Clinton's Counterpunch: Answers Trump on American Allies

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks on national security in San Diego on June 2. Clinton criticized Donald Trump's past statements on U.S. allies. Mike Blake/REUTERS

Hillary Clinton kicked up a media storm on Thursday with her foreign policy speech cum blistering attack on Donald Trump. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, she said, "is not just unprepared" but "temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility." The hullabaloo that greeted her Trump takedowns, however, drowned out her compelling defense of America's foreign alliances.

That's not for nothing. Trump shook Washington's foreign policy establishment this spring when he declared that as president, he'd be willing to walk away from long-standing American partnerships like NATO and alliances with Japan and South Korea. The comeback from the pundit class was hardly convincing. Their counterarguments mostly boiled down to: This has been the status quo since World War II, we can't disrupt it.

In this day and age, there are plenty of genuine reasons to question the costs and benefits of NATO or U.S.-Saudi Arabia ties or yes, even our partnerships with East Asian allies. Foreign policy experts may not use the same inflammatory language that Trump has used, nor would they draw the same extreme conclusions he has. But they've certainly debated many of the same questions in recent years—over how to rebalance cost-sharing among European partners in NATO, for example; or how to restructure military forces in East Asia in a way that is less of a burden to the United States and Japan and South Korea. And for Americans who didn't live through World War II or much of the Cold War, or who aren't steeped in the theories of strategic deterrence, it's not always obvious why we need to station troops or send hundreds of millions of dollars for programs in places halfway around the world.

Even the Obama administration has, through its policies, demonstrated skepticism about the post-war global alignment. Just look at its policies in the Middle East or its "pivot"—later labeled a "realignment"—to Asia. The president has prized new openings with one-time foes like Iran, Vietnam and Myanmar, even if it unsettles old friends, like the Saudis.

As with so many other issues, then, Trump's rhetoric is rooted in legitimate questions which he's then spun into over-the-top hyperbole. Surprisingly, it's Clinton, not known for her soaring oratory, who came back with the most effective response to date. In terms that were more visceral than wonky, she methodically laid out why the U.S. can't afford to up and leave its alliances or otherwise antagonize its friends.

Clinton gave a tangible example of how the U.S., Japan and South Korea have worked together on a missile defense system to protect against North Korean warheads. And she pointed out that China and Russia "are deeply envious of our alliances around the world, because they have nothing to match them."

"They'd love for us to elect a president who would jeopardize that source of strength," she continued. "If Donald gets his way, they'll be celebrating in the Kremlin."

That was "very effective because it resonates with Americans," says Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, a senior diplomat under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. "It's playing to the soft spot" among Americans, who feel threatened by both Moscow and Beijing.

Jeffrey also thought she made a powerful point vis-à-vis Mexico, a favorite Trump punching bag. "We're lucky to have two friendly neighbors on our land borders. Why would he want to make one of them an enemy?" asked Clinton.

While Clinton has aligned herself tightly with Obama on the campaign trail, her rhetoric also suggested a slight shift of course from the current administration on foreign policy when it comes to embracing America's friends and standing up to its enemies. On Thursday, she promised "clarity" in handling rivals.

It's well known that Clinton tends to be more hawkish than the current president. "She has been tipping her hand…that she'd want to be a little bit tougher on Putin," notes Michael O'Hanlon, though he cautions that it's "not clear she'd come into office looking to ramp up things" with Russia. On Thursday, she threatened military action to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and declared firmly that "Israel's security is non-negotiable."

Jeffrey notes that Clinton also "went on a rip on, 'we need to lead, if we don't lead, other are going to lead,' that is, I think, a distancing of Obama, big time."

The differences may ultimately be more rhetorical than substantive. Any new president is going to face limited options in the Middle East. And "on Russia and China, the jury's out as to whether she's going to be a substantially different president than Obama," says O'Hanlon. But as any good diplomat knows, words matter tremendously in foreign affairs. And it's somewhat ironic that it was Clinton, not the oratorically gifted Obama, giving the kind of uplifting speech that will bring comfort to worried allies overseas.