The national security insiders gathered at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House Wednesday afternoon were restless. In less than a week, Donald Trump had aimed a kick at every pillar of longstanding U.S. doctrine: alliances (make NATO pay to play); partnerships inased on respect (electronically monitor all Muslims in the country); and basic assessments of friend vs. foe (encouraging Russia to hack a former secretary of state). So why, they wondered, didn’t the convention have a national security-themed night? Why was the all-star team of veterans, four-stars and former Cabinet members split up, with Madeleine Albright speaking Tuesday, Leon Panetta Wednesday, and John Allen Thursday?
The surprising answer became clear later that night: international experience and expertise are now built so deeply into Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party that you couldn’t fit all the speakers into one program. Whereas Obama’s 2008 campaign brought a group of veterans on stage as a visual for an inexperienced candidate, Clinton 2016 kept that backdrop and sprinkled a dozen veterans and family-member speakers, by my count, through all four nights.
Political scientist and Clinton adviser Bruce Jentleson describes Clinton’s approach to world affairs as combining “elements of 20th century thinking and 21st century thinking.” Another way to frame this is the great divide between classic great-power politics and the new world of intangible, non-state actors. Twentieth century thinking describes the primacy of states and the continuing utility of force; twenty-first century, on the other hand, a healthy respect for networks, coalitions, and sources of power that don’t respect borders and can’t be counted like Army divisions or dividend checks. At the convention, the twenty-first century political reality that the foreign just will not stay foreign won out—and showed that Clinton may be ahead of the national security establishment that champions her. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright shared her night with the “Mothers of the Movement.” This spoke volumes. The word “security” has many meanings in American life. But whether it’s losing a child to combat, gun violence or a hate crime, fear has only one neural pathway.
Wednesday night featured former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta in attack-dog mode. While his frontline performance drew hecklers, the scope of the night drew a picture of security policies that sit well with the Democratic Party—and the Democratic faithful loved them back. Also, an admiral who has devoted the last decade to speaking out against torture called Trump “a walking, talking recruiting poster for terrorists.” And a Marine Corps veteran of Iraq, lesbian and co-founder of the Military Acceptance Project, provided a visual of what a millennial security progressive might look like. And, of course, Wednesday brought Barack Obama and Joe Biden, who made sure to include Clinton in both of their victory laps for the elimination of Osama Bin Laden and the deft diplomacy that led to the Iran nuclear deal.
The stage was set for Thursday. Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs in Iraq and is now challenging Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, was only the first in a lineup that included four-star General John Allen, a highly-regarded former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Allen appeared, backed by a contingent of veterans endorsing Clinton, and made the case for a traditional liberal internationalist foreign policy.
What captured the imagination, though, was less Allen than the immigrant father of an American Muslim soldier killed in Iraq while protecting his troops. “Let me ask you,” Khizr Khan demanded of Donald Trump, “have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.” Khan, and his wife beside him, were no longer the threatening Others who feature in every Trump speech—and, let’s be clear, all the 2014 midterm rhetoric about terrorists sneaking over the border to give us Ebola, and eight years of hate-filled talk radio about secret Muslims and sharia law. The Khans were recognizably the same species of grieving parent as featured at both conventions on other nights—military, law enforcement, civilian; black, white and brown.
This is foreign policy’s present and its future; inextricably bound up with how Americans live at home; impossible to separate from whether and how we strengthen our social fabric, restore economic mobility, regain the space to govern across party lines.
When Clinton took the stage, the national security case had already been made for her, and she reflected that—with confident touches on Iran, Israel, and climate, and a few sentences on ISIS, which commentators noted were the most detailed any speaker at either convention had allotted to the terror group. And then there was the unapologetic bow to the view that the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is not a good enough deal for Americans—making it perfectly clear to anyone who still hadn’t understood that it is no longer possible to make global security policy that can’t be sold as at least neutral to the interests of unnerved American workers and consumers.
It’s been a very long time since Democrats had a nominee who was truly confident on both credentials and expertise in dealing with the world beyond our shores. What many believed would be John Kerry’s greatest strength in 2004 was hung around his neck. Before that, remember submariner Jimmy Carter? (It’s been a while for Republicans, too. If you disqualify John McCain, because he had to contend with W.’s Iraq legacy, you have to look back to Bob Dole in 1996.)
But that’s Clinton’s game. Very little bluster, few outsized promises; but confidence that her own track record on the one hand, and Trump’s enthusiasm for violence and unpredictability on the other, will win her fans.
In the immediate aftermath of the convention, this looks like a winning strategy. It has two pitfalls, though. First, while Clinton is well regarded by the public across national-security issues and beats Trump head-to-head on foreign-policy considerations, the same is not true down-ballot. Even when Obama was riding highest in public trust on security issues, after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, his high ratings never translated to members of Congress. The elected officials who would be Clinton’s partners in office—and a next generation of national-security leadership—have a great deal of work to do in order to convey their own message of personal confidence, and American confidence, to their electorates.
Second, after the confetti is swept away, the American public will remain divided on the what and how of foreign policy in a way we have not seen in two generations. This divide cuts across both parties, rather than between them. George Mason University’s Colin Dueck astutely notes that Republican “nationalists” and “non-interventionists” have banded together to push the party’s neoconservative foreign policy elite aside. It can be harder to plumb the Democrats’ differences, which fall along a spectrum of thought on how much the arc of history needs help bending toward justice. But Democrats have a non-interventionist wing as well, represented imperfectly by Bernie Sanders in the primaries.
Twenty-four years ago, Bill Clinton ran the first post-Cold War campaign, pivoting away from world affairs to “the economy, stupid” against an incumbent whose greatest achievement was managing the crumbling of the international status quo. If Hillary Clinton becomes President, she will, it turns out, face her own reckoning with international institutions that are under attack from dissatisfied publics and revanchist actors from Putin to ISIS. She will face them without unity among elites, her own party or the public.
But she won’t be hiding behind a wall.