Donald Trump poses a threat to America’s national security, and to the safety and stability of the rest of the world, Hillary Clinton argued on Thursday. Contrasting her track record as secretary of state with Trump’s lack of foreign-policy experience, Clinton made the case that the presumptive Republican nominee is, above all, unqualified to be president.
“Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different,” Clinton said solemnly. “They are dangerously incoherent. They are not even really ideas, just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds and outright lies.” Her speech, delivered in San Diego, portrayed Trump, by turns, as menacing, reckless, comical, even pathological. She reminded Americans of the stakes of the election, and sketched out a dystopian vision of what might befall America if Trump were elected president: “Letting ISIS run wild, launching a nuclear attack, starting a ground war, these are all distinct possibilities with Donald Trump in change.”
The speech marks a dramatic escalation of Clinton’s attacks against Trump, a sign that the Democratic frontrunner is increasingly turning attention toward the general election even as her primary fight against Bernie Sanders drags on. It makes sense that Clinton would point to her foreign policy credentials to argue that she is better prepared to serve as commander-in-chief. But it remains unclear whether voters want a candidate, like Clinton, who can deploy careful, nuanced national-security arguments, or if they prefer a candidate, like Trump, whose approach to foreign policy frequently appears to be grounded in gut instinct.
During her speech, Clinton portrayed Trump’s foreign policy as dangerous and divisive. She denounced the Republican candidate’s criticism of the NATO alliance, his suggestions that it would be acceptable to kill the family members of terrorists, his remarks that it might not “be a bad thing” if Japan acquired nuclear weapons, and his call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” “A Trump presidency would embolden ISIS,” Clinton declared, since his proposed Muslim ban “alienates the very countries we need to help us win in this fight.” She decried “Donald’s bizarre fascination with dictators and strongmen who have no love for America,” saying she would “leave it to the psychiatrists to explain his affection for tyrants.”
Clinton relied heavily on her own experience enacting diplomacy to make the case that she has the track record, and judgment to keep the country safe. She ticked off a litany of what she described as her own foreign policy achievements, saying she “negotiated the reduction of nuclear weapons with Russia, twisted arms to bring the world together in global sanctions against Iran, and stood up for the rights of women, religious minorities, and LGBT people around the world.” She talked up the strength and importance of America’s network of allies, and emphasized the importance of electing a president with the temperament to make responsible foreign policy decisions. “Making the right call takes a cool head and respect for the facts,” Clinton warned, before asking Americans to imagine what kind of calls Trump might make if he were sitting in the White House Situation Room.
The differences between Clinton and Trump’s approaches to foreign policy are vast. Clinton is likely to represent a departure by degree from the status quo under President Obama, while Trump has advocated action that could dramatically alter the way the U.S. engages with the rest of the world. “Clinton is more hawkish than the average Democrat and more inclined to use military force, but she is likely to be more interventionist in a narrow range of potential scenarios compared to Trump,” said Elizabeth Saunders, a political science professor at George Washington University. “Trump is sometimes portrayed as more restrained because he has an isolationist streak, but if he used force it might happen in a more extreme and unpredictable way.”
Throughout the speech, Clinton seemed to take the threat of a Trump presidency seriously, while frequently mocking Trump himself. “There’s no risk of people losing their lives if you blow up a golf-course deal,” Clinton said to laughter in the crowd. “But it doesn’t work like that in world affairs. Just like being interviewed on the same episode of 60 minutes as [Vladimir] Putin was is not the same thing as actually dealing with Putin,” she said. Later Clinton added: “Imagine if he had not just his Twitter account at his disposal when he’s angry, but America’s entire arsenal.” Trump, responded, to the speech appropriately enough on Twitter. “Bad performance by Crooked Hillary Clinton! Reading poorly from the telepromter! She doesn’t even look presidential,” he tweeted.
It is impossible to predict exactly how Clinton or Trump would engage in diplomacy, or retreat from it, if elected president. It is also far from clear that Trump would be able to achieve many of his foreign-policy objectives. Nevertheless, Trump has explicitly promised an “unpredictable” foreign policy, and uncertainty equates to risk. “Clinton’s foreign-policy positions rely more heavily on her rich set of experiences. Trump’s more so on imagination,” said Amy Nelson, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Policies tend to be more vulnerable to biases, and errors, when they are based exclusively on imagination.”
The question is whether Clinton’s case against Trump will sway voters. Focusing on foreign policy could help Clinton appeal to Americans who fear the prospect of a Trump presidency, and the ways it might imperil national security. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll had promising results for Clinton on Thursday, reporting that 56 percent of voters think Clinton would handle foreign policy better than Trump. Emphasizing an assertive foreign policy might allow Clinton to blunt attacks from Trump that seek to portray her as weak on defense, a criticism frequently leveled against Democrats by Republicans.
Though foreign policy and international diplomacy is a complicated affair, America’s engagement abroad is frequently reduced to sound-bites in public debate as voter attention gravitates toward flashpoint issues. In the Democratic primary, Sanders has criticized Clinton’s foreign-policy judgment, pillorying her for her 2002 vote in support of the Iraq War, a decision she later said she regrets. Talking up foreign policy also threatens to set on edge Democrats who fear that Clinton is overly interventionist.
It is unclear if Clinton’s arguments will resonate with Republican voters who have rallied around Trump’s brash promises to protect America, seemingly at any cost. Trump’s lack of foreign-policy experience certainly seemed not to hurt him during the Republican primary election. When voter concern over terrorism spiked in the aftermath of attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, Trump continued to perform well in the polls. “Whenever there’s a tragedy, everything goes up, my numbers go way up because we have no strength in this country, we have weak, sad politicians,” Trump declared in December.
For his part, Trump can turn Clinton’s credentials to his advantage. He can cast her as a stand-in for the Obama administration’s controversial track-record on foreign policy, which critics say has has failed to keep America safe. He can argue that while she may have experience, she has not shown herself to be a capable leader. “With all of the Crooked Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy experience, she has made so many mistakes - and I mean real monsters! No more HRC,” Trump tweeted on Thursday. Before that, he called Clinton “a woman who is ill-suited to be president because she has bad judgment” in an interview with The New York Times. In a general election that pits Clinton against Trump, voters may have to decide what they find more appealing: an established track record or a relatively unknown quantity who brings with him the promise of brute force.