At left, Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event, Feb. 21, 2016, in Atlanta; at right, Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally, June 2, 2016, in El Centro, Calif.

At left, Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event, Feb. 21, 2016, in Atlanta; at right, Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally, June 2, 2016, in El Centro, Calif. Images via AP

Here's How Clinton and Trump Stack Up on National Security, Russia, ISIS and More

With foreign policy now central to the 2016 election, the Council on Foreign Relations offers this nonpartisan guide to the candidates’ positions on a range of issues.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a leading architect of the Obama administration’s strategic rebalance to Asia as well as the so-called “reset” in U.S. relations with Russia. Donald Trump is a prominent businessman and real estate mogul who has raised U.S. strength and competitiveness as chief issues and generated controversy over his views on immigration reform. Here's where they both stand on national defense, China, Iran, ISIS, North Korea, Russia, immigration and Cuba

National Defense

Clinton: Hillary Clinton advocates the use of “smart power” in the pursuit of U.S. foreign policy objectives, which she says means “choosing the right combination of tools—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—for each situation.” As secretary of state, she sought close collaboration with her counterparts at the Pentagon, Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta.

She referred to the Obama’s administration’s intervention in Libya in 2011, which was authorized by the United Nations and supported by the Arab League, as “smart power at its best.” She said the United States provided essential military capabilities, like intelligence, but that NATO allies in Europe took the lead in combat operations.

Clinton voted for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was an early supporter for arming and training “vetted” Syrian rebels in 2012. She also supported the surge in Afghanistan in 2009 and for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq beyond 2011. In 2015, she supported the creation of a no-fly zone in Syria.

In a 2014 interview surveying her tenure as secretary, Clinton said she was “thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat” and applying some of the U.S. strategy used during the Cold War to current foreign policy challenges, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State and Russia.

Clinton’s campaign website lists several foreign policy priorities that could involve the U.S. military: prohibiting Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon; defeating the Islamic State; holding China accountable on issues like cybersecurity, containing and deterring Russian aggression; and strengthening alliances, particularly with Israel. Additionally, she says the government must take better care of veterans and military families.

Trump: Donald Trump has said he would increase the size, power, and reach of the military, but has offered few specifics. He has also criticized the readiness of U.S. nuclear forces.

Trump has opposed some recent U.S. military interventions, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “I do not believe that we made the right decision going into Iraq, but, you know, hopefully, we’ll be getting out,” he said in 2004. He supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, although he has criticized the length of U.S. involvement there.

In the days after the Brussels attacks in March 2016 that left more than thirty people dead, Trump questioned the utility of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He called the Cold War-era institution "obsolete" for, among other things, focusing too little on terrorism, and said the United States was paying much more than its fair share for the alliance. "It’s become very bureaucratic, extremely expensive and maybe is not flexible enough to go after terror. Terror is very much different than what NATO was set up for."

Meanwhile, Trump said that as president he would be willing to withdraw U.S. military forces from allied countries like Japan and Korea if they did not "increase their contribution significantly."

In his 2011 book Time to Get Tough, Trump listed seven core principles of his foreign policy doctrine, which emphasizes defense: 1) American interests come first; 2) Maximum firepower and military preparedness; 3) Only go to war to win; 4) Stay loyal to your friends and suspicious of your enemies; 5) Keep the technological sword razor sharp; 6) See the unseen. Prepare for threats before they materialize; and 7) Respect and support our present and past warriors.


Clinton: Hillary Clinton says the next administration must continue to cultivate trust and cooperate with China on a range of international challenges, like North Korea and climate change, while keeping competition within acceptable limits. The U.S.-China relationship is not one that “fits neatly into categories like friend or rival,” she wrote in her 2014 memoir Hard Choices.

In 2015, she criticized China for “trying to hack into everything that doesn't move in America,” and called on the United States to remain vigilant. “China's military is growing very quickly, they're establishing military installations that again threaten countries we have treaties with, like the Philippines, because they are building on contested property,” she said in July 2015.

As secretary of state, Clinton was a central actor in the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot” to Asia. Her first official trip abroad as the top U.S. diplomat in 2009 included visits to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China, which she said was intended to highlight the emerging strategic importance of China and the Asia-Pacific region.

In July 2009, she and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner inaugurated an annual program of high-level talks with Beijing known as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Clinton laid out the Obama administration’s multi-pronged strategy for the region in an essay that ran in Foreign Policy in 2011. “Our challenge now is to build a web of partnerships and institutions across the Pacific that is as durable and as consistent with American interests and values as the web we have built across the Atlantic,” she wrote.

Clinton’s remarks at a security forum in Vietnam in 2010 generated great international interest, in particular her reference to the “national interest” the United States has “in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”

She has also regularly criticized China’s record on human rights. As first lady in 1995, she delivered an address at a UN conference in Beijing in which she tacitly rebuked the Chinese government for its treatment of women and one-child policy. “It is a violation of human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families, and that includes being forced to have abortions or being sterilized against their will,” she said. In 2008, she called on President George W. Bush to boycott the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing, pointing to political violence in Tibet and China’s failure to pressure Sudan to halt the violence in Darfur.

Trump: China has bested the United States in recent years, particularly with regard to trade and economic policy, according to Donald Trump. He singled China out for criticism in his June 2015 announcement speech, accusing the country of dumping its exports and of devaluing its currency, the yuan. Trump said that as president he would impose tariffs on Chinese goods to change Beijing’s economic policies. “If they don't come to the table, they're going to have a tax when they put their products into this country. And they're going to behave,” he said in September 2015.

In November 2015, Trump outlined his plan for reforming U.S. trade relations with China. He would as president formally designate China a currency manipulator, crack down on what he says is its theft of U.S. intellectual property, and expose its various export subsidy practices. As president, he would also seek to lower the U.S. corporate income tax rate, decrease the national debt, and ramp up the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, all of which he says would bolster Washington’s bargaining position with respect to Beijing.


Clinton: Hillary Clinton supports the multinational deal with Iran to stop its nuclear program but says the United States must ensure that Tehran complies. “My approach will be distrust and verify. We should anticipate that Iran will test the next president. They’ll want to see how far they can bend the rules. That won’t work if I’m in the White House,” she said in September 2015 (PDF). Clinton says as president, she would penalize Iran for any violation of the agreement and reintroduce sanctions unilaterally, if necessary. In the event Iran attempts to acquire a nuclear weapon, she “will not hesitate to take military action,” she says.

Previously, Clinton said Iran had no right to enrich uranium. (The current agreement allows Iran limited enrichment capacity.) “Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich,” she said in an August 2014 interview.

Iran and allied militant groups continue to destabilize the broader region and pose an existential threat to Israel, Clinton says. “We cannot ever take that lightly, particularly when Iran ships advanced missiles to Hezbollah, and the Ayatollah outlines an actual strategy for eliminating Israel or talks about how Israel won’t exist in twenty-five years,” she said. Her administration, she says, would continue to maintain Israel’s military superiority by providing it the latest U.S. weapons technology, including F-35 fighters and missile defense systems.

As secretary of state, Clinton played a central role in gaining UN Security Council support for international sanctions against Iran in 2010, and she pressed many countries, including India and China, to stop purchasing Iranian oil. “In the end our efforts led to every major Iranian customer, even the most reluctant, agreeing to reduce their purchases of Iran’s oil,” she wrote in her 2014 memoir Hard Choices. Meanwhile, she says she regrets that the Obama administration did not speak out more forcefully against Iran’s crackdown on democratic protests known as the Green Movement in 2009.

Trump: The multinational nuclear agreement with Iran is a “terrible” deal that the Obama administration pursued out of “desperation,” and that threatens the future of Israel, Donald Trump says. He opposes all aspects of the deal, including its duration, the lifting of international sanctions, and the inspections regime. He said in March 2016 that it should have included a commitment by Iran to help the United States isolate North Korea. He promises to renegotiate the agreement if elected president but has offered few specifics.


Clinton: Hillary Clinton says President Obama waited too long to begin arming and training “moderate” Syrian rebels, a delay she says has contributed to the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and other militant groups in the Middle East.

As secretary of state, Clinton led the U.S diplomatic effort to end the conflict in Syria and remove President Bashar al-Assad from power after his crackdown on anti-government protests beginning in 2011. After leaving government, she supported the president’s decision to seek approval from Congress to conduct airstrikes in Syria in retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013. And she supported the administration’s agreement with Russia, reached days later, to eliminate the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpile.

In the aftermath of the Islamic State’s November 2015 attacks on Paris and Beirut, Clinton presented a detailed plan to defeat the group that called on the United States and its allies to intensify military and diplomatic efforts. “Our strategy should have three main elements,” shesaid at CFR. “One, defeat ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East. Two, disrupt and dismantle the growing terrorist infrastructure that facilitates the flow of fighters, financing, arms, and propaganda around the world. Three, harden our defenses and those of our allies against external and homegrown threats.”

Clinton supports President Obama’s decision ruling out the deployment of a large number of U.S. combat troops to defeat the Islamic State, and says that a ground force should be drawn from the region, particularly Sunni Arabs and Kurds in both Iraq and Syria. However, Clinton says U.S. special forces should be given greater freedom to train Iraqi forces and Syrian rebels and to accompany them into battle, if necessary.

Meanwhile, she says the United States and its coalition partners should step up intelligence gathering, conduct more airstrikes, and establish a no-fly zone over Syria to provide refugees with a sanctuary.

In December, Clinton called on U.S. government agencies to work with top technology companies to shut down the online presence of violent extremist groups like the Islamic State. She also called for greater screening of certain migrants coming to the United States, including requiring those who have traveled to a country with “serious problems with terrorism and foreign fighters” in the past five years to undergo a full visa inquiry.

As U.S. senator, Clinton voted in 2002 to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a decision she says in 2015 was a mistake. However, she says the Iraqi government was wrong not to allow several thousand U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after 2011.

Trump: Donald Trump has generally been critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East. In September 2015, he said the United States should wait out the conflict in Syria, and allow militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State to wage war on the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. “Why aren't we letting ISIS go and fight Assad and then we pick up the remnants?” he said.

After the November 2015 Paris attacks, Trump said he would intensify military attacks on the Islamic State and restrict the group’s ability to use the Internet as a recruiting tool. “We've got to take back the Internet because they are taking people. They're literally brainwashing people,” Trump said at a campaign event in Massachusetts.

In a March 2016 debate, the candidate seemed to indicate he would be willing as president to deploy on the ground tens of thousands of U.S. troops to battle the Islamic State. "We really have no choice. We have to knock out ISIS," he said. "I would listen to the generals, but I'm hearing numbers of 20,000 to 30,000." Days later, Trump said in an interview that he would likely suspend U.S. purchases of Saudi Arabian oil if the Gulf country did not contribute troops to the fight against ISIS. Meanwhile, Trump called for a greater U.S. effort to disrupt the Islamic State's access to oil revenues and "dark banking channels."

Trump has favored the creation of so-called safe zones for refugees in parts of Syria. He said the U.S. military could lead efforts to protect these areas but that other countries, particularly the Gulf states and Germany, should pay for the operation.

North Korea

Clinton: Clinton supports using sanctions to isolate North Korea until the regime gives up its nuclear arsenal. In January 2016, after North Korea tested a nuclear device for the fourth time, Clinton said the United States must work with the United Nations to impose additional sanctions and called on China to use its influence to deter Pyongyang’s “irresponsible actions.” The United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region should also bolster their missile defenses, she said.

During her tenure as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, North Korea broke off multi-party talks and violated UN prohibitions against testing long-range rockets and conducting nuclear weapons tests. Clinton continued the U.S. policy of calling on Pyongyang to abide by a September 2005 joint statement that sought a “verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner.” The United States, working through the UN, helped put together a multilateral regime of sanctions on North Korea aimed at pressuring it to give up its nuclear weapons program. Additionally, Clinton said she supported the Obama administration’s so-called pivot to Asia in part because the United States needed a greater military presence in the region to counter the North Korean threat.

Trump: Donald Trump has said the U.S. government should be paying more attention to North Korea, a nuclear-armed country he said is led by a “maniac,” referring to Kim Jong-un. The candidate in May 2016 stated that he would be willing to speak to Kim-Jong-un.

After North Korea tested a nuclear device in January 2016, Trump said China and South Korea should put pressure on Pyongyang. He said China has “total control” over North Korea and that if Beijing doesn’t “solve the problem, we should make trade very difficult with China.” Weeks later, following the North’s launch of a satellite that Western countries suspect was a front for a ballistic missile test, Trump again called on China to intervene. “I would get China to make [Kim Jong-un] disappear in one form or another very quickly,” he said in an interview with CBS News.

Speaking to the New York Times in March, Trump indicated that as president he might support Japan's developing its own nuclear weapons capability in response to the threat from North Korea. Additionally, he said he would be willing to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea and Japan if these treaty allies did not contribute more financially to these relationships.

In 2000, Trump wrote that he would preemptively strike North Korea if it continued to pursue nuclear weapons technology: “I would let Pyongyang know in no uncertain terms that it can either get out of the nuclear arms race or expect a rebuke similar to the one Ronald Reagan delivered to Muammar Gadhafi in 1986.”


Clinton: Hillary Clinton says the United States needs to work with Russia on issues of common interest where possible, like arms control, but partner with allies to limit Russia’s transgressions when needed, as in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin views the United States as a “competitor” and wants to reestablish a Russian sphere of influence in its neighborhood while projecting its power in other places like the Mideast, Clinton says.

The United States should respond by strengthening the NATO alliance and improving the energy security of European states, many of which rely on Russian natural gas. Clinton has called for tougher measures against Putin to punish him for invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea as well as for supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “I remain convinced that we need a concerted effort to really up the cost on Russia and, in particular, on Putin,” Clinton said in September 2015.

“I think it’s important too that the United States make it very clear to Putin that it’s not acceptable for him to be in Syria creating more chaos, bombing people on behalf of Assad, and we can’t do that if we don’t take more of a leadership position, which is what I’m advocating,” she said at the Democratic debate in October 2015.

As secretary of state, Clinton was an architect of the so-called “reset” in U.S. relations with Russia, a diplomatic approach that sought greater cooperation with Russia, but that some critics say fell short and encouraged Russian aggression. She says the reset had a number of early victories, including sanctions on Iran and North Korea, supply lines in Afghanistan, Russia’s entering the World Trade Organization, UN support for a no-fly zone in Libya, and wider cooperation on counterterrorism.

Trump: Donald Trump says that Russian President Vladimir Putin does not respect President Obama and that this has encouraged Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. “President Obama is not doing what he should be doing in Ukraine,” he said in September 2015, although he did not give specifics on what U.S. policy should be. He did, however, call on other European states to support Kiev. “With respect to Ukraine, people have to band together from other parts of Europe to help,” Trump said.

In early 2016, Trump questioned whether the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an alliance founded decades ago to counter the Soviet threat, was still relevant in today's security environment. Moreover, he said the United States was paying much more than its fair share for the alliance. "It’s become very bureaucratic, extremely expensive and maybe is not flexible enough to go after terror. Terror is very much different than what NATO was set up for." Despite his criticisms, however, Trump said that as president he would honor U.S. treaty commitments under NATO, including defending the Baltic states from potential Russian encroachment.

At times, Trump has praised Putin’s brand of leadership and said he would enjoy meeting the Russian leader. “I will tell you in terms of leadership he is getting an 'A,' and our president is not doing so well,” Trump said in September 2015. He has said that because of his business background and his frequent trips to Moscow, he would likely have a “great relationship with Putin.”

In the Middle East, Trump has suggested that the United States let Russian forces destroy the self-declared Islamic State in Syria. In October 2015, he characterized Russian airstrikes in Syria as a “positive thing,” adding that Russia would likely suffer the same fate as the United States in the region. “We just get bogged down in the Middle East and Russia will get bogged down in the Middle East,” he said.


Clinton: Few issues provide more grist for debate in Washington and on the campaign trail than immigration, particularly as it relates to border security and the legal status of the more than eleven million undocumented people living in the United States, most for more than a decade. The White House and many from both parties in Congress have in recent years pushed for a complete overhaul of the immigration system, including changes that would affect high-skilled legal immigrants, but comprehensive legislation has proved elusive.

In the absence of legislative reforms, President Barack Obama has moved independently to defer deportation and allow temporary work permits for nearly half of the undocumented population. Many Republican leaders condemn the actions as executive overreach and are challenging them in court, while most Democrats say the president is acting within his constitutional authority. But experts say that even if the president’s actions stand, they would fall far short of the broader fix that’s needed from Congress to address the range of immigration challenges, including border security, interior enforcement, employment verification, legalization of the undocumented, and visas.

The ongoing conflict in Syria and terrorist attacks in Western Europe and the United States further stoked the immigration debate, with many policymakers and presidential candidates from both parties calling for changes in how U.S. agencies screen foreign nationals seeking entry to the country, particularly refugees.

Trump:  Donald Trump has made illegal immigration a signature issue of his presidential campaign, generating headlines with controversial remarks about the nature of the challenge and his plans for reform. When he announced his candidacy in June 2015, he claimed that Mexico was sending violent criminals, including rapists, into the United States. (Mexico denies doing this.) He has also called for the deportation of the more than eleven million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. “We're rounding 'em up in a very humane way, in a very nice way. And they're going to be happy because they want to be legalized,” he said in September 2015.

Trump issued a policy paper in August 2015 outlining his three-point plan for immigration reform. First, he pledges to construct a wall across the entire southern U.S. border, which he says the Mexican government should either finance or be subject to a number of penalties. These will include, Trump says, the United States withholding billions of dollars in remittance payments to Mexico; hiking fees and possibly cancelling visas issued to Mexicans; and increasing fees at ports of entry to the United States from Mexico. “The cost of building a permanent border wall pales mightily in comparison to what American taxpayers spend every single year on dealing with the fallout of illegal immigration on their communities, schools and unemployment offices,” he writes.

Second, he pledges to ramp up law enforcement, including tripling the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, imposing nationwide e-verify, deporting all criminal non-citizens, defunding so-called sanctuary cities (municipalities that critics say do not fully enforce federal immigration laws), raising penalties for those who overstay their visa, and ending birthright citizenship. “[The guarantee of birthright citizenship] remains the biggest magnet for illegal immigration,” he says.

Lastly, he says he will restrict legal immigration, including the flow of guest workers and refugees, and legally require U.S. businesses to hire U.S. citizens before others.

Trump has said that if elected president he would not only prevent Syrian refugees from coming to the United States, but he would also deport those already in the country.

After the December 2015 attacks in San Bernadino, California, Trump proposed temporarily banning all Muslims from entering the country. The candidate in June 2016 said that he would "suspend immigration from areas of the world when there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe or our allies." The ban could be lifted, Trump said, once the United States is "in a position to properly and perfectly screen those people coming into our country."

The Republican candidate applauded the Supreme Court's ruling in June that upheld a temporary ban on one of President Obama's so-called deferred action programs.


Clinton: The former secretary of state embraces the normalization of ties with Cuba and in July 2015 called for lifting the economic embargo. “The Cuba embargo needs to go, once and for all,” she said in a speech in Miami. “We should replace it with a smarter approach that empowers the Cuban private sector, Cuban civil society, and the Cuban-American community to spur progress and keep pressure on the regime.” She called the embargo an “albatross” on U.S. diplomacy in Latin America and said, “Most Republican candidates still view Cuba—and Latin America more broadly—through an outdated Cold War lens.”

Clinton said that as president, if Congress does not lift the embargo, she would use executive authority to further reduce travel restrictions to the island. She wrote in her 2014 book, Hard Choices, that as secretary of state she urged President Obama to reconsider the embargo. “Since 1960, the United States had maintained an embargo against the island in hopes of squeezing Castro from power, but it only succeeded in giving him a foil to blame for Cuba's economic woes,” she wrote.

Her recent positions mark a shift from a tougher posture toward Cuba. As first lady, Clinton supported the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which strengthened the U.S. embargo against Cuba. (President Bill Clinton signed it into law.) During her 2008 presidential campaign, Clinton said she opposed lifting the embargo on an undemocratic Cuba. She has since said she changed her mind on Cuba policy when she realized the embargo wasn’t achieving its goals. “I thought we should shift the onusonto the Castros to explain why they remained undemocratic and abusive,” she wrote in Hard Choices.

Trump: In a break with much of his party, Donald Trump says he supports diplomacy with Cuba. “The concept of opening with Cuba is fine,” he said in September 2015, adding, “but we should have made a better deal.”

In 1999, the real-estate developer wrote in favor of the embargo, claiming that he had turned down offers to partner with European investment groups to develop properties on the island. “I had a choice to make: huge profits or human rights,” Trump wrote. “For me, it was a no-brainer.”

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