The finger on the button: Clinton, Trump and defence policy



by Lindsay L. Rodman

November 7, 2016

Defence policy watchers throughout the world are waiting with bated breath for the outcome of Tuesday’s election in the United States.

The candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, are often described as “the known quantity” and “the great unknown”. But the differences in their prospective approaches to defence go far beyond outsider-versus-insider status. Depending on who wins, the future of American defence policy could look very different.

Hilary Clinton has maintained a robust cadre of advisors in national security since well before her 2008 campaign. The clear frontrunner for Clinton’s secretary of defence is Michele Flournoy, a highly respected and relatively uncontroversial policy expert and former under-secretary of defence.

Notably, Clinton has a number of Republican advisors as well. She will have her pick of top American defence policy minds to fill her nominations. Most of these thought leaders have indicated a willingness and an interest in projecting a more global U.S. presence, with a few noteworthy exceptions.

Since late 2015, Clinton’s campaign has maintained official policy advisory committees in all issue areas. In national security, she not only has high-level defence and intelligence advisors, but also sub-committees of experts devoted to specific topics, all of whom are waiting in the wings to assume political appointments. A Clinton administration is likely to be ready to hit the ground running with a pre-set agenda of priorities, and experts who are already prepared to get started.

Compared to President Barack Obama and many of her Democratic colleagues, Clinton is seen as ‘hawkish’. She is more likely to opt for military intervention than some other Democrats (likely the result of the serious regret her husband expressed for not taking action against the Rwandan massacre in 1994) but she is not impulsive.

Clinton also prefers the process of ground-up analytical public policy-making to politics itself — another difference between her and the current administration. President Obama made early, sweeping statements about agenda priorities and has been playing catch-up ever since to implement those ideals through policy.

Trump sees the presidency as a ceremonial, titular head with final decision-making authority, someone who delegates the day-to-day running of the country to others.

One area in which a Clinton White House likely would look very similar to that of President Obama is in defence budgeting and resource allocation. The goal of Democrats for some time has been to find savings in the defence envelope to invest in future innovation and technology while keeping budgets relatively stable. These reforms have been much easier to propose than to implement, but Clinton’s administration is likely to keep trying.

Donald Trump’s defence policy, as outlined on his website, is focused on increasing the defence budget and investing in the troops. This likely means an expansion of both capacity and capability, and could include much more investment. The Obama administration cut troop levels and left budgets stagnant, causing many in the U.S. defence establishment to fear that readiness levels and technological advantages would suffer in the future.

Trump has a non-traditional view of the presidency: He sees it as a ceremonial, titular head with final decision-making authority, someone who delegates the day-to-day running of the country to others. His appointees, who are likely to be Washington outsiders and come from the private sector, are likely to be empowered. Their success will depend on their ability to learn on the job, but they have the potential to fix some of the major problems in Washington by leveraging lessons from the private sector.

The two most notable Trump defence advisors are Joseph Schmitz and retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn. Schmitz is a former Pentagon inspector general who at one point shielded the George W. Bush White House from investigation. He is involved in global arms dealings, including an attempt to privately arm the Free Syrian Army. Although he has also not made many public statements, his actions indicate a willingness to justify means through ends. Flynn has been the most vocal defence voice of the Trump campaign, emphasizing American exceptionalism, with a focus on regaining a perceived loss of sovereignty.

Trump’s and Flynn’s public positions indicate that a Trump presidency would be less willing to take multilateral approaches. While their approach is less globally interventionist, Flynn’s and Trump’s hardline statements suggest that in strategic areas, such as where ISIL is present, the United States will pursue a more aggressive, “all-in” posture.

Americans’ decision on Tuesday will have significant impact in global defence matters. Broadly, President Trump appears willing to expand the defence budget, yet takes a more isolationist approach. This could mean greater opportunities for the defence industry and less American global force projection.

President Clinton is the opposite: She is very willing to intervene abroad, but she is more conservative with respect to budgetary matters. She would be more cautious — but not all of her decisions would be popular or create opportunities abroad.

Lindsay L. Rodman is a former Obama administration appointee in the U.S. Defense Department and White House National Security Council official. She now resides in Ottawa. The opinions expressed here in are hers alone.

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