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Foreign Policy and the 2016 US Presidential Election: an Early Look

Campaigning for the United States (US) presidential election 2016 is now underway with fifteen Republicans and six Democrats formally declaring their intention to run for the top job. The primary elections are still five months away and the main election does not take place until November 2016. However, candidates have commenced campaigning, outlining the policy platforms upon which they will run, taking part in the first and second round of televised party debates.

Domestic and economic policy usually ranks as the most important to voters and therefore dominates debate airtime and candidate conversation. However, interestingly, foreign policy represented the largest category of questions in the Republican debate in August as well as in the most recent Democratic debate, held last week, with much of the focus directed to the Middle East.

This heightened need to address foreign policy is two-pronged:

1. Current crises in the Middle East cannot be overlooked

US anxiety surrounding the threat of ISIS and protracted US involvement in the Middle East remains very high. The Islamic State continues its horrifically graphic path of destruction and action against the group is intensifying via airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, lead by the US and involving a number of nations, including Australia.

In formulating policy on the issue, candidates on both side of the political coin reflect majority public sentiment, to varying degrees, indicating that the US should approach the threat with continued airstrikes while avoiding another protracted, full-blown ground war.

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is running on a Democratic ticket, admitted that the terror group could not be eradicated without a ground war, but insisted that it is not an American war to fight. Instead, Iraq’s neighbours, led by the well-equipped military of Saudi Arabia, should manage the war with peripheral support from the US. This standpoint is in line with Sanders’ opposition to increased defence spending and his isolationist view of restrained US military involvement in far-off theatres.

Fellow Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) takes a more hawkish view of America’s role in the Middle East. Believing that the US should work to maintain its status as the world’s leader through the exercise of hard power, Clinton sits to the right of both Sanders and the incumbent government for whom she once served as Secretary of State. She goes as far as to say that certain policies under the Obama government to assist the region have failed and she doesn’t seek to replicate President Obama’s governance, but aims “to go further”, particularly in relation to arming Syrian rebels in their fight against IS and Assad in Syria.

Not surprisingly, neoconservative Republican candidates Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Jeb Bush (R-FL) have criticised President Obama and then-Secretary of State Clinton for their “fatal error” of failing to do enough in the region. According to Bush, the downgrading of US military capacity in Iraq in 2011 created a power vacuum that the Islamic State was then able to fill. Neither candidate has supported their criticisms with a plan distinct from Obama’s. Instead, they offer a beefed up version of the existing strategy of engaging regional nations, continuing airstrikes and arming moderate fighters in Syria and Iraq.

2. President Obama’s foreign policy efforts have been particularly divisive

In 2008, Obama ran on a platform of engaging adversarial nations. This is reflected in recent deals, including the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran. For all Republican candidates, Obama’s brand of diplomacy and cooperation is seen to undermine the US’s unilateral standing, weakening American power.

The multilateral Iran nuclear deal, which lifts expansive economic sanctions placed on Tehran, arguably represents Obama’s most divisive foreign policy. Jeb Bush stated that, as president, he would not negotiate such a farcical deal in order to appease Iran, but instead would strengthen ties with Israel to provide better deterrence against their aggressor. Marco Rubio, similarly, has characterised the deal as nothing more than “a string of concessions to a sworn adversary of the United States.” If he becomes president, Rubio has stated that he will undo the deal and force Tehran to choose between a nuclear program and improving their economy – seemingly giving little thought to the fact that the deal involves the cooperation of a number of states, besides the US.

Conversely, Bernie Sanders believes the US has “an obligation to pursue diplomatic solutions before resorting to military engagement – especially after nearly fourteen years of ill-conceived and disastrous military engagements in the region.” Hillary Clinton, speaking to the Brookings Institution, agreed, albeit skeptically, that the deal was the way forward. However, she said she would implement other strategies in tandem to contain Iran’s military and to restrict the flow of conventional arms to the state.

While the nature of foreign affairs is relatively fluid and foreign policy is not a huge vote-winner, it is an area of governance where the power rests overwhelmingly with the Executive. As Obama has demonstrated through a number of international initiatives, Congress takes a back seat, either unwilling or unable to override presidential authority. It is therefore important that presidential hopefuls be well versed and articulate regarding their plans for America’s place in the world beyond 2016.

Sophie Wilson is the United States Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: Lightspring - Shutterstock

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