David Rothkopf argues that, while the commentariet is distracted by Hillary Clinton’s celebrity, the new secretary of state is “overseeing what may be the most profound changes in U.S. foreign policy in two decades — a transformation that may render the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush mere side notes in a long transition to a meaningful post-Cold War worldview.”
Given the evidence presented in the rest of the longish essay, that’s hyperbolic in the extreme. But the argument, presented in the Sunday Washington Post by the prolific author who served as a deputy undersecretary of commerce under Bill Clinton, nonetheless presents a stark contrast to the “Bush’s Third Term” argument that myself and others have made.
The secretary has quietly begun rethinking the very nature of diplomacy and translating that vision into a revitalized State Department, one that approaches U.S. allies and rivals in ways that challenge long-held traditions. And despite the pessimists who invoked the “team of rivals” cliche to predict that President Obama and Clinton would not get along, Hillary has defined a role for herself in the Obamaverse: often bad cop to his good cop, spine stiffener when it comes to tough adversaries and nurturer of new strategies. Recognizing that the 3 a.m. phone calls are going to the White House, she is instead tackling the tough questions that, since the end of the Cold War, have kept America’s leaders awake all night.
More unusual has been the avidity with which the new president has seized the reins of foreign policy — more assertively than either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton before him. Obama’s centrality amplifies the importance of his closest White House staffers, while his penchant for appointing special envoys such as Richard Holbrooke (on Afghanistan and Pakistan) and George Mitchell (on the Middle East) has been interpreted by some as limiting Clinton’s role.
Given the challenges involved, it was perhaps natural that the White House would have a bigger day-to-day hand in some of the nation’s most urgent foreign policy issues. But with Obama, national security adviser Jim Jones, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates absorbed by Iraq, Afghanistan and other inherited problems of the recent past, Clinton’s State Department can take on a bigger role in tackling the problems of the future — in particular, how America will lead the world in the century ahead. This approach is both necessary and canny: It recognizes that U.S. policy must change to fulfill Obama’s vision and that many high-profile issues such as those of the Middle East have often swamped the careers and aspirations of secretaries of state past.
In searching for answers, Clinton is leaving behind old doctrines and labels. She outlined her new thinking in a recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where she revealed stark differences between the new administration’s worldview and those of its predecessors: The recurring themes include “partnership” and “engagement” and “common interests.” Clearly, Madeleine Albright’s “indispensable nation” has recognized the indispensability of collaborating with others.
Who those “others” are is the area in which change has been greatest and most rapid. “We will put,” Clinton said, “special emphasis on encouraging major and emerging global powers — China, India, Russia and Brazil, as well as Turkey, Indonesia and South Africa — to be full partners in tackling the global agenda.” This is the death knell for the G-8 as the head table of the global community; the administration has an effort underway to determine whether the successor to the G-8 will be the G-20, or perhaps some other grouping. Though the move away from the G-8 began in the waning days of the Bush era, that administration viewed the world through a different lens, a perception that evolved from a traditional great-power view to a pre-Galilean notion that everything revolved around the world’s sole superpower.
On many critical agenda items — from a rollback of nuclear weapons to the climate or trade talks — such emerging powers will be essential to achieving U.S. goals. As a result, we’ve seen a new American willingness to play down old differences, whether with Russia on a missile shield or, as Clinton showed on her China trip, with Beijing on human rights.
Now, it’s mighty early to assess Hillary Clinton’s imprint on America’s foreign policy. Barely seven months in, the new administration still has a whopping 57 percent of its appointments vacant. But, really, how revolutionary is any of this?
Rothkopf’s chief claim is that, because the most pressing foreign policy issues are being handled in the White House, Clinton is free to concentrate on the big picture and forge relationships with America’s future partners. But he admits that much of this was already underway in the previous administration.
Will the G-8 really give way to the G-20? Or will we see instead a G-2, with the United States and China making the biggest decisions bilaterally? Or perhaps the EU will join them and make it a G-3? It’s too soon to say. In any case, it will be a natural response to the global financial crisis, not some grand scheme by the new secretary of state. After all, the first G20 summit was held in November 2008 — under the Bush administration.
And, goodness, playing down differences on human rights and missile defense with China and Russia has been a continuity in U.S. foreign policy going back to the Nixon administration (with the Carter years as a mild exception).
And, surely, the BRICs haven’t been ignored up until now? The Bush team was working feverishly on bringing Brazil into a free trade zone of the Americas from early in its first term. The United States contributed massively to the Indonesia tsunami relief effort in 2004-5 and Bush himself visited Indonesia in 2006. And Turkey was counted on as a valued ally during the Iraq invasion, only to have that scuttled by Islamists in the Turkish parliament.
That said, Rothkopf is surely right that the Obama administration is more likely to undertake a rethink of America’s strategic posture than was its predecessor. Mostly, however, that’s a function of the 9/11 attacks taking place at almost exactly this juncture in Bush’s tenure. After that, the War on Terror and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq rather consumed the available oxygen.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.