Hillary Clinton didn’t just take aim at Donald Trump’s national security policies in a major speech Thursday. She declared him unfit to negotiate with allies, command U.S. forces or be privy to the nuclear code.
“Americans aren’t just electing a president in November — we’re choosing our next commander in chief, a person we count on to decide questions of war and peace, life and death,” Clinton said in San Diego. “It’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because someone got under his very thin skin.”
Foreign policy rarely takes center stage in presidential campaigns. Voter interest tends to be limited. Broad bipartisan consensus on the big foreign policy questions often overshadows relatively narrow partisan differences.
But not this year.
Clinton is stressing her credentials as a former secretary of state who has negotiated a cease-fire with the Israelis and Palestinians, helped launch the nuclear talks with Iran and worked on the details of climate change issues with a host of foreign governments.
She contrasted her hands-on experience with Trump’s provocative campaign statements that include questioning the value of NATO, suggesting Japan and South Korea should acquire nuclear weapons and calling for temporary bans on Muslims entering the U.S.
Here are highlights of her speech and a breakdown of where Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, and Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, stand on major foreign policy questions.
Working With Allies
“We need to stick with our allies,” Clinton said, a theme she emphasized repeatedly. “America’s network of allies is part of what makes us exceptional. And our allies deliver for us every day. Our armed forces fight terrorists together. Our diplomats work side by side.”
In most campaigns, this is routine rhetoric, the kind of talk that candidates from both parties have been rolling out for decades to polite clapping. NATO is the cornerstone of security in Europe. U.S. alliances with Japan and Korea are the key to stability in East Asia.
Yet these were major applause lines in the pro-Clinton audience, because they stand in contrast to Trump’s repeated questioning of these longstanding relationships. Trump describes them as outdated arrangements where America shoulders far too much of the cost.
He’s vowed to “shake the rust off of America’s foreign policy” and says foreign countries should pay more for these partnerships and show greater respect to the U.S.
“I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down. Under my administration, we will never enter America into any agreement that reduces our ability to control our own affairs,” Trump said in an April 27 speech in Washington, considered his biggest foreign policy speech to date.
Deploying The Military
“We need a plan for dealing with terrorists,” said Clinton, who has a reputation for being relatively hawkish for a Democrat.
She promised to pick up the tempo in the battle against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, which President Obama launched nearly two years ago. Clinton said she would intensify the air campaign, step up cooperation with armed groups in those two countries and press for a diplomatic solution.
That’s essentially what Obama is doing now, with perhaps a bit more octane.
“What’s Trump’s plan?” she asked. “He’s keeping it a secret.”
She mocked his contradictory statements, noting he sometimes sounds as though he would avoid Syria, leaving it a “free zone for ISIS.” At other times, he’s hinted that he would send up to 30,000 U.S. troops to the Middle East.
The U.S. currently has around 5,000 military personnel in Iraq and a few hundred in Syria, where they support the U.S. air campaign and assist local forces. But they are not supposed to be involved in ground combat.
Trump, meanwhile, has railed against Clinton’s positions in the Middle East. He dismissed the Iran nuclear agreement as a bad deal, though it was completed well after Clinton left her diplomatic post. He has criticized Clinton’s 2002 vote in favor of the Iraq War, which she now says was a mistake. He has faulted her for pushing to overthrow dictator Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, a country now in chaos.
“On foreign policy, Hillary is trigger-happy,” Trump said last month. “She’s got a bad temperament. Her decisions in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya have cost trillions of dollars, thousands of lives and have totally unleashed ISIS.”
Relations In Asia
“He wants to start a trade war with China,” Clinton said of Trump. “A lot of Americans have concerns about our trade agreements with China. I do too. But a trade war is something very different. We went down that road in the 1930s. It made the Great Depression longer, and more painful.”
Trump has elevated trade policy into a major campaign issue, and China, with its huge trade surplus with the U.S., has been his main target. Trump insists he could work out much better trade terms with China and, as a bonus, could also get Beijing to clamp down on North Korea.
“We have the power over China, economic power, and people don’t understand it,” Trump said in April. “And with that economic power, we can rein in and we can get them to do what they have to do with North Korea, which is totally out of control.”
In a rare point of agreement, Trump and Clinton are both opposed to the big trade deal between Asia and North America, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, though Clinton was a supporter as secretary of state.
Clinton blasted Trump for questioning the value of U.S. security partnerships with Japan and South Korea. The U.S. still has a large troop presence in both countries, decades after they fought in the region. Clinton said cooperation was crucial today in dealing with North Korea.
“When I was secretary of state, we worked closely with our allies, Japan and South Korea, to respond to this threat, including by creating a missile defense system,” she said. “That’s the power of allies. And it’s also the legacy of American troops who fought and died to secure those bonds.”
Greg Myre is the international editor of NPR.org. Follow him @gregmyre1.