One fact that is immediately apparent about the 2016 presidential field is its size. Nineteen Republicans and Democrats are currently vying for the White House. The breadth of the field, and the divergence of political views among the candidates, has altered the typical nomination patterns of both parties. As former US President Bill Clinton once explained, ‘In every presidential election, Democrats want to fall in love. Republicans just fall in line’ (Kuhn 2007). This was true in past election cycles, but Clinton’s observation holds little currency in the early race for 2016. On the right, Republican voters have yet to find a candidate with whom to fall in line. On the left, Democrats are still flirting with their options, but with little romance.
A second, and more significant, dimension of the presidential contest is that two old and powerful strains of US foreign policy DNA are jostling for dominance. One is inward-looking: it flourishes on account of America’s relative isolation between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The other is an outward-looking internationalism that seeks predictability and stability in the global commons. To varying degrees, all presidential hopefuls manifest traits from one or the other strain. Over the next year, US voters will decide which version they prefer: an inward- or outward-looking foreign policy. The stakes for US–European relations are unusually high as a result. This tension is especially notable in the Republican field, since European leaders could encounter a very different kind of US foreign policy under a prospective Jeb Bush presidency than under a Ted Cruz one. Yet this variation is also present on the Democratic side of the political spectrum. It is for this reason that candidates from both parties deserve close scrutiny through the lens of US–European relations.
The lengthy list of Republican candidates defies easy summary or abbreviation. However, a survey of the current leaders in the presidential pack is illustrative of how the foreign policy debate is shaping up within the Grand Old Party (GOP).
Businessman and reality television personality Donald Trump is—for now—leading the Republican field. Thus far, Trump has been a one-issue candidate, deftly channelling strong anti-establishment feelings among some Republican voters into a campaign against undocumented immigrants. Trump’s one and only foreign policy proposal is to build a ‘wall across the southern border’ and ‘make Mexico pay for it’ (Trump 2015). It is isolationism without nuance.
Physician Ben Carson has an equally strong appeal among anti-establishment voters. Unlike Trump, however, his foreign policy positions are more developed and internationalist in tone. Carson’s primary focus is on establishing a strong national defence and asserting leadership in NATO ‘when dealing with international bullies such as President Putin’ (Carson 2015). He offers an internationalist alternative to other anti-establishment candidates in the GOP field.
Former Governor Jeb Bush represents the gold standard in mainstream Republican politics. He has assembled a who’s who of leading foreign policy experts (with many hailing from the Bush 41 and Bush 43 administrations). Bush’s Atlanticist credentials are rooted in the Dean Acheson tradition of active US–European engagement. Bush has invoked Ronald Reagan as a leader who ‘believed that the Cold War could be won, not just endlessly managed’ (Washington Times
2015). In policy he has rejected the current White House’s rapprochement with Iran. Under a Bush 45 presidency, current policy towards countries like Iran could see substantive changes. Europe take note.
Senator Ted Cruz is an enthusiastically anti-establishment candidate and a hawk on deficit spending. The US comes first on the Cruz campaign. His foreign policy outlook shuns any encroachment on national sovereignty from international institutions such as the UN. Cruz has also pledged that anyone who wages jihad on the US has ‘signed [their] death warrant’ (Washington Post
2015). It is a message that resonates strongly with a good portion of Republican voters, but turning this promise into a coherent policy could prove difficult and expensive.
Potential game-changer candidates to watch are Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio. Both are working their way up in the polls, and both candidates have the potential to eventually lead the pack. Europeans can take heart from either candidate’s internationalist credentials.
Compared to the GOP roster, the field of Democrats vying for the White House is small and orderly. Yet even here, the inward/outward tension on foreign policy (especially on trade) is discernible.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has the best-established foreign policy record among all of the declared Democratic candidates for president. As a quintessential liberal institutionalist, her international credentials are easy to identify and predictable. She is an Atlanticist, but her pledged support to labour unions on the campaign trail could eventually put her at odds with supporters of free trade (see below for the discussion of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP).
A self-declared ‘Democratic Socialist’, Senator Bernie Sanders appeals to the left wing of his party. Emphasising income equality and free-wheeling spending in his campaign stump speech, recent estimates put the cost of Sanders’s proposals at $18 trillion over 10 years (Geier 2015). At that rate, the US would have little money left to execute a foreign or defence policy. One notable difference between Sanders and the Obama White House is trade. Sanders opposes all free trade agreements. If TTIP is not ratified before Obama leaves office, it could have a short life-expectancy in a Sanders White House.