Finally, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have faced off in person, in the first of three debates that will define the final six weeks of this presidential campaign. Pundits will focus on the stylistic and temperamental differences the two displayed in their inaugural Sept. 27 debate: Clinton looked cool, composed and tough -- while Trump appeared undisciplined, domineering and fuzzy about the distinctions between his personal interests and the national interest.
America's foreign friends in Asia and elsewhere will juxtapose Clinton's promise that the U.S. will stand behind its alliances with Trump's perverse belief that U.S. allies and trading partners are more of a liability than an asset to American interests. For this Republican, only one of the candidates appeared prepared to navigate the U.S. through a dangerous world, and it was not the Republican nominee.
Clinton promised to stand up to Russia and China, including by vigorously defending against their cyberattacks on America. As Trump lambasted "failed" trade deals, Clinton pointed out that America, with only 5% of the world's population, benefited from trade with the other 95%. She met Trump's charge that the North American Free Trade Agreement has been a "disaster," with the riposte that the U.S. economy boomed throughout the 1990s after it was enacted.
Clinton declared nuclear proliferation, including the risk that terrorists could get their hands on a nuclear weapon, the greatest single danger to American security. She challenged Trump's position that nuclear proliferation would not endanger vital U.S. interests -- especially in East Asia -- pointing out that every American president in the nuclear age, Republican and Democrat, had defined a solemn duty to prevent any nuclear cascade. She quipped that "a man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes."
Trump, by contrast, questioned whether Russia was behind numerous documented cyberattacks on the U.S. -- giving President Vladimir Putin a pass for damaging and sustained attacks on the American homeland. He challenged China but in the wrong ways -- on currency depreciation which, he emphasized, gave it an undue trade advantage, a somewhat dated talking point since China's currency has appreciated lately -- rather than on its military aggression in the South China Sea. Trump reserved most of his vitriol for American allies Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and NATO, questioning existing security and trading arrangements that manifestly have served American interests for decades.
Trump painted a picture of a world in which America's allies take advantage of the U.S. to get rich at its expense, rather than recognizing that the ascendancy of democratic capitalism in most places is a historic gain for American security that undergirds American prosperity. Clinton reminded her audience that alliances do not simply commit the U.S. to others' defense but leverage their strength to help defend America -- as NATO did by invoking, for the only time in its history, the Article Five mutual defense clause after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the U.S.
Perhaps the most powerful moment of the debate came with this intervention by Clinton in its closing moments:
"Words matter when you run for president. And they really matter when you are president. I want to reassure our allies in Japan and South Korea and elsewhere that we have mutual defense treaties and we will honor them. It is essential that America's word be good. ... People around the world follow our presidential campaigns so closely, trying to get hints about what we will do. Can they rely on us? Are we going to lead the world with strength and in accordance with our values? That's what I intend to do."
Clinton's invocation of America's values contrasted strikingly with Trump's mercantilist bashing of U.S. trading partners and the doubts he cast on the contributions of America's core allies. But she also issued a clear warning to U.S. competitors that, as commander-in-chief, she would be more hawkish in defending American interests than not only Trump but also President Barack Obama:
"I intend to be a leader of our country that people can count on, both here at home and around the world, to make decisions that will further peace and prosperity, but also stand up to bullies, whether they're abroad or at home. We cannot let those who would try to destabilize the world [and] interfere with American interests and security to be given any opportunities at all."
Unfortunately, Trump scored some points in arguing that the total withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq when Clinton was secretary of state created the conditions for the Islamic State group to coalesce. He charged her and Obama with being present at the creation of a group that not only has wreaked havoc in the Middle East but has inspired vicious terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S.
The problem for Clinton is that, while in Obama's cabinet, her more hawkish instincts were frequently overruled by her unduly cautious president, who came into office with an almost theological determination to retreat from the morass of the Middle East. Robert Gates, the Republican who served as secretary of defense during Obama's first term, points out that Clinton was regularly in favor of greater assertion of American power -- in the Middle East and beyond -- than the president she served. Trump's charge that she is responsible for the failures of Obama's foreign policy is unfair in that sense, even as he is correct that the U.S. withdrawal created a vacuum of power that was filled by jihadis -- and that Obama's strategic mistake of failing to act in Syria will require the next U.S. president to do exactly that, under far more difficult circumstances.
The U.S. presidential campaign still has six weeks to run. In what has become a global referendum on whether America will stand by its 70-year commitment to enlightened internationalism, U.S. allies are unanimously rooting for Hillary Clinton. To the extent that U.S. competitors in Russia and China appear comfortable with Trump in the Oval Office, American voters should be worried: His outrage seems directed at U.S. partners who are force-multipliers for American interests rather than at those revanchist powers that threaten the liberal international order America built. For all Trump's strongman machismo, this first presidential debate makes it ever clearer that American equities in the world are likely to be better served by a strong woman in the White House.
Daniel Twining is a director at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., a former official of the George W. Bush administration, and a veteran of six presidential campaigns.