggression in Europe and beyond, and increase the costs to Putin for his actions,” her website policy page on national security states.
In response to Russia, Clinton has advocated for strengthening the alliance with NATO, which she praised in March as “one of the best investments America has ever made. From the Balkans to Afghanistan and beyond, NATO allies have fought alongside the United States, sharing the burdens and the sacrifices.”
She also hit back on Trump’s vow to force NATO allies to pony up more resources before guaranteeing the U.S. would come to their defense. “Turning our back on our alliances — or turning our alliance into a protection racket — would reverse decades of bipartisan American leadership and send a dangerous signal to friend and foe alike,” Clinton said during a speech.
A known entity, Clinton has won backing from a number of establishment Republicans and top military officials concerned about Trump’s inexperience and temperament in the foreign policy arena.
Yet Clinton is also a career politician — and she has left behind a trail of shifting positions on foreign policy to prove it. Armed with a hawkish though nuanced approach, Clinton has sought to present herself to voters as a stable and dependable leader in a profoundly unsettled world. Questions though continue to swirl over her past record and how her sometimes-controversial tenure as secretary of state could translate to the presidency.
But with a campaign caught flatfooted at times by Trump’s ability to drive the daily conversation — whether over the candidate’s health or her honesty — the Clinton camp has taken on a tenor of trading blows instead of policy proposals. It remains to be seen what more Clinton will offer up before votes are cast in November.
About the Author
Mackenzie Weinger (@mweinger) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.