03:10 - Source: CNN
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The Democratic Party convention is taking place in Philadelphia this week

Jonathan Cristol: If elected, Hillary Clinton would likely present a more assertive foreign policy than Barack Obama

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. You can follow him @jonathancristol. The views expressed are his own.

CNN  — 

The Democratic National Convention is in full swing, and anyone (like me) who thought it would be dull turned out to be in for a surprise.

Bernie Sanders’ supporters did not go quietly into the night. Sen. Cory Booker and first lady Michelle Obama offered rousing speeches that presented a radically different tone than what we saw at the Cleveland convention last week.

And on Wednesday night, we will hear from President Barack Obama, who seems likely to place continuity under Hillary Clinton at the center of his pitch.

But while that will be seen by many Democrats as a good thing on domestic policy, President Obama’s foreign policy leaves much to be desired. And that raises an important question: Can we expect more of the same if Hillary Clinton is elected President?

Jonathan Cristol

Much will depend on whether Clinton’s foreign policy is as hopelessly naïve – and lacking in any clear vision – as it was under the Obama administration.

The truth is that President Obama’s foreign policy failures are numerous – Libya, Russia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, post-deal Iran – while successes have been few. The administration has been too cautious in the use of force, but also too reckless in its movement away from old allies. The next President will therefore spend much of his or her time managing a list of important failures.

Of course, as secretary of state, Clinton was a key player in many of these failures, and is inevitably and rightly tied to the Obama administration. And generally speaking, there are probably more similarities than differences between Clinton and Obama on some important policies. Yet the differences are potentially crucial, especially in their approach to policy making, and that could mean the next four years are quite different from the previous eight.

The first – and arguably most important – difference between Clinton and Obama is that the former is more of an interventionist. President Obama is not “anti-interventionist,” as such. After all, he has dramatically increased the use of drones. But he is generally hesitant to use American forces – he continued the draw-down of forces across the Middle East, and his commitment of naval forces to the South China Sea region is pitifully low. Meanwhile, Russia, Iran, ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Taliban have all made territorial and/or strategic gains.

Hillary Clinton seems poised to take a different approach. She supports a no-fly zone in Syria, and would surely continue Obama’s recent, slow increase in force targets for Afghanistan. Her tough rhetoric on Russia, meanwhile, suggests that she could increase troop and equipment levels in Eastern Europe.

More broadly, Clinton has already offered a somewhat different vision and tone. The Obama administration has frustrated allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia by seeming – especially in their eyes, and those of the administration’s critics – to abandon them in favor of Iran. Of course, it has tried to counter this narrative by rightly pointing out that it has eyed record weapons sales to Israel and to Saudi Arabia. But while there are other sources than the U.S. for weapons, America provides the kind of political support that no other country can.

The reality is that President Obama has confused states around the world with an awkward mix of rebukes and embraces without laying out any discernible grand strategy or unifying theme beyond “don’t do stupid stuff.”

In contrast, and despite her somewhat cold and calculating political image, Clinton is said by many – even her critics – to be engaging to work with. This has clear applications for foreign policy. She has, for example, known many Middle Eastern leaders for years, while her husband and their Clinton Foundation have cultivated (arguably too) close relationships in the region. These relationships – and her ability to cajole and to charm – will likely calm fears among America’s allies.

Judging from her rhetoric so far, Clinton also seems more likely to articulate a broader vision, perhaps promoting liberal values, that will allow other states to understand why the U.S. does what it does beyond just putting out fires. In practical terms, this could mean pressing countries like China, Turkey and Vietnam more firmly to allow greater freedom, although not necessarily to further open up their political system.

A third difference between the Obama administration and a potential Clinton presidency would likely be on trade … at least for the first six to eight months. President Obama has rightly been a supporter of free trade agreements – both for economic and security concerns. For example, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is not just a trade agreement, it also appears designed to check China.

Clinton understands this well, which is why she originally supported the TPP. Unfortunately, the necessity of competing against two critics of free trade – Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump – forced her to change positions. Until the memory of the election fades, Clinton is unlikely to pursue any new trade deals, might publicly rebuke Obama on trade, and may pretend to try to re-negotiate the TPP. Once the election is further in the rear view mirror, this will likely change.

All of this presupposes that Clinton will indeed triumph in November. But if one were judging the presidential contest on foreign policy alone, then it would surely be a cakewalk for Clinton. After all, when contrasted with Trump’s foreign policy proposals, anything that Clinton does appears Churchillian. And she would have a noticeable advantage over her predecessor in terms of foreign policy experience and knowledge of the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy, the U.S. military, and the U.S. role in the world – indeed, more experience than any president since George H.W. Bush.

So while Clinton appears to be positioning herself as a third Obama term, on foreign policy, at least, we could expect a more assertive and interventionist approach from a President Clinton.

The Obama administration has failed in Syria and Libya, and is moving too slowly to shore up defenses in Eastern Europe – the conflict in Syria will not be resolved by wishful thinking (or by ceding the issue to Russia), the civil war in Libya will not magically burn itself out, and Russian aggression in Eastern Europe needs to be countered much more robustly. Clinton may not be any more successful than President Obama in handling any of these. And her critics will argue she bears significant responsibility for the current difficulties, especially on Libya.

But while Clinton has not yet expressed a foreign policy vision for the history books, she does at least appear to understand that some problems can’t be solved remotely. Her willingness to take greater risks might therefore bring a welcome change from the excessive caution and confusion that has marked Barack Obama’s foreign policy.