Election 2016: The Next President and Foreign Policy

Ethan Rarick and Jane Harman
Ethan Rarick, Director, Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service, Staff

Foreign policy doesn’t seem to be getting much attention in this presidential election, so we decided to focus this spring’s Matsui Lecture on exactly that, and we found the perfect person to speak to global issues: former Congresswoman Jane Harman.

Before a full house in Banatao Auditorium, Harman spoke for about 20 minutes to lay out her view of the global threats that will face the next president, and then she and I discussed those issues in conversation before taking audience questions. A webcast will be coming soon, but here are some of my quick impressions of an interesting talk by a smart public servant.

Harman has plenty of foreign policy expertise. During her 18 years in Congress, she represented a Southern California district that included much of the state’s aerospace industry. So it’s no surprise that national security issues became her forte. She served on all the major national security committees: six years on Armed Services, eight on Intelligence, eight on Homeland Security. When it comes to the threats around us, this is a woman who knows what she is talking about.

So what are the challenges that will face the next president? In her opening remarks, Harman cited the possibility of a miscalculation that could lead to global warfare, similar to the confused and confusing origins of World War I. Beyond that, she talked about a dysfunctional American political system riddled with “toxic partisanship,” ignorance, and the outsized influence of campaign donations.

When we started talking about specific issues, a few takeaway lessons stood out for me:

  1. Though a Democrat, Harman was blunt in her criticisms of President Obama. She said he failed to work with Congress on foreign policy issues, which she said is critical for a president. And she said the President failed to develop strong personal relationships with other world leaders, which she said is important.
  2. Harman was candid in saying that she believes radical Islam is a driving force behind the global terrorism that she and (according to the polls) most Americans believe is a leading threat to our safety. Critics have assailed the President for not sufficiently identifying radical Islam as a core component of terrorism, but Harman showed no such hesitancy.
  3. It’s important that presidents come to the Oval Office with foreign policy experience, Harman said. That sounded like a nod to Hillary Clinton – Harman has endorsed Clinton in the past – since the former Secretary of State has far more international experience than any of the other candidates. John Kasich served on the Armed Services Committee when he was in the House, but the other candidates are relative newcomers to foreign affairs: Bernie Sanders’ career has been mostly focused on domestic policy, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are each in their first term in the Senate, and of course Donald Trump and Ben Carson have never held public office.

While on campus, Harman also spoke to a class on ethics in international relations. It’s always great for IGS and the Matsui Center to bring to the Berkeley campus these kind of experienced public servants, giving our students and the whole university community the chance to benefit from their years in the spotlight.

Ethan Rarick is the Director of IGS’ Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service.