For those hoping for a dramatic unveiling of the Obama administration’s new foreign policy agenda, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first major address last week was a bit of a disappointment.


Clinton called for the creation of global architecture to provide solutions for common threats and set forth pragmatic steps to implement President Obama’s ambitious agenda. The speech was also interpreted as an opportunity for Clinton to bolster her influence in the face of an assertive White House and numerous high profile envoys.

First, some observations from her speech:

  • Clinton proclaimed an end to the unilateralism that characterized the previous administration and repeatedly emphasized global partnerships as both appropriate and necessary given the rise of an interconnected world where nations share burdens as well as resources, and where the problems that afflict nations around the world demand global solutions.
  • The Secretary offered scant condemnation of human rights abuses, reflecting perhaps a more “realist” orientation than her predecessors as well as an acknowledgement that moral triumphalism no longer resonates following the Iraq war and the controversies of the “Global War on Terror.”
  • Despite talk of partnerships and common challenges, the U.S. will not abandon its role as a global leader or cede significant influence to other nations; the Obama administration will continue the liberal internationalism and concomitant interventionism that has long characterized American policy.

In light of her remarks, it is apparent that Clinton does not seek a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy anytime soon. Her propagation of American primacy in international affairs represents an enduring strain of U.S. foreign policy that advocates intervening abroad on behalf of innocents, interests, or both, with the implicit assumption that what benefits America, and the universal values it strives to embody, will benefit the world. This logic is compelling and noble but flawed.

While Clinton jettisons Bush-era unilateralism and, as Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post notes, avoids Madeleine Albright’s “indispensable nation” rhetoric, she maintains the conviction that the U.S. has not only a right but a duty to assert its interests around the globe, with the understanding that U.S. interests largely mirror those of other nations in an increasingly interdependent world.

Secretary Clinton addressing the Council on Foreign Relations last week:

The same forces that compound our problems – economic interdependence, open borders, and the speedy movement of information, capital, goods, services and people – are also part of the solution. And with more states facing common challenges, we have the chance, and a profound responsibility, to exercise American leadership to solve problems in concert with others. That is the heart of America’s mission in the world today.

Now, some see the rise of other nations and our economic troubles here at home as signs that American power has waned. Others simply don’t trust us to lead; they view America as an unaccountable power, too quick to impose its will at the expense of their interests and our principles. But they are wrong.

The question is not whether our nation can or should lead, but how it will lead in the 21st century.

Glenn Kessler, of the Washington Post, notes the resemblance between Clinton’s remarks and those of her predecessor’s:

Hillary Clinton’s speech …built on themes advanced by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006 and 2008, when she called for “transformational diplomacy.”

“Transformational diplomacy is rooted in partnership, not in paternalism,” Rice said at Georgetown University in 2006. “In doing things with people, not for them, we seek to use America’s diplomatic power to help foreign citizens better their own lives and to build their own nations and to transform their own futures.”

Ben Smith interviews Stephen Walt in Politico:

Secretary Clinton offered a familiar vision of ambitious liberal internationalism. The list of vexing foreign policy challenges is long, and in her view, no item on it can be solved without direct U.S. involvement,” said Harvard University’s Stephen Walt, a leading skeptic of American intervention. “There was no hint that the United States might want to do somewhat less, or insist that key allies do more, and little ranking of strategic priorities.

These three statements demonstrate the surprising continuity of American foreign policy over successive, often ideologically opposed, administrations. Clinton assumes that the U.S. “can and should lead” and focuses her speech entirely on the “how.” The how, as it turns out, strikes a similar tone to Condoleezza Rice’s “transformational diplomacy,” with its emphasis on using American might to empower other nations to help themselves. Both Clinton and Rice, to paraphrase Stephen Walt, see the U.S. as integral in solving the long list of problems facing the world community.

But aren’t they right? After all, the U.S. is the most powerful nation on earth, and in the absence of strong international bodies or another superpower, who would be willing to take on such responsibility? And for those who say U.S. global leadership is bad, wouldn’t leadership by other countries be worse?

Moreover, despite the historical narrative of the U.S. as a reluctant colossus extricating itself from isolationism to periodically rout evil, the U.S. has actually interacted with foreign powers since its founding. And if anything, the events of 9/11 have shown that the U.S. must remain actively engaged in the world, that when hateful ideologies coalesce with poverty and historical grievances, our security – and that of all people – is endangered. For the U.S., disengagement is not only dangerous but impossible.

So in a sense, Clinton is right – it’s not whether we engage but how we engage that’s important. The problem is that by referring to the U.S. as an indispensable nation or preaching unilateralism or even just acting alone because no one else can fulfill the same task, we can place U.S. interests above global well-being. So how to combat global challenges in a salutary way without forfeiting necessary U.S. involvement and leadership?

As we witness the rise of a multipolar world, the ability of the U.S. to influence events will surely decrease. The Obama administration should therefore take advantage of U.S. power and begin the slow, methodical process of building inclusive international decision-making bodies that will enable the world community to effectively deal with global calamities, terrorist groups and rogue states.

Brendan Boundy is an intern with the New Atlanticist.  He is pursuing a master’s degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.