Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton covered a lot of ground in their first debate, but there were several foreign policy issues that deserve a closer look. On these questions, the next president will have some hard choices to make.
This is an issue where Trump forcefully pressed his case. He expressed disgust for both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), in force for the past 20 years, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Congress has yet to ratify. Clinton defended both her early-stage support for TPP and her current opposition to the deal as written. This election season has generated a sharp shift in the U.S. on trade policy at the highest levels. Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders galvanized his party’s grassroots opposition to trade deals. More strikingly, Trump’s outspoken opposition to NAFTA and TPP has transformed large segments of the once pro-trade Republican Party into populist trade skeptics. Despite that, 59 percent of Americans say that international trade is good for the U.S. economy, and 57 percent say it’s good for U.S. companies.
Trump says he does not oppose trade; just the poorly negotiated deals of the past. Clinton has hinted that TPP can still be “fixed,” though persuading Congress and the 11 TPP partner countries that her fixes make for a good deal will be a formidable challenge. TPP is unlikely to pass Congress on Barack Obama’s watch. The next president will have to make a firm decision on whether TPP and other deals under negotiation will create more jobs than they cost—and whether trade offers political and security benefits as well as economic gains.
Among the most important questions in last night’s debate: “Tell us specifically how you would prevent homegrown attacks by American citizens.” It’s no surprise that ISIS has become a central campaign issue, but most of the commentary from Trump and Clinton has focused on defeating ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria. That’s an important part of any counter-terrorism strategy, but it doesn’t solve the problem of ISIS influence on those living inside the United States—as well as countries in the Middle East, Europe,and Southeast Asia at much higher risk of attack. A study released by the George Washington University’s Program of Extremism in December 2015 identified at least 300 Americans with ISIS-sympathies on social media. As Orlando showed, it only takes one disturbed person to cause mayhem.
Clinton raised two important points. The next president will have to work with the governments of Muslim countries and Muslim communities inside the United States to give law enforcement its best chance of finding homegrown terrorists before they act. And efforts to defeat ISIS in cyber space are enormously important. But Trump is right that while the Obama administration is focused on doing these things, ISIS attacks continue. Clinton may have the right answer, but the threat posed by ISIS and other groups can never be completely eradicated. The next president will have to reckon with the military, intelligence and law enforcement challenges all at once.
3. Nuclear Weapons
Last night’s debate demonstrated that the U.S.-led nuclear deal with Iran remains a hot political topic. Clinton probably scored points by forcing Trump to defend comments that it will be cheaper for the U.S. if Japan, South Korea, and “even Saudi Arabia” get their own nuclear weapons. But the next president will probably have to make some tough choices on North Korea, which just conducted its fifth-ever nuclear test a couple weeks ago and is inching closer to developing long-range nuclear weapons. Clinton didn’t mention that country at all. Trump mentioned it only to urge China to “go into North Korea” and to complain that Iran isn’t using its influence in Pyongyang to help.
President Clinton or Trump will face a problem that George W. Bush didn’t have in Iraq: North Korea may take action that forces a military response, and it can defend itself with a nuclear capacity and one of the world’s largest standing armies. In the case of conflict or an implosion of the North Korean regime, coordination with China will be crucial to safely secure North Korea's nuclear weapons. North Korea is not a problem that can solved with firepower and a strong will alone. The next president will also need first-rate intelligence gathering, patience, discipline, and diplomatic skill.
Most of last night’s Russia discussion centered on Clinton’s charge that Russians are hacking U.S. websites, including the Democratic National Committee, compromising U.S. national security and attempting to sabotage the election. Trump, who has taken criticism from Democrats for praise of Vladimir Putin’s leadership (leadership that has at least endeared him to 82 percent of the Russian population), shrugged off the accusations—though he later warned that Russia has a “newer [nuclear] capability than we do.” Yet, the evening’s only other mention of Russia highlights an important challenge. Clinton bragged that she had built “a coalition that included Russia and China to impose the toughest sanctions on Iran.”
The next president will have to work with Russia, particularly on the Middle East, even as it discourages Russian adventurism among NATO member-states along Russia’s border. One example: there is no solution on Syria that doesn’t include Russia. And in determining how far to extend sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, President Clinton or Trump will have to decide how Washington can win a conflict that Moscow cares much more about.
Trump spent much of last night’s debate warning that China is taking advantage of soft-headed American leadership to manipulate the value of its currency and secure deals that are unfair to American workers. Clinton barely mentioned China. But this country, well on its way to becoming the world’s largest economy, may provide the next president with his/her greatest foreign policy challenge. The United States and China are natural rivals with very different political and economic values and systems. Yet, there is also a deep interdependence, a mutually assured economic destruction, that did not exist between the U.S. and USSR. China was America’s largest goods trading partner last year with a trade flow of $660 billion. TPP and other pending trade and investment deals that do and do not include China will highlight both the risks and the opportunities in relations between the world’s two most powerful countries. Creating and maintaining a balance between cooperation and competition as surprises arise and circumstances change will provide an historic test for the next president.
Important as they are, these issues won’t decide the election. Voters are more likely to choose based on personal ideology and their responses to the candidates’ personal qualities. But these foreign policy challenges will go a long way toward determining whether the next president will succeed.