This election could change our country’s political system. Not because a Clinton presidency would provide us with America’s first female commander in chief. Not because a Trump presidency would provide us with the first Great Wall of America. But because the popular Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson, has the opportunity to decrease polarization in this country. Polls suggest that no third-party candidate has gained as much support as Johnson since Ross Perot in the election of 1992. And while Perot’s bid was ultimately unsuccessful—as Johnson’s is likely to be—Johnson’s candidacy provides the opportunity to have a substantial policy debate in place of the usual partisan bickering. Unfortunately, Johnson’s candidacy has also been derailed by foreign policy blunders, which distract from the force of his arguments on domestic policy and the philosophical strengths of his approach to foreign affairs.
Johnson came to the University of Chicago on October 7 to speak to students about his campaign, the Libertarian Party, and how he would address the foreign policy issues that the next president will face. He started with a stump-speech story about how he had been a part of both of the dominating political parties before deciding to become a Libertarian. He supports gay marriage, marijuana legalization, and immigration reform and is pro-choice, which would firmly place him in the Democratic column. However, he supported significant tax cuts as governor of New Mexico, which would typically make him a Republican. With a combination of right-wing fiscal policies and left-wing social ideas, Johnson ultimately aligned himself with the Libertarians.
Johnson’s momentum with the UChicago crowd waned as the conversation advanced to foreign affairs. “I’m a skeptic with military intervention abroad,” he admitted, explaining that other countries should deal with their own domestic issues without American intervention. For instance, he stated, “Afghanistan needs to take its own destiny into its own hands,” noting the constant US presence in the country for well over a decade. He also explained how removing Saddam Hussein disrupted Iraq, destabilized Iran, and harmed relations with Turkey. Given the US track record in foreign intervention, he argued that we should reallocate the resources spent on the military to focus on domestic security. While our military power is second to none, a Johnson administration would promote peace through strength.
Johnson expanded on his foreign policy platform and detailed his plan for combatting ISIS. “We have to put principle over politics . . . that means having a clear mission and clear authorizations of the military,” he said. His foreign policy relies on diplomacy and free trade, rather than military force, to exert strength. However, Johnson’s own lack of a specific plan for the Middle East stood paradoxically next to his insistence on a clear mission, revealing that his strengths lie in domestic policy and his weaknesses in foreign affairs. Johnson’s now-infamous Aleppo gaffe and his inability to name a foreign leader that he respects are indicators of a lack of foreign policy knowledge.
Although Johnson may not be the most knowledgeable of the three candidates, he accepts his lack of foreign policy experience. With his track record as a governor, he recognizes that he has been more oriented toward domestic policy. Johnson has tried to make light of his gaffes, quipping that “it’s been a week since I was asked to name a foreign leader I admire, and I still can’t.” Johnson elaborates his reason for not looking up to anyone involved in politics. He has found that public policy leaders are “empty suits,” less concerned with making America better than with getting re-elected. Johnson strives to govern by principle and lead the country in a new direction, which contrasts with his political contemporaries, whom he claims govern only according to the poll numbers. Johnson could, therefore, provide the independent direction and the change needed in this country.
Johnson is also critical of previous presidents, claiming that voters are impressed by candidates who “can dot the i’s and cross the t’s on names of foreign leaders and geographic locations” and think that such knowledge “qualifies you to put the military in places where the military is dying.” In contrast, Johnson emphasizes the War Powers Act, a check on the president’s ability to enter an armed conflict, and vows to stay out of conflicts abroad where countries should be dealing with their problems independently. This approach is in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton’s more aggressive foreign policy strategy. Johnson argues that her hawkish stance has not worked in the past and puts our military in the crossfire. During the past two presidencies, we have seen our commanders in chief bringing the US’s international police power to most of the global community. While the intention is commendable, the result is often messy, which adds to the growing list of problems the US engages with across the globe. Johnson appeals to voters’ desire for a new approach to foreign affairs so that our military power does not continue to dominate the world the way it has been doing.
Johnson offers a middle ground in a contentious election, particularly on foreign policy. While Trump pretends he will learn about terrorist organizations when he “needs to know,” Johnson recognizes that he is not entirely proficient in foreign policy; while Clinton wants to actively continue the war on terror, Johnson proposes to address terrorism in a different and more altruistic manner. Johnson’s foreign policy experience may be lacking, but he offers policies that are innovative and new. The US’s track record with foreign intervention is fraught with failures, and Johnson provides the opportunity to engage with the global community in a more thoughtful manner.