State Department



The Clinton Doctrine

On November 8, 2016, American voters will head to the polls to elect the 45th President of the United States. While the past three election cycles have occasionally highlighted the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, the issues were often overshadowed by the economic crisis on the home front. The 2016 election could very well be shaped by foreign policy and the next Commander-in-Chief has the potential to steer the world’s hegemon towards a new course.

The already-declared and the potential candidates represent a wide spectrum of foreign policy experience and doctrines. Currently, Hillary Clinton is the only declared Democrat candidate for 2016. While that will inevitably change, few candidates on either side of the aisle will be able to match her foreign policy credentials. This article will attempt to interpret the rhetoric and predict the course of an American foreign policy under a potentially new Clinton doctrine.

In her role as First Lady, Mrs. Clinton assumed the traditional duties of her predecessors: tackling pet-projects, being a spokeswoman for the administration, and hosting state dinners for foreign dignitaries. She traveled more than any other First Lady before her, visiting 79 countries throughout her husband’s two terms as president. During her travels, she emphasized women’s rights, particularly in Asia and developing countries. At the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, Mrs. Clinton declared, “It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and for the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.” In addition, she was an outspoken advocate and, at times, private critic of her husband’s policy positions. Mrs. Clinton initially opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, believing it would cause a loss of American jobs. Although she publicly stood by the president, she held reservations and even campaigned against its merits in hindsight during the 2008 Democratic primaries.

Clinton was instrumental in foreign policy issues during her time as senator, using her alliances with members from both parties and broad popularity among the public to her advantage.

She served on five committees, including the Committee on Armed Services, and was a member of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Clinton supported the 2001 war in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks and voted in favor of the 2003 Iraq invasion. However, she joined other fellow Democrats in opposition to the 2007 Iraq troop surge.

Her appointment as Secretary of State was seen by many as an attempt by President Obama to rebuild bridges to the powerful Clinton family after a particularly nasty primary race the preceding year. Throughout her time in office, she was often the most influential member of the administration, standing front and center on many issues and maintaining a highly public profile. She visited 112 countries during her tenure, making her the most-well traveled Secretary of State to go along with her aforementioned similar title as First Lady. While she emphasized soft power and humanitarian issues – including the plight of women in developing economies – she was often viewed as one of the administration’s most hawkish members. She backed a massive escalation of the Afghan war in 2009, intervention in Libya, the expansion of drone strikes throughout the region, and arming of the Syrian rebels. Additionally, she came out in support of airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime following the alleged use of chemical weapons against the civilian population.

2016 Foreign Policy Team

The Clinton campaign has amassed a heavyweight lineup in the early stages, led by campaign chairman John Podesta, one of the top liberal minds in politics. On the foreign affairs front, Jake Sullivan assumes the role of Mrs. Clinton’s policy advisor. Although Mr. Sullivan is young, he is highly experienced as a democratic operative and U.S. diplomat. He is currently serving as a senior advisor to the US government for the Iran nuclear negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland, and as a visiting professor at Yale Law School.

On the Issues


Hillary Clinton stood in contrast with much of President Obama’s team early in his presidency, arguing against the idea that Iran could possess a limited number of nuclear weapons through a tough policy of containment alone. She continued a theme from her 2008 presidential run, in which she emphasized that military actions cannot be taken off the table, and that open engagement with Tehran may appear weak. She was a strong advocate of the additional rounds of sanctions during Obama’s first term as president.

Despite her skepticism for a diplomatic solution, she felt obligated to make the attempt at the command of the president. She was the first Obama official to send an advisor to Oman to meet with the Iranian delegation in secret when Jake Sullivan began the closed-door negotiations throughout 2012 and 2013. Those early and highly-secret negotiations have helped form the current framework for the nuclear weapons and sanctions discussions taking place today.

(Associated Press)

Clinton has recently voiced her support for the negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear capability, calling the March 2015 framework agreement “an important step,” but cautioning that “the devil is in the details.” Even such tacit support for the framework is in contrast to her potential Republican opponents, who, with near unanimity, echo that the deal is a hindrance to US regional interests and Israeli security. Judging from her previous rhetoric and actions, the public should assume that a President Clinton would continue negotiations and the ongoing diplomatic thaw, but would be more forceful in her support of Israel than the Obama administration.

Iraq, Syria, and the Rise of ISIS

Hillary Clinton made no secret of her disappointment in President Obama for failing to act more decisively in Syria. She was an early proponent of arming the rebels as early as 2011, justifying her position with the evidence of Assad’s use of chemical weapons and by the rise of extremist rebel groups at the expense of more moderate factions. According to Clinton, “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” However, she remains adamant that American and western troops should not be deployed in the Levant, favoring “air force, but also army soldiers from the region.” While she remains cautious when criticizing the current administration, adding endearments such as “extremely intelligent” when discussing the president’s foreign policy, she is not hesitant to insist that a future administration must act quicker and with a much greater level of force.

Israel and Palestine

Despite being Secretary of State during one of the most tumultuous times in the American-Israeli relationship of the last two decades, Clinton maintains a cordial relationship with both the Israelis and Palestinians. She first visited Israel in 1981, and subsequent trips have seen the Clinton team blend in well with dignitaries in both Jerusalem and Ramallah. This relationship allows her to tepidly prod and criticize the Israelis in a way that most politicians would not be able to. For example, her exclamation to Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, “who’s the [expletive] superpower here?” did little to dissuade the Netanyahu government from later signing two agreements at the behest of her husband. As secretary, she criticized the settlement expansion in the West Bank, but opined in her biography, Hard Choices, that the administration’s relentless harping on the issue with Netanyahu may take other important items off the agenda.

At the onset of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, Mrs. Clinton took a firm stance in support of the former. When asked about the proportionality of the Israeli response to the continual firing of rockets from Gaza, she stated “I’m not a military planner, but Hamas puts its missiles… in civilian areas. Part of it is that Gaza’s pretty small and it’s densely populated. They put their command and control of Hamas military leaders in those civilian areas.”

A Hillary Clinton presidency would be much more pragmatic in its relations with both Israel and Palestine than the Obama administration has been. There is little doubt that she would attempt to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table, as every president since Jimmy Carter has done before her. However, with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s apparent abandonment of the two-state solution in March 2015, negotiations may be a non-starter regardless of who occupies the Oval Office.


As early as March 2009, Clinton led the administration’s efforts to improve relations with Russia. In a visit during th early days of the Obama presidency, she presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a ‘reset’ button prop that would eventually be mocked by GOP candidates in the following election cycle as being naive and aloof when it comes to Moscow. However, prior to leaving office, she urged President Obama to not “flatter Putin with high-level attention.” In Hard Choices, she advocated expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe to counter further Russian aggression against its neighbors.

Cuban and Latin America

The Clinton-led State Department began the gradual relaxation of issuing travel visas to Cuba in 2011 with students seeking academic credit and religious groups making mission trips to the island. Mrs. Clinton praised the December 2014 thaw of relations between the United States and Cuba, stating that the embargo was “holding back our broader agenda against Cuba.” A Clinton presidency would continue President Obama’s work of ending the five-decade long embargo.


During her time as Secretary of State, Clinton supported the Obama administration’s halfhearted “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region (later recast as a “rebalance”). She focused much of her time in Asia on three fronts: regional engagement, the building of trust between the United States and China, and the expansion of economic, political, and security cooperation. On the latter issue, she engaged in what she referred to in 2010 as “forward deployed diplomacy.” During her tenure, she was particularly combative with China over issues in the South China Sea involving U.S. partners. While the turmoil in the Middle East will continue to grab more headlines, America’s so-called ‘Pacific Century’ will continue under a Clinton presidency, with renewed focus on engagement and competition among rising powers.

Foreshadowing a Clinton Doctrine

Wading through the years’ worth of quotes, policy positions, and issues tackled provides a bit of clarity on what a Hillary Clinton presidency might look like. In academic terms, the hypothetical President Hillary Clinton would advocate a strong neoliberal foreign policy. It would practice those beliefs espoused by such theorists as Robert Keohane, Joseph Nye, and John Mearsheimer, whereby various state actors remain engaged with the world through intergovernmental organizations and military force is used only in concert with the strong support of a prior-established alliance. This would be coupled with a strong dose of classically American, Jacksonian nationalism, characterized by a “strong sense of common values and common destiny.”

In practical terms, a Clinton administration might resemble the idealistic foreign policies of Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, as horrifying as the latter two may sound to American liberals. Iconic in modern politics for their grandiose plans and bellicosity towards America’s enemies, these former presidents espoused the idealism so inherent in America’s engagement with the rest of the world, whereby American liberal values were seen as morally superior to the corrupt practices that plague developing nations and the enemies of the homeland.

American corporations would be encouraged to expand their investments overseas, and foreign investment in the United States would continue to the point that remained acceptable for American workers’ unions.

The Clinton administration would remain engaged with liberal institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the International Criminal Court. In coordinated efforts to liberalize America’s competitors, the United States as a matter of policy would become more involved in regional organizations, such as the Organization of American States, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the newly-created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the latter being a major policy reversal from the Obama administration. Such moves would represent the “smart power” approach that Clinton advocated during her early days as Secretary of State.

Overt military force would be used more frequently and with greater aims when compared to the Obama administration’s restraint. While she may continue to attempt to restrain the Israelis in their aggression towards their neighbors, particularly with Jerusalem’s dealings with Iran, her declarations of redlines will be more strictly adhered to. The United States would become more involved in various conflicts throughout various hotspots where previously the Obama administration preferred a “wait and see” or limited approach.

Direct relations with Beijing, however, might resemble the Obama administration’s post-2010, hostile approach more than the conciliatory tone of her husband in his second term during the late 1990s. In hotspots which have the ability to spread into broader conflicts, such as Eastern Europe, the Persian Gulf and Asia, Mrs. Clinton will have to find a middle ground and balance her idealism (i.e. commitment to NATO expansion, the defense of Israel, the protection of Taiwan and the Philippines in the face of Chinese aggression, and opposition to the regime in Pyongyang) with practicality. Indeed, the current United States tangle of alliances would make even the great statesman, Otto von Bismarck, flush with worry.

Although the above might sound like a continuation of the type of American policy that has continued in one form or another since Woodrow Wilson in 1918, Clinton has an opportunity to modernize America’s role in the ever-changing world elsewhere. Throughout her tenure as First Lady, United States Senator, and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has gone farther than her predecessors in addressing often overlooked international issues. This is especially true for the rights of women in developing countries, highlighted by the aforementioned Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. Climate change, women’s rights, and the rights of migrants would be tackled head on from a president with international clout on such matters. Doing so would give classic American foreign policy a twenty-first century face.