As the world watched anxiously: Foreign policy double talk in the first presidential debate

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DonKirk31By Donald Kirk

The exchanges between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in their first debate left an uneasy feeling about U.S. foreign policy.

While Trump worried about all the money the U.S. has been squandering overseas, Clinton came through with ritual affirmation of U.S. treaty commitments.

Their words were empty, less than convincing ― sure to provoke more questions.

Trump actually had more to say than Clinton did about U.S. problems abroad despite her background as secretary of state, the post to which President Obama appointed her as a consolation prize for failing to defeat him for the Democratic Party nomination eight years ago. Trump’s complaints about U.S. financial dealings with foreign countries fall into two categories.

The consequential foreign policy issue in the first presidential debate got scant media attention.
The consequential foreign policy issue in the first presidential debate got scant media attention.

First, Trump thinks the U.S. is getting royally shafted on trade relations, whether in one-on-one transactions or big deals like NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement on tariff-free trade among the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Second, he believes America’s allies, notably Japan, Korea and Germany, should pay almost entirely for the privilege of U.S. defense or else fend for themselves.

Clinton barely responded to Trump’s remarks on trade but reassured U.S. allies that the U.S. would “honor” its “mutual defense treaties.” Specifically, she mentioned Korea and Japan in words that echoed statements we heard her making whenever she visited Seoul and Tokyo as secretary of state.

Neither of the candidates backed up a word with details suggesting what either would do. We can be sure Trump would not go ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation deal that Obama fantasizes as a legacy of his presidency. Would he, however, create a crisis for the U.S. in North American relations by abrogating NAFTA as concluded by a Republican, the first President Bush, which he derides as the worst trade deal ever made?

And what about KORUS, the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement? That didn’t come up in the debate, but we know Trump doesn’t like it either.

Trump has a valid point when he says the U.S. suffers from enormous trade deficits with all these countries, and others too, but how to redress the balance?

Yes, he has vowed to impose huge tariffs on Chinese exports to the U.S., but would he do the same to U.S. allies, notably Korea and Japan? And what would he say to global “protectionism” as others imposed similar tariffs on U.S. products?

Trump’s “China policy,” if it’s really a policy, gets still shakier when it comes to North Korea. His notion is that “China should solve that problem for us” and “go into North Korea.” Whatever China’s leverage over its North Korea protectorate, Trump is out of his mind if he thinks China’s President Xi Jinping can simply order “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-Un around.

In fact, if Trump as president slapped punitive tariffs on Chinese products, the Chinese would tighten ties with North Korea as their buffer against U.S. forces. The standoff could reach crisis proportions while Trump withdraws U.S. forces from Japan and Korea, as he has talked about doing.

How aggressively, though, would Clinton pressure U.S. trade partners into recognizing the need to act on their overweening trade surpluses with the U.S.?

U.S. presidents, not just Obama, the Democrat, but his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, and the Republicans and Democrats before them, including Hillary’s husband, Bill, in the 1990s, have been weak and unsure about redressing an imbalance that’s growing by the day ― afraid to offend countries, including allies, that lust after all they’re making at U.S. expense.

Clinton offers no assurance she would do anything substantive to reverse the pattern. More than likely, intensive trade talks would wind up with the same old cockamamie pledges and statements and half-hearted solutions we’ve been hearing for years.

Probably she would again favor the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she supported as secretary of state but now opposes for fear of losing votes in rust-belt states such as Michigan where workers see free-trade partners as destroying industry and costing them jobs. She was silent on Trump’s pledge to stop U.S. companies from exporting plants and jobs overseas.

Her words on defense were more reassuring. She almost sounds credible when she promises to “stand up to bullies whether they’re abroad or at home.”

Unlike Trump, it’s not likely she’d undermine U.S. defenses in Asia with any hare-brained scheme to pull America’s 28,500 troops from Korea and 50,000 more from Japan.

Beyond rudimentary affirmation of alliances, however, how tough would Clinton be when faced with war from the middle east to Northeast Asia?

Glibly, she said the “secret” of Trump’s plan to deal with ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, was, “He has no secret,” but what’s Clinton’s plan?

Aside from promising to be a leader “that people can count on,” she had little or nothing to say about how to respond militarily. The danger is that Clinton, like Trump, would be all talk and no action.

Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace for decades. He’s at

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