Clinton and Obama: Two versions of liberal internationalism

Hillary Clinton made a major foreign policy statement yesterday offering her approval of the Iranian nuclear deal. However, her remarks were more interesting because they provide us an opportunity to understand her worldview and assumptions about foreign policy. While both Clinton and Obama share liberal internationalist strategies, both understand the role of the United States relative to other great powers differently, and thus make different assumptions about America’s role in world politics. Ikenberry’s recent work on American grand strategy provides a useful way to understand these different versions of liberal internationalist grand strategy.

Take Hillary’s discussion of how she would approach Iran if elected president. Her “distrust but verify” principle implies that Iranian commitments to the US are unlikely to be uphold in the absence of some coercive threat (snapback sanctions in this case). It also suggests that the US should be wary of making further commitments in Iran, an assumption reinforced by her proposal to confront Iranian influence across the region. This demonstrates a base belief that Iran’s emergent hegemony is entirely contrary to American interests in the region and that those interests must be forcefully reasserted. Her clear and unambiguous support of Israel is a major part of the restoration of an American-led regional order, despite the fact that the current Obama administration does not view Israel as a partner in regional stability.

In calling for a renewal of American regional hegemony, Clinton is articulating a liberal internationalist strategy consistent with what Ikenberry has described as liberal internationalism 2.5. Such a strategy attempts to renegotiate the terms of American leadership and preserve worldwide hegemony by making itself subject to some rules but not others. Hillary’s approach to the nuclear deal reflects this type of strategy – she accepts it as a temporary limit on American action with regard to Iran but reserves the right to unilaterally use military force while bolstering its relationship with Israel.

While Hillary tolerates some political openness by virtue of her acceptance of the nuclear deal, an American military capability is always at the ready to enforce that new global order. This is further evident in her discussion of Syria and Ukraine, two areas in which she believes the United States must act more forcefully to confront both Assad and Putin. These statements position Hillary as a hawkish liberal internationalist, one willing to flex American muscle to uphold American principles of liberal order.

What’s fascinating is that this position isn’t necessarily that far from that of some neoconservatives. Robert Kagan, who wants the US to avoid superpower retirement, is generally seen as supportive of Clinton and has made moves toward the political center, like working at Brookings rather than a standard right-wing think tank. Same for others like Max Boot. Both would approve Clinton’s past criticism of Obama on Syria, arguing that he has not done enough to support Syrian rebels. As for the US role in the world, she argues that the US can’t “hunker down”. The problem isn’t American leadership. Instead, it’s one of messaging: “One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.”

On the other hand, Obama’s foreign policy is edging away from liberal internationalism 2.5 and more toward 3.0. According to Ikenberry, version 3.0 would see the United States resolve global problems using highly multilateral and networked processes among many great powers, including potential adversaries. This is a post-hegemonic posture that seeks to maintain the liberal world order created by the United States through great power cooperation, including diplomacy with adversaries and rival hegemons.  The P5+1 diplomacy that led to the Iran deal is precisely the kind of engagement that would be pursued by a post-hegemon, and such a strategy would use this diplomatic success as a way to build consensus on solving other problems faced by all major powers.

What’s the difference between these two versions of internationalism? 3.0 would involve a much higher degree of strategic restraint and an acceptance of the limitations of American power. Obama’s “don’t do stupid stuff” principle is quite consistent with restraint and demonstrates a loss of faith in the use of unilateral military force. Given her assumption that the US must restore its hegemony, Clinton would have much fewer qualms regarding coercive activities.

Overall, these two different versions of liberal internationalism serve as the major grand strategic alternatives for foreign policy in the Democratic Party. Which makes one wonder: will other candidates (Sanders, O’Malley) articulate a foreign policy more consistent with Obama’s liberalism 3.0? Or, more interestingly, might it might possible to develop a strategy that even goes beyond 3.0, or for that matter, even beyond liberalism?

A wider window of opportunity for US-Iran cooperation

War on the Rocks has an interesting piece by Farzan Sabet throwing cold water on the possibility of future cooperation between the United States and Iran beyond the nuclear deal. Both states presumably have a shared interest in the defeat of a common enemy: the Islamic State. However, Sabet warns that Tehran will resist cooperation for two related reasons. The first is Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony, a strategy prosecuted by Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani and his support for proxy states and militias. The second is a network of rivalries between Iran and Sunni regional powers threatened by Iran’s bid for hegemony. This argument implicitly assumes that competition is rooted in the Iranian regime’s revisionist foreign policy posture – it seeks to dominate the region and rewrite the rules of regional order consistent with its own ideology.

However, there are developments out of Tehran that suggest Iran is adopting more restraint in its foreign policy. The conclusion of the nuclear negotiations has seen Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif open the door to cooperation on other issues with the United States, which presumably include ISIS and broader regional instability. Most recently, The Economist has reported that Suleimani’s activities are now under review by an external committee following criticisms regarding his proxy-oriented strategy. The same piece notes that Zarif has effectively stepped into Suleimani’s role, and is now seeking to “find an endgame in Syria that limits, rather than increases, Iran’s armed involvement in the civil war there.” Combined with the ascendence of the moderate president Hassan Rouhani, who initiated diplomatic outreach with the West that led to the nuclear deal, it seems that politics within the Iranian regime thus appear to be driving foreign policy change.

This bodes well for the prospects of a continuing rapproachement between the US and Iran, but it does not necessarily mean that cooperation is forthcoming. An undiscussed factor is domestic politics within the United States. While Rouhani and Zarif are especially secure in their position, no such uncertainty exists in the United States. This country itself is about to undergo a leadership transition with the 2016 election, and there are vastly different opinions on the nuclear deal and presumably future cooperation.

We can safely assume that a Republican candidate will tear up the nuclear deal and resume hostility towards Iran (although Donald Trump has given mixed signals on this). On the other hand, it’s not entirely clear how Hillary Clinton, the current front-runner, would approach Iran. While she is supporting the Iran deal, this appears to be more about avoiding the appearance of going against President Obama. She has been an Iran hawk in the past, and was Senator from a state who’s politicians fall all over themselves speaking against Iran as resolute defenders of Israel. Bernie Sanders would be most likely to support continued cooperation with Iran. Although he is rising in the polls, he remains an underdog.

If we consider the domestic politics of both Iran and the United States, the window of opportunity for further cooperation is wider than we think, especially on the Iranian side. But, the combination of uncertainty injected by the 2016 election and the highly partisan nature of the issue shows that the real obstacle is American domestic politics.

About

This is the personal website of Stephen Pampinella, assistant professor of political science and international relations at SUNY New Paltz. Within international relations, I study war and conflict, statebuilding interventions, and American foreign policy. I also am deeply interested in New York State politics, a product of growing up on Long Island and living in Albany for 11 years, where I did my undergraduate and graduate work.

On this website, you can find my CV, research, and a blog that features ideas about the world around us. You can find me on Twitter @stevepampinella, and feel free to email me with any questions at steve.pampinella@gmail.com.

The image on the home page is a painting by Francisco Goya entitled “Duelo a garrotazos,” or duel with cudgels.

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