McCormack Speaks

A Wicked Portrayal: International Affairs in the 2016 Presidential Debates


by Marcia Mundt
Public Policy PhD student

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton engaged in three heated and colorful debates this election season discussing controversial issues including police violence, appointing a new justice on the Supreme Court, and the future of Obamacare. Mud rucking and slanted jabs aside, the candidates forwarded their policy positions on how to “Make America Great Again” and “Growing Together.” While domestic policy has taken center stage throughout most of the campaign season focusing on jobs, taxes, businesses, and the economy, international affairs has entered the limelight in the debates.

The wordle above depicts the most commonly raised international themes, each appearing at least ten times across the three presidential debates of 2016 between Clinton and Trump. The larger the word, the more frequently it was reiterated in the debates. Even in a cursory review of these U.S. election “hot topics” in international relations, one cannot help but notice an overarching “wicked” trend.

Digging into the candidates’ commentary reveals a clear tension between war and peace in the future of American action abroad depending on the candidate U.S. citizens opt to elect in this race. While both candidates have referred to the value of international cooperation, this commentary has been largely one-sided. An exploration of one exemplary interchange from each debate is quite revealing–the American public today faces a choice between a future of intensifying conflict or diplomatic collaboration.

Where is the majority of this negativity coming from?

In the first debate, Clinton and Trump exchanged comments on nuclear weapons. Clinton cited international collaboration and coalition building as central to progress on nonproliferation. She states, “I spent a year and a half putting together a coalition that included Russia and China, to impose the toughest sanctions on Iran, and we did drive them to the negotiating table. And my successor, John Kerry and President Obama got a deal that put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program. Without firing a single shot. That’s diplomacy. That’s coalition building. That’s working with other nations.” Meanwhile, Trump toed a hard line stance on international alliances, “Nuclear is the single greatest threat. Just to go down the list, we defend Japan. We defend Germany. We defend South Korea, we defend Saudi Arabia. We defend countries. They do not pay us what they should be paying us, because we are providing tremendous service and we’re losing a fortune, that’s why we’re losing. We’re losing-we lose on everything.” Yes–it costs the United States to maintain a world free to nuclear warfare, just as it costs to do any type of business. Yet renegotiating international agreements bears a risk much greater than a dodgy business venture; for one, there is no other government with which to file for bankruptcy for each failed attempt.

Turning to the second debate, the candidates discussed the Syrian refugee crisis at length. Trump proposed that the borders be closed to those refugees, while Clinton promoted a rigorous screening to allow in those seeking safety and security. Trump proclaims, “I don’t want to have, with all the problems this country has and all of the problems you see going on, hundreds of thousands of people come in from Syria where we know nothing about them. We know nothing about their values, and we know nothing about their love for our country.” Clinton counters, “I will not let anyone into our country that I think poses a risk to us. But there are a lot of refugees, women and children, think of that picture we all saw of that 4-year-old boy with the blood on his forehead because he’d been bombed by the Russian and Syrian air forces. There are children suffering in this catastrophic war, largely, I believe because of Russian aggression. And we need to do our part.” Immigration politics has been a pivotal point in this election, one side rooted in fear and the other in, albeit cautious, hope for those families that come to the United States seeking a better future.

Finally, in the third debate, the candidates exchanged their views on Russia and the Middle East. The Republican candidate interjected a shocking reiteration of past cold war era fear mongering and weapons race rhetoric. Trump asserts, “The Russians have said, according to many, many reports, I can’t believe they allowed us to do this. They create warheads, and we can’t. The Russians can’t believe it. She (Clinton) has been outsmarted by Putin. And all you have to do is look at the Middle East. They’ve taken over. We’ve spent $6 trillion. They’ve taken over the Middle East.” Clinton countered, “The United States has kept the peace—the United States has kept the peace through our alliances. Donald wants to tear up our alliances. I think it makes the world safer and, frankly, it makes the United States safer. I would work with our allies in Asia, in Europe, in the Middle East, and elsewhere. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to keep the peace.” Likewise, Trump suggested that mending tenuous relations is the way forward, declaring: “He (Putin) said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good. If Russia and the United States got along well and went after ISIS, that would be good.” One candidate has outlined a plan pursuing alliances for peace, the other alliances for outright war.

How does this “wicked portrayal” impact foreign relations?

The world watches with great anxiety at the outcome of this election. Worldwide, international media are questioning America’s democratic values and soft power. While Hillary reassures our partners abroad that the United States will continue to honor its international commitments, Trump frames an uncertain and more divisive future for our friends and foes alike. As Americans line up at the polls this November, we would do well to consider both the domestic and international impacts of our choice.

Learn more about the PhD Program in Public Policy at UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

Skip to toolbar