President Hillary Clinton: be careful what you hope for
20 Oct 2016|

With the spectre of a Trump presidency on the wane, governments everywhere—especially the allies of the US—are breathing a collective sigh of relief. What they really need to do is to begin thinking about the strategic and diplomatic direction that a Clinton presidency might take. For, as Oscar Wilde noted, in his sardonic way, ‘when the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers’.

With all his iconoclastic bluster and rants against received wisdom (and virtually every elite in existence), Donald Trump would’ve forced both the US and its partners to re-examine the foundations, purpose and strategic effect of the alliance network that has underpinned the strategic position of the West for seventy years. That would’ve been painful since complacency and fecklessness aren’t much given to the hard work of forensic examination and recalibration.

Yet such a root and branch stocktake would be no bad thing, since it would require the US to redefine exactly how it sees its self-interest in the current and prospective strategic dispensation, and force its allies to do the same. It would encourage the alliance network to discard those features that no longer contribute to collective security, and revitalise those that do.

But, as the Clinton bandwagon rolls on from the US Senate, through the office of Secretary of State, to a deeply contested presidential race, and thence to the presidency, what kind of defence and foreign policy are we likely to see? The answer?

More of the same.

Half a century ago, the Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan told whomsoever would listen ‘for the times they are a’changin’!’—a strategic appreciation if ever there was one. The lyrics are worth close study because they presage the change that has already happened. Yet US strategic policy clings to the status quo as if the immutable rule is ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’. And under Clinton, this comfortable belief in a constant US strategic primacy is likely to continue. It shouldn’t.

In June this year, Kurt Campbell, the former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, published The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia (New York: Hachette, 2016). In what The Financial Times reviewer mordantly described as ‘an extended job application, should Clinton emerge victorious in this year’s presidential election’, Campbell argues for the maintenance of the post-WW2 arrangements that have served US and allied interests well, at least some of the time (let’s put aside Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan). The ‘rules-based global order’, the most recent Defence White Paper mantra, is simply an artefact of US primacy for the past seventy years—a primacy now contested by China and Russia, and a primacy about which emerging powers like India and Iran are equivocal to say the least.

If Campbell is the architect of the ‘pivot’, Clinton is certainly its proprietor. But what the ‘pivot’ assumed, and President Obama confirmed in his February 2015 National Security Strategy, is that the US sees itself as both the rule setter and arbiter.

The document (PDF) says: ‘We must . . . set new rules of the road . . . seeking to establish and enforce rules through international institutions and regional initiatives’. Whether this represents ‘manifest destiny’ or ‘US exceptionalism’ is beside the point—it simply discounts the significance of the strategic change that has already occurred.

China has arrived.

China’s emergence as a global strategic player is the result of a strategic discontinuity that has been ongoing since the end of the Cultural Revolution. China’s diplomacy may be amateur and crude, and its posturing in the South China Sea may be more passive aggressive than substantive. But the fact is that China won’t accept an international order that is the by-product of the post-WW2 power structure forged by a bankrupt Britain, a shattered France, a totalitarian Soviet Union and a triumphant US to which all of the rest were indebted.

The dilemma faced by the Clinton administration is profound. How can it preserve the enormous strategic advantages garnered over more than seven decades while adjusting to the new reality of a rising China along with a disruptive Russia, and potentially a more confident India? This isn’t a question of appeasing or accommodating China, or of running out of puff (though the US electorate is evidently tired of the pointless waste of US blood and treasure in distant theatres). Nor is it a question of China enjoying an inside run to supremacy in the western Pacific.

Rather, it is a question of whether the US is willing, or able, to redefine its own longer-term strategic interests, in consultation with its partners and allies, to generate an ‘international rules-based order’ that is at least contemporary, and that is flexible and agile enough to deal with the policy sclerosis that currently affects most western leaders.

The US enjoys enormous reservoirs of talent, capability and skills. It has a flair for creativity and innovation unmatched by any other country, especially those whose political and economic adroitness is constrained by cultural mores that favour conformity over creativity, established norms over experimentation. The US is also one of the most resilient societies on the planet—all of which afford the US a dynamism and energy that is unprecedented.

The issue for President-to-be Clinton, deeply connected as she is to the comfortable elites of America, and for her international partners and allies, is whether she and her administration can discard their status quo mindset to build a new and more inclusive world order—and its associated rules—that better reflects where our collective interests are going rather than where they’ve been. Looking back to a time when everything was hunky-dory won’t address current problems, far less future ones.

This really requires all of us to abandon our preference for black and white answers like the ‘pivot’ that are searching for a question. Rather, we should perhaps learn from the remarkable ability of our emerging neighbours, such as Indonesia and Vietnam, who live with and exploit ambiguity to their advantage while keeping their protagonists guessing.

But whether an incoming Clinton administration has the ability to replace the ‘tried and true’ (and often unsuccessful) with more subtle and agile strategic settings is moot. As we stumble around, blind to the new strategic realities that are already upon us, we should heed Gloucester’s desperate cry, his eyes gouged out by Cornwall: ‘as flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods—they kill us for their sport’.