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Election 2016: The Candidates' Foreign Policy

FILE - Crew members prepare the stage for the Fox Business News Republican Presidential Debate at the North Charleston Coliseum in North Charleston, South Carolina, Jan. 13, 2016.

In less than one year, a new president will be sworn into office and face a number of serious foreign policy challenges. Here is how the candidates stand on some of the issues of deep strategic interest to Washington.


Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks about her counterterrorism strategy during a speech at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Dec. 15, 2015.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks about her counterterrorism strategy during a speech at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Dec. 15, 2015.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Diplomacy is not the pursuit of perfection — it is the balancing of risk. - Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., Sept. 9, 2015.

IS/Mideast. Clinton supports a three-pronged strategy against IS: expanding the coalition airstrikes and upping support of local Arab and Kurdish forces; cutting off the global terror “pipeline” of funds, arms and fighters; and disrupting online radicalization and recruitment. She has called for a no-fly zone in Syria, but opposes any U.S. troop deployment.

Clinton supports a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. She has also called for increased U.S. military and intelligence support to Israel as a vital partner against extremism and Iranian expansion.

Iran: Clinton says America’s greatest security threat is nuclear proliferation and the possibility of nuclear material falling into rogue hands. She supports the Iran deal, but stresses vigilance and enforcement as part of a greater strategy to contain Iran. She has called for imposing new sanctions on Tehran for its ballistic missile program and opposes normalizing relations.

China/Asia: Clinton supported the U.S. strategic “pivot to Asia” as part of an effort to confront North Korea and support allies in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea and near Japan. She opposes the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade deal with 12 Pacific Rim economies that aims to crack down on China’s trade policies. She has historically taken a tough stance toward China on cyberspace and climate change. Reacting to North Korea’s claim that it tested a hydrogen bomb, Clinton called it “blackmail” and called on China block illicit trade across its border with North Korea.

Russia: Clinton would work with EU allies to develop tougher sanctions on Russia and reduce EU reliance on Russian oil. In the January Democratic debate, she suggested she was open to resetting relations with Moscow, depending on the terms. She says she believes that Russia, if not checked, would expand beyond Crimea. She has also defended the "reset with Russia" during President Barack Obama's first term, saying it achieved, among other things, a new bilateral treaty to reduce nuclear weapons, permission to resupply U.S. troops in Afghanistan by traveling across Russia and Russia's agreement to impose sanctions in Iran. She supported NATO expansion and argued in her 2014 book Hard Choices that curtailing Russian aggression would have been more difficult without NATO allies in Eastern and Central Europe.

Democratic presidential candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley makes a point during the Brown & Black Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 11, 2016.
Democratic presidential candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley makes a point during the Brown & Black Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 11, 2016.

Former Gov. Martin O’Malley (Maryland)

We must put our national interest first, we must put America first. – campaign announcement speech, Baltimore, Maryland, May 30, 2015.

IS/Mideast: O’Malley’s approach to foreign threats is to strengthen the U.S. economy and secure American cyberspace first, and to create a new foreign policy based on engagement and collaboration. He has called for strengthening U.S. intelligence gathering. He opposes U.S. boots on the ground against ISIS, but says the U.S. should give its regional allies the resources they need to defeat the group. He has called for amplifying local voices to reveal IS as “murderous thugs.” He opposes a no-fly zone in Syria because it could lead to an escalation with Russia. He supports a two-state solution to the Mideast crisis.

Iran: O’Malley has said a nuclear Iran, along with IS and climate change, are the greatest threats facing the U.S. He supported the Iran nuclear deal and would reimpose “a full array of sanctions” for any violations.

China/Asia: O’Malley has called for a “rethink” of our relationships with China and Russia, who he says are “neither trusted allies” or “total adversaries.” He opposes the TPP deal as “a race to the bottom” for American workers that will have little impact on China. He has said there are other ways to engage with “like-minded nations” - apart from fast-track trade deals to combat common enemies.

Russia: O’Malley has said very little about Russia, other than that he views it, like China, as neither an ally nor an enemy.

U.S. Military/NATO: "NATO has served us well,” O’Malley said in October. But he advocates forming other alliances, in Africa and the South China Sea, to help manage international crisis.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Jan. 19, 2016.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Jan. 19, 2016.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (Vermont) –

I think in terms of our priorities in the region, our first priority must be the destruction of ISIS. Our second priority must be getting rid of Assad, through some political settlement, working with Iran, working with Russia. – fourth Democratic debate, Jan. 17, 2016.

IS/Mideast: Sanders believes adversaries Saudi Arabia and Iran should lead the fight against IS both from the air and on the ground, and has criticized Gulf Arab allies for not having done enough. He has called for a new NATO, that includes the current members, as well as Russia and Arab League nations to confront IS as a united front. He calls for a negotiated end to Syria’s civil war and would support rebels trying to remove Bashar al-Assad from power, but says he is ready to take America into war if necessary. Sanders backs a two-state solution to the Middle East crisis and has criticized both Israeli settlement expansion and Hamas rocket attacks on Israel..

Iran: Sanders, who views a nuclear Iran as a threat, supports the nuclear deal as a victory of diplomacy over “saber rattling.” He has stated that the U.S. should “move aggressively” toward normalizing relations with Iran.

China/Asia: Sanders opposes trade deals with China, believing they benefit corporations but not the American worker - especially the TPP, which he says will outsource even more American jobs overseas, benefit Wall Street alone and be impossible to repeal. In the wake of North Korea’s claimed hydrogen bomb test, Sanders called for China to apply more pressure on Pyongyang to abide by international conventions.

Russia: Sanders has called for working with allies to isolate Vladimir Putin politically and economically, enforcing sanctions and freezing Russian assets. He would also work with Russia to defeat IS.


Republican presidential, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Forum in Washington, Dec. 3, 2015.
Republican presidential, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Forum in Washington, Dec. 3, 2015.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush (Florida)

We are at war with radical Islamic terrorism…a struggle that will determine the fate of the free world. - addressing Citadel Military College, South Carolina, Nov. 18, 2015.

IS/Mideast: Bush’s plan to defeat IS calls for the U.S. to lead an international coalition against it, establishing and enforcing no-fly zones and safe havens to harbor refugees. He has called for expanded airstrikes and using U.S. special operations forces to target terrorist networks. Bush would also boost U.S. support for Iraqi troops, embed with them and loosen engagement rules. Bush also supports directly arming Kurdish Peshmerga and build a new U.S. base in Iraq’s Anbar Province. He would also work to secure U.S. borders and enhance national cybersecurity efforts.

Bush would undo Obama’s defense cuts and rebuild the U.S. military, expand troop levels, bolster special operations forces and intelligence gathering, and replace outdated equipment. He advocates expanding the U.S. military presence abroad as a deterrent to enemies and says the U.S. must be prepared to use force against urgent threats.

Bush is a close friend of Israel and would work to repair U.S.-Israeli relations he says were mismanaged by the current administration. He considers Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and would move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.

Iran: Bush has called the Iran nuclear deal “dangerous, deeply flawed, and shortsighted” and, if elected, he might not repeal the agreement on “day one,” but would reverse U.S.-Iran policy. He has said military force would be an option in enforcing Iran’s compliance. He would also work to encourage civil opposition to the regime in Tehran.

Russia: Bush has said the U.S. should have provided greater support for Ukraine against Russian aggression and should consider invoking the collective defense clause of the NATO treaty - i.e.,“an attack on one ally is an attack on all allies.” He has also said the U.S. shouldn’t rule out putting troops on the ground in the Baltic states, if only to conduct “robust” training exercises. But he also said the U.S. should not isolate Russia to the point of pushing it into the arms of Beijing.

China/Asia: Bush has said he supports an “ongoing, deep relationship” with China: “It’s so easy to create misunderstandings that we could easily go from being a competitor economically to being challenged in terms of security.” Bush also believes the U.S. needs to expand its influence in Central and South America, to compete with China’s influence in those regions.

Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talks as he meets with a supporter before a news conference, Jan. 25, 2016, in Concord, New Hampshire.
Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talks as he meets with a supporter before a news conference, Jan. 25, 2016, in Concord, New Hampshire.

Gov. Chris Christie (New Jersey)

This century, more than any other, will be defined by the Pacific.- Portsmouth, New Hampshire, May 18, 2015

IS/Mideast: Christie has said he would send U.S. troops to fight against IS if necessary, but would prefer organizing and arming local players to defeat it. He opposes Russia’s presence in Syria, which he says is aimed only at propping up the Assad regime. He supports imposing a no-fly zone in Syria and says he would shoot down any Russian planes who might violate that air space.

Christie also opposes allowing Syrian refugees of any age into the U.S., and maintains the U.S. should recommit to Israel, which he has called “a beacon of freedom in a sea of autocracy.”

Iran: Christie believes Iran is a greater threat than IS and has criticized the White House for rushing the Iran nuclear deal. He said that if elected, he wouldn’t repeal the deal on “day one” as Bush and Cruz would, but would review it and make decisions based on “where we are at that moment.” He also noted that U.S. allies, as well as Russia and China, have a stake in the matter.

Russia: Christie takes a tough stance against Russia, which he says has been “stealing” America’s “lunch money” throughout the Obama’s terms in office. He has said he believes Putin is looking to establish himself as a leader in the Middle East, and that he won’t let Russia bring “Communist domination back to the world.”

China/Asia: Christie is equally tough on China. During the November 2015 Republican debate, he said he would fly U.S. planes over the disputed islands in the South China Sea to counter China’s “upgraded presence” there. Christie says he supports free trade but opposes the TPP. He would continue to maintain partnerships with China, but at same time demand China respect human rights, global law and allies’ sovereignty.

NATO/Military: Christie calls for upping support of NATO allies in Eastern Europe and encouraging European members to increase annual defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, as required by the alliance, and by helping them access systems and training necessary to counter Russian aggression.

Christie would increase U.S. defense spending and develop new weapon systems on the ground, air, sea and in space. He would also work to beef up U.S. intelligence gathering abroad, strengthen U.S. cyber security and, as a supporter of the Patriot Act, he would toughen anti-terror and surveillance laws.

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, July 23, 2015.
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, July 23, 2015.

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (Texas)

On the first day in office if I’m elected I will rip to shreds this catastrophic agreement with Iran. – Republican debate, Sept. 16, 2015.

IS/Mideast: Cruz has called radical Islam as the second greatest U.S. security threat. He wants to ban refugees from terror-ridden regions and calls for Congress to pass the the Expatriate Terror Act, which would revoke the citizenship of American IS supporters. Cruz would arm the Kurdish Peshmerga as the main boots on the ground against IS and expand U.S. airstrikes. He would support ground troops only as a last resort – but if the U.S. does go in, it should be “with overwhelming force.” Cruz would also beef up U.S. borders and ban refugees from terror-ridden areas.

Cruz calls the U.S.-Israel alliance a “bedrock”. Cruz regards Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and as president, would move the U.S. Embassy there. He has said that the issue of settlements is a matter for Israel to decide, and he would halt U.S. aid to the Palestinians for inciting terror. Further, he would defund the U.N. “if it continues its anti-Israel bias” and cut off federal funds to American universities boycotting Israel. And he would designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terror group.

Iran: Cruz ranks a nuclear Iran as the single greatest U.S. security threat and believes Iran will use billions in released funds to attack America and its allies. He has called the recent Iran prisoner swap deal “propaganda” for both Iran and the Obama administration. If president, he has said he would designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terror group.

Russia: In early 2015, Cruz called for arming Ukraine against Russia. To counter Putin, he would increase sanctions and expand laws that blacklist Russian rights violators. He has also called for opening up U.S. liquified natural gas exports to reduce Baltic states' reliance on Russian gas. And he has called for reinstating anti-ballistic missile batteries in Eastern Europe.

China/Asia: He supported the TPP initially, but later backtracked, saying the TPP would undermine both U.S. immigration laws and U.S. sovereignty. He has outlined a tax plan to encourage U.S. companies back to America. He has blasted China on human rights and states that in trying to expand its territory, China aims to “kick America out of the Pacific.”

Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio, speaks at the Republican Leadership Summit, April 18, 2015, in Nashua, New Hampshire.
Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio, speaks at the Republican Leadership Summit, April 18, 2015, in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Gov. John R. Kasich (Ohio)

Mark my words, we will all be on the ground [in Syria] sooner or later. Sooner is better than later.- Council on Foreign Relations, Dec. 9, 2015.

IS/Mideast: Kasich supports creating safe havens and no-fly zones in Syria. He would send U.S. troops to Syria, expand support to the Kurds in Syria and Iraq and beef up international intelligence sharing. He has said he would organize NATO and regional allies—Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf States — to defeat IS on the ground, rebuild the military and overhaul defense procurement, strengthen cyber defenses and international intelligence sharing. He has called for using U.S. international media – including VOA and RFE/RL - to counter extremist messages. And he would create a new federal agency to spread the Judeo-Christian message around the world.

Iran: Kasich opposed the Iran nuclear deal. If elected, he would review the deal, but avoid a knee-jerk decision on revoking it. He also says he wouldn’t hesitate to reimpose sanctions if Iran “violates one crossed ‘t’ or dotted ‘i’”.

Russia: Kasich advocates working with EU allies to bolster new NATO states against Russian aggression, supplying them with arms and training. He would also repositioning U.S. forces and strengthen air defense systems along eastern allies’ borders with Russia. He has stressed that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all.

China: Has said he would send an aircraft-carrier task force in the South China Sea and expand troop presence the Western Pacific. Kasich supports the TPP as a means of firming up regional alliances that could stand up to China. He recently called on China to stop manipulating the stock market.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. during a campaign event at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, Nov. 4, 2015.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. during a campaign event at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, Nov. 4, 2015.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (Florida)

If you’re a political adversary of Vladimir Putin, you wind up with plutonium in your drink or shot in the street. Charleston, South Carolina, Aug. 28, 2015

IS/Mideast: Rubio has called for sending U.S. troops (fewer than 50,000) to assist Sunni Arabs and local players against IS. His plan to defeat the extremists would expand airstrikes, set up safe zones in Syria and support rebels in ousting Assad. He also calls for arming Sunni fighters and Kurds directly. On the political front, he would counter IS propaganda by “broadcasting U.S. victories”; encourage a more inclusive government in Iraq and autonomy for Sunni tribes, and work to counter Iran’s influence in Iraq. He would also expand the Patriot Act.

As for the Mideast peace process, Rubio has stated that under current conditions, a two-state solution to the Middle East crisis is not possible. In November 2015, He spoke out firmly against the EU decision to label goods produced in territories that Israel occupies.

Iran: Rubio says if elected, he would cancel the nuclear deal, and he has pledged to use military force if Iran pursues its nuclear activities, and work with Congress to impose tougher sanctions on Iran for its support of terror.

Russia: Rubio would seek tougher sanctions against “Putin and his cronies” for the Russian aggression against Ukraine and would work to reverse Russia’s annexation of Crimea by arming and training Kyiv, increasing sanctions and disengaging from diplomacy with Moscow on any but the Ukrainian issue. He would add to heavy weapons and vehicle stockpiles in Central and Eastern Europe, maintain a permanent troops presence in the region, lift restrictions on U.S. energy exports and update NATO defense strategies.

China/Asia: In a June letter to the White House, Rubio cited concerns over China’s “provocative actions” to assert military and territorial dominance, which he said threaten U.S. and allies’ political and economic interests. He urges “additional, regular and sustained U.S. military deployments” to allies in the region. He also slammed China for its human rights record and breaches of cybersecurity, and calls for sanctions and/or criminal charges against implicated individuals. He also opposes China’s proposed NGO law. Separately, he has said he would return North Korea to a list of state sponsors of terror, sanction North Korean officials’ overseas assets and invest in a "comprehensive missile defense system” across the U.S.

FILE - Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Columbus, Ohio, Nov. 23, 2015.
FILE - Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Columbus, Ohio, Nov. 23, 2015.

Businessman Donald Trump

Never, ever, ever in my life have I seen any transaction so incompetently negotiated as our deal with Iran. And I mean never. – anti-nuclear deal rally in Washington, D.C., Sept. 11, 2015

IS/Mideast: Trump considers IS America’s number one threat and advocates striking hard against it and the oil fields and refineries that fund it, then positioning U.S. troops around the sites until oil companies to come in and rebuild. In December, he suggested to FOX News that to defeat terrorists, it may be necessary to target their families. He told CNN in December the U.S. should allow Syria and Russia fight IS (“They’re in Syria already”), and he wouldn’t work to oust Assad, who he says “looks better than the other side.”

He would not only block Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., but would build a “big, beautiful safe zone” in Syria to house them. He also advocates creating a database to track Syrian refugees and has said he wouldn’t rule out a database of U.S. Muslims and surveillance of U.S. mosques. And he has pledged that if elected, America will have such a strong military “that nobody is going to mess with us.”

He has also questions why the U.S. supports Saudi Arabia against Iran when the Gulf kingdom is wealthy enough to pay for its own security.

On the peace process, Trump says he’s confident he could negotiate a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians within six months. He did not offer details, so as not to show “his cards.” He supports moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem – but has made no comment affirming Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided” capital. He has previously questioned both Palestinians’ and Israel’s commitment to peace.

Iran: Trump has called the nuclear deal a “tremendous liability” but says now that it is in place, he’ll work to enforce it and has promised that there will be “hell to pay” if Iran is found in violation. He said the recent prisoner swap was a bad deal for the U.S., but suggested he had a role in getting U.S. prisoners released.

Russia: Trump advocates maintaining relations with Russia. He has repeatedly praised Putin as a leader he could deal with, and he has defended Putin against British assertions that Putin sanctioned the poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko. He has also repeatedly asked why the U.S. spends money defending countries who could either defend themselves or who could be defended by other players. In 2000, he wrote that the money spent maintaining NATO troops in Europe could be better spent elsewhere.

China/Asia: Trump has criticized the U.S. as being “way too eager to please” China in light of harmful trade practices. He would designate China as a currency manipulator. He would work to fight China’s intellectual property theft and practice of forcing U.S. companies to share U.S. technology with Chinese competitors. He would end China’s export subsidies and its lax labor and environmental laws that he says enable cheap labor and ultimately take jobs from U.S. workers.

Trump opposes the TPP as a “horrible deal” that allows China to “take advantage of everyone” without actually being a part of the deal.

For years, Trump has also questioned why the U.S. spends money to defend Japan and South Korea, who can afford to defend themselves. And he has suggested they should pay America for the service.