10 May, 2010Issue 12.2Politics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Hillary’s Travels

Rahul Prabhakar

© Penguin Books Ltd.

When Hillary Clinton stood on the stage of the Democratic National Convention in Denver on 26 August 2008, she exhorted her spirited party and a rapt country to “keep going!” She meant that the country should elect Barack Obama as its next president. America did. And with her unexpected appointment as the 67th US secretary of state, Clinton has kept going, too. In her first 15 months, she travelled nearly 300,000 miles to 54 countries over 127 days. She has redefined the State Department in ways small and big. The staid seventh floor of Foggy Bottom has been jazzed up with eclectic modern art, while, overnight, the State Department has become the fulcrum for a new beginning in American foreign policy.

Her agenda is stacked: Islamist extremism, Iraq withdrawal, Afghanistan surge, Iranian nuclear proliferation, Israeli-Palestinian relations, the global economic crisis, US-China tensions, US-Russia “restart”, and renewal of the transatlantic alliance. Not to mention climate change and development. Sometimes the agenda is waylaid by horrific events like the Haiti earthquake. Other times it is pleasantly distracted, as it was by her daughter Chelsea’s engagement. Clinton’s “smart power” has been put to the test, the institutional influence of the State Department challenged, and the seeds of her legacy planted.

The first 15 months have seen the potential of and challenges to Clinton’s integrative foreign policy—smart power. As academic Joseph Nye explains, smart power is “the combination of…the soft power of engagement” and “the hard power of sanctions”, where “soft power” takes presumptive priority. Clinton and her advisers believe in the value of engagement with international institutions, from the UN Security Council to the G-20, as a way of legitimising and empowering diplomacy with adversaries, acquaintances, and friends. This foreign policy appears so pragmatic—how could anyone be against using institutional leverage or seeking a re-start with rankled friends and adversaries?—because it has so subsumed ideology: a liberal vision of a globalised world where problems are overcome or contained not through naïve optimism, but through American-led institutions, military and civilian creativity, and the setting of standards for global justice through a focus on the development of poorer countries. To critics, it seems like a hodge-podge of liberal institutionalist hooey ultimately overridden by realpolitik. To its practitioners, it is what foreign policy should be about: successful problem-solving as the best indication of a nation’s power.

The evolving tit-for-tat between the West and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme is already a case study in the implementation of smart power. By the middle of 2009, it became clear that President Obama’s repeated overtures to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were not being reciprocated. The failure of engagement with Iran means a shift to “hard power”: Clinton and the rest of Obama’s foreign policy team must now convince the UN Security Council to act on a fourth round of sanctions. To do so, they have to reconcile the council’s competing interests within the Middle East and beyond. Much of the constant evaluation and re-evaluation of strategic interests—ranging from China and oil to Turkey’s uncomfortable history with the Armenian genocide—occurs at the level of the unseen, and at times unseemly, diplomacy conducted below that of the high-profile principals, and is led most notably by well-regarded and realist-minded William Burns, former ambassador to Russia and the current under secretary of state for political affairs.

Smart power is, at its heart, Clintonian. Wherever she travels, Clinton engages civil society, whether in Islamabad, Doha, or Moscow, as a way of bypassing some of the official filters to lend that valuable Clinton-family touch: I feel your pain, and I’m here to listen. Her up-and-down trials in American presidential politics gave her a deftness in handling the unpredictability of civil engagement. There was plenty of that at an October 2009 town hall meeting in Lahore, Pakistan—not exactly a setting her predecessors would have enthusiastically embraced. Why do Americans view Pakistanis as terrorists? Why does America “always” support India over Pakistan? How can Pakistanis trust Americans when it’s a “fact” that development-focused USAID “did betray us?” Would the madame support trying for treason former president Pervez Musharraf? How will the madame reduce the collateral damage from Predator strikes on suspected terrorists? Here, Clinton’s calm presence of mind and deliberate debating style, most evident in her presidential primary debates with Obama, come to the fore.

For all its novelty, Clinton’s State Department has encountered on the home front many of the same challenges as those faced by previous secretaries. A 10-to-1 budgetary advantage for the Defense Department over the State Department is only the beginning. Over the past 50 years, the State Department has waxed and waned in influence, usually because of presidential prerogative. The president sometimes wants to be his own secretary of state, as Kennedy and Nixon did. Or he magnifies latent turf battles by allowing the national security adviser to move many daily operations into the White House, as Carter managed to. Sometimes, like Johnson, he has a secretary of defense with a strong personality. And occasionally, like George W. Bush, he cedes too much power to the vice president. As for Clinton’s performance, foreign policy expert and academic Robert Paarlberg explains, “It is still too early to judge…especially relative to President Obama’s experienced and highly competent Defense Secretary Robert Gates. She has been smart, so far, to avoid any fights with Gates that she might lose.”

So far, though, Clinton stands out from her predecessors on the strength of the relationship she appears to share with Gates. Clinton and Gates, who lunch together, share a comity that is historically rare between their two offices. In a February issue of Time, Elizabeth Rubin writes, “Since 2007, when Gates re-emerged on the government speaking circuit, he has had one consistent obsession—the relationship between State and Defense … Gates has gone out of his way to woo Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, so much so that they’ve come to seem inseparable.” Gates told Congress he supports a substantial increase in the State Department budget, noting that there are more personnel in military bands than in the US foreign service. As for her relationship with the president, Clinton, it seems, cannot hold a grudge. By all accounts, her working relationship with Obama, manifested in weekly meetings, is cordial and effective.

There is room for the State Department to further amplify smart power and its newfound influence, especially in US-China relations. In the late 1990s, policy toward China focused on economic affairs. The Treasury Department dominated foreign economic policy and the response to the East Asian financial crisis. The rise of China is not merely an economic rise, however—it is political. This demands not only the particular focus of the Treasury Department, but the generalist understanding of foreign policy brought to the table by the State Department. With the Treasury Department slowed down by personnel issues, Clinton plainly stated in a July 2009 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, “I am committed to restoring a significant role for the State Department within a whole-of-government approach to international economic policy-making.”

To that end, the State and Treasury departments jointly launched the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, bringing together counterparts across the two governments and reflecting a strategy academically propounded by Clinton’s pick for director of policy planning, admired scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter. By broadening the agenda with China and contributing to American foreign economic policy, Clinton’s State Department can show that in this area and others, it is more innovative, creative, and influential than its predecessors ever were.

Anywhere Clinton walks, from the hallways in Congress to a tarmac in Kabul, she leaves in her wake a coterie of loyal aides, the usual throng of scribbling reporters, and pleasantly shocked passers-by. We know that the legacy she leaves will ultimately hinge on the outcomes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Middle East peace process, and the showdown with Iran. Discerning her legacy, and extricating it from the massive US foreign-policy making apparatus, are tasks far too early to undertake. What, then, can we say? Here, like so many of Hillary’s noted forebears, we might take direction from Henry Kissinger. Asked by a journalist last November to write a 1000-word assessment of Hillary, Kissinger admitted struggling to get beyond the first three: “I like Hillary.”

Rahul Prabhakar is reading for an MPhil in International Relations at St John’s College, Oxford.

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