On the Issues: Foreign Policy

Interview by Keely Savoie

Jon Western, Carol Hoffmann Collins ’63 Professor of International Relations, is an expert on international security, American foreign policy, and human rights. He has written and taught extensively on these subjects garnering a waitlist of eager students each year of the decade he taught it. Most recently he co-authored a major study examining US and international mass atrocity prevention and response strategies.

Western, who also served in the US State Department under Republican and Democratic administrations from 1989 to 1993, is the vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Mount Holyoke College. He recently discussed foreign policy with respect to the presidential candidates’ positions after their third and final debate.

What are the biggest foreign policy concerns facing the US under the next presidency?

We see many concerns in the news every day, but I think the biggest challenge facing the US is the level of complexity of the current global threats. The next president is going to have to deal with a set of complex forces, and with a level of global interconnectedness that arguably has never been greater. Climate change, resource scarcity, demographic stress, environmental degradation, ongoing conflicts, terrorism, proliferation, cyber threats, political and economic inequality, and rising fundamentalism are often linked in ways that are not always easy to see.

The ongoing conflict in Syria is an example. It was sparked by a complex set of forces—a population that rose up to challenge corrupt authoritarian rule and to demand a response to the economic and political inequalities produced by, among other things, a decade of drought, economic decline, and political repression.

Today, it is the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis. And while traditionally, American foreign policy leaders have looked at humanitarian crises as secondary priorities, Syria demonstrates that when these types of conflicts are left unchecked, there are significant spillover effects.

ISIS emerged amid the Syrian conflict. And there are further downstream effects: the wave of refugees that fled into Turkey and Europe over the past year and a half triggered a nativist, anti-immigrant backlash that spilled over into the conversation in Europe and Great Britain. I think it is fair to say that the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom this past summer is a second- or third-order effect of the failure of the international community to respond effectively to the conflict in Syria.

The layers of complexity and the challenge of assessing the direct and indirect effects of events get even more difficult when we consider how to deal with issues like North Korea, China’s economic power, Russian resurgence, and the longer term threats of climate change and global inequality. The next president will need a broad strategic vision to address it all.

Trump’s appeal seems to be partly his willingness to challenge our traditional alliances and build new ones. Is that kind of fresh vision a potential boon to our standing as a nation?

Donald Trump is tapping into a real sense that the system at home and abroad is not working for many Americans. I think this is part of the broader anti-globalization phenomenon we are also seeing elsewhere in the world. It is producing a rising level of public anger and increasing nativist and anti-immigrant sentiments.

We’ve seen politicians do this before, but what is different with Trump is that he’s using a stark nationalist tone to condemn traditional allies and alliances and various international agreements that have served American interests well. The reality is that the global challenges we face far exceed the capacity of the US to confront alone. We will need partners to address these challenges and the heightened nationalist rhetoric almost certainly will make it more difficult to enlist the support of others.

One issue that has been most striking is the casualness with which the Trump campaign has dismissed the importance of NATO, a bipartisan cornerstone of American security policy. NATO helped fundamentally reshape Europe after World War II, from a continent that had seen Germany and France go to war twice with each other within 25 years, to making war between Germany and France unimaginable today. This benefit has been recognized by Republicans and Democrats for more than six decades.

It’s also striking to see Trump’s public envy for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions. Trump’s tacit endorsement of Putin’s incursions into Crimea and Ukraine, and his refusal to condemn or even acknowledge Russian involvement in cyber espionage, are remarkable for a Republican presidential nominee. All of this helps us understand the defection of so many Republican foreign policy leaders from his campaign and the current Republican platform.

How are the candidates’ respective foreign policy positions going to affect our strategic stance in the world?

Trump’s overall strategic position is difficult to fully discern.

On the one hand, he has been projecting a neo-isolationist stance and has expressed a desire to revisit long-standing American agreements and retrench from American commitments abroad to address problems at home.

On the other hand, he has said he’ll increase the size and strength of the US military to project American power more forcefully to solve problems abroad. There is widespread anxiety with many of our traditional allies in Europe and Asia about Trump’s language and positions regarding the credibility of American commitments.  

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has more experience in foreign policy than almost any previous presidential candidate. Her strategic views are well-known. Her role as secretary of state and her role on various committees in the US Senate give us and much of the world considerable insight into her overall strategic position. She essentially is a centrist on American foreign policy—she believes that the US has to remain committed to existing alliances and to global governance structures for both national and global security. She supports free trade, and is willing to use force in some instances.

My own view is that in the coming years and decades, global power realignment is inevitable. The current and impending global dynamics mean that the US will have to rely increasingly on others as partners to address the challenges of the 21st century.

We know that when the US acts unilaterally, others assert their influence and this often creates more avenues of competition and conflict. We also know that when force is believed to be an easy answer to things, we find ourselves in the biggest strategic messes of our history. Historically, the US leads most effectively when it leads with a multilateral approach and when it helps to develop and promote norms and institutions that can address the complexity of the world’s challenges.

Get to know your world. Apply.