US Presidential Elections and Foreign Policy

Posted on Posted in Analyses, International Developments, North & Latin America

By Olga Aristeidou, International Relations Expert

2016 is a year of Presidential elections for the United States of America. After two terms in the Presidency of the country, Barack Obama will give his seat to someone else, given that the U.S. Constitution prevents him from running for a third term. Less than ten months before this important change for the American and world history, let us firstly analyze some of the recent polls and then, the foreign policy plans of the main presidential candidates.

According to the last polls, among the Republican candidates, Donald Trump has a big lead in the race for the presidential nomination. The Reuters- Ipsos tracking poll conducted on Friday 22nd of January showed that Donald Trump swamps his opponents with 40.6 percent share of those surveyed.[i] The next four challengers are Ted Cruz drawing 10.5 percent, Ben Carson with 9.7 percent, Jeb Bush with 9.2 percent and Marco Rubio with 7.2 percent. [ii] In another poll conducted from December 28, 2015 through January 3, 2016, by the NBC NewsISurveyMonkey Weekly Election Tracking Poll, Donald Trump had also a sizable lead among the other Republican candidates, with 35 percent of the votes. Ted Cruz was again second, with 18 percent and Marco Rubio third with 13 percent.[iii] In general, in a three-month polling average, Donald Trump has an average of 29 percent, compared with an average of 17 percent for Ben Carson, 14 percent for Ted Cruz and 12 percent for Marco Rubio.[iv]

As far as the Democratic presidential race is concerned, Hillary Clinton leads the race with a three-month polling average of 59 percent, compared to a 33 percent of Bernie Sanders.[v] According to the NBC NewsISurveyMonkey Weekly Election Tracking Poll for the week of December 28, 2015 through January 3, 2016, Hillary Clinton leads Sanders by a 17-point margin (53 to 36 percent).[vi] Another poll, released the second week of 2016, by CBS News/ New York Times found Clinton at 48 percent to 41% for Sanders.[vii]

What plans does each candidate have for foreign policy issues, like Daesh, Syria, Iran, Russia? Let us take one-by-one the main candidates, i.e. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and see what they have announced.

The Republicans

Donald Trump’s motto is “let’s make America great again” and even though he has been repeatedly accused of being racist and sexist, he continues to be the Republican presidential front- runner.  But what is his foreign policy? In his website, one can find his position on reforming the U.S.- China trade relationship to “make America great again”. Neither ISIS, nor USA – Russia relations nor anything else on foreign policy, like other candidates’ official websites. He seems to lack basic knowledge on foreign affairs and he proved it when he was asked about more specific issues regarding Middle East.

During interviews and speeches, Trump “has cast himself as a ferocious critic of the Islamic State and Iran, but he has a curious view of two countries- Russia and China- that are not enemies but are perhaps better described as a rival and a competitor, respectively.”[viii] In addition, some of his statements are the following: “Why are we knocking ISIS, and yet at the same time we are against Assad? Let them fight, take over the remnants” and “Let Russia fight ISIS, if they want to fight them in Syria. We can fight them in Iraq.”[ix]

Compared to Donald Trump, Ted Cruz has a more clear position on foreign policy and he has started to attract more attention than before. The Texas Senator and favorite of Tea Party fiscal conservatives, has outlined that his foreign policy is neither “full neocon” nor “libertarian isolationist”[x]  and that it follows Ronald Reagan’s footsteps. He has been a strong opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, calling it ‘catastrophic’ and ‘disastrous’. Moreover, he has said that USA “should include the Jordanian and Egyptian militaries and do whatever is necessary and required to defeat ISIS.”[xi] His views on foreign policy could be summarized in six phrases, as stated in his official website: 1) restore USA as a shining beacon, 2) exert world leadership, 3) rebuild US military, 4) defeat ISIS, 5) protect the homeland and 6) rip up the Iran deal.[xii]

Recently, Ben Carson was severely criticized as “unable to process foreign policy” by one of his former advisors. More specifically, according to New York Times, Duane R. Clarridge, a retired CIA official who was coaching Ben Carson for several years, said that he was “frustrated with his inability to comprehend the intricacies of national security.”[xiii] This may not be absolutely true, but the fact that the former neurosurgeon is not so familiar with foreign affairs is true.

Ben Carson has stated that, in contrast with the Obama Administration, if elected his administration will lead from the front, promote peace and prosperity. He intends to “rearm the US military, to renew the National Security establishment and to revitalize critical alliances (especially with Israel and the NATO members).” He also intends to “seek to destroy ISIS, withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, punish Russia for its naked land grabs and seek opportunities for cooperation with China.”[xiv]

The Democrats

Hillary Clinton’s “National Security” framework includes issues, such as Iran’s nuclear deal, defeating ISIS, US position towards Russia and China, creating or strengthening alliances and partnerships.[xv] Particularly, Hillary claims that USA and its allies will be safer if USA enforces the nuclear agreement with Iran and implement a broader strategy to confront Iran’s behavior in the region. Concerning ISIS and terrorism in general, Hillary believes that she could defeat it, through US ongoing partnership to build Iraqi military and governing capacity, its commitment to Afghanistan’s democracy and security, and by supporting efforts to restore stability to Libya and Yemen. In her plan, she outlined several particular points: the first was that USA needs to crush ISIS on its home turf. That means “going after the group in Syria, Iraq and across the Middle East”. The second was that USA needs to disrupt and dismantle terrorist infrastructure- on the ground and online. She particularly emphasized the “online”, as “ISIS and global jihadists are recruiting, training and inciting violence on social media. They have mastered the art of online propaganda.”[xvi]

Towards China, Hillary Clinton wants to encourage it to be a responsible stakeholder, including on cyberspace, human rights, trade, territorial disputes, and climate change. Simultaneously, America’s role as a Pacific power will be reasserted. Concerning Russia, Hillary believes that she would be able to confine, contain, and deter Russian aggression in Europe and beyond, and increase the costs to Putin for his actions. Her plans also include the creation of new partnerships in Latin America, Africa and Asia, but also the strengthening of the alliances in Middle East, Asia and Europe.

Hillary Clinton has portrayed her rival Bernie Sanders as “inexperienced and ill-equipped to address the firestorms in the Middle East.”[xvii] But what plans has Sanders announced? Senator Sanders believes in “strength through diplomacy”. He has stressed the fact that military action and war are for him the last resort, and even when military action has to be used, it must be limited in scope and have clear goals.

Concerning the war against terrorism, he has been repeatedly accused by Hillary Clinton that he has not a concrete strategy. He believes that USA “must begin to address the root causes of radicalization, instead of focusing solely on military responses to those who have already become radicalized.” Moreover, he emphasizes that “US defense budget must represent its national security interests and the needs of the military, not the reelection of members of Congress or the profits of defense contractors.”[xviii] Finally, concerning the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, Senator Sanders supports a two-state solution. According to him “he Palestinian people, in my view, deserve a state of their own, they deserve an economy of their own, they deserve economic support from the people of this country. And Israel needs to be able to live in security without terrorist attacks.”

[i] “Poll: Trump in lead at 40.6 percent”, Reuters, January 22, 2016, Available at

[ii] Ibid

[iii] John Lapinski, Hannah Hartig and Stephanie Psyllos, “Poll: Donald Trump Still Leads the GOP Field”, NBC News, January 5, 2016, Available at

[iv] Dan Roberts, “US Presidential election 2016: the state of the Republican race as the year begins”, The Guardian, January 1, 2016, Available at

[v] Dan Roberts, “US Presidential election 2016: the state of the Democratic race as the year starts”, The Guardian, January 2, 2016, Available at

[vi] John Lapinski, Stephanie Psyllos and Hannah Hartig, “Clinton Maintains Lead Over Sanders Heading Into Primaries”, NBC News, January 5, 2016, Available at

[vii] Eugene Scott, “Poll: Clinton leading Sanders nationally by 25 points”, CNN, January 18, 2016, Available at

[viii] Thomas Wright, “Trump’s 19th Century Foreign Policy”, Politico, January 20, 2016, Available at

[ix] Chad Merda, “Donald Trump’s foreign policy: “Let Russia fight ISIS”, National Sun Times, September 29, 2015, Available at

[x] Jamie Weinstein, “The Cruz Doctrine: Ted Cruz Opens Up About His Foreign Policy Worldview”, The Daily Caller, April 28, 2015, Available at

[xi] Daniel Drezner, “The Contradictory Passions of Ted Cruz’s Foreign Policy”, The Washington Post, December 15, 2015, Available at


[xiii] Anthony Zurcher, “Ben Carson: Unable to process foreign policy?”, BBC, November 18, 2015, Available at



[xvi] Kat Kane, “Hillary Clinton just outlined a plan to defeat ISIS and global terror.3 things you need to know.”, November 19, 2015, Available at

[xvii] Amy Chozick, “Hillary Clinton Knocks Bernie Sanders on Iran”, The New York Times, January 21, 2016, Available at