By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Now is the time to praise, deride or simply to try to assess Hillary Clinton’s contributions to American diplomacy as Secretary of State. Did she improve our standing in the world? Did she deepen Americans’ understanding of what diplomacy is, which would make it easier to judge her fairly and competently? Did she make us better respected and more likely to be followed? Did she evolve a distinctive doctrine to guide us in these troubled times? Was her energetic globe-circling an anachronistic self-indulgence in a world networked by twitter, Facebook and e-messaging of all sorts or is person-to-person diplomacy still essential? Did she made any progress in steering us away from the over militarization of American foreign policy?
Estimates Now Are Preliminary
Some of the last week’s commentary is too ideological to bother with, some is too shallow and personality-driven, some is better informed and more thoughtful. All commentary has to be more or less tentative, despite the best efforts of Wikileaks to deprive U.S. diplomacy of the secrecy that is not always excessive or unneeded, and because time and distance are critical to fully understanding complex events. Clinton herself has not dropped any farewell bombshells. What's more, she’s answered questions about the future mostly with vague comments about needing a little rest, which it’s generally thought she’s earned.
When that (probably) short hiatus is over, she’ll be able to write her own ticket at the top of any number of respected organizations. Her approval rating is above 70%. Despite demurrals, she hasn’t sworn on a stack of Bibles that she won’t run for president again either. Still, the question I’d ask her in this context is this: "When can we expect your next book to appear, the one that covers that last four years?" Then we’ll be closer to being able to answer those questions I began with.
Meanwhile, however, I’d like to make a stab at putting her tenure at State in context. One of the harsher, most frequently repeated criticisms is that Hillary Clinton hasn’t put her name on a new and novel foreign policy doctrine. She’s been a worker bee, a mere team player, who’s carried out the President’s policy. Funny thing about the team player concept. When only men are involved, descriptions make a team seem like a gang of buddies, of equals. Add a woman, and the undertones suggest she’s the one fetching coffee for the boss. In fact, what all cabinet secretaries are supposed to do is carry out policy, not make it. When they have ideas or disagree with the President, they’re supposed to be discrete about it—whispering, not shouting—as Hillary evidently has done, sometimes winning the point, sometimes losing. In fact, Hillary's record of influence isn't so bad under President Obama, who's known to be a control freak. We’ll learn more about this when the book comes out. Even so we can expect discretion. Clinton hasn’t come as far as she has by burning bridges.
Besides Hillary isn’t one for flamboyant displays of egomania and grandiose promises. Look how the former First Lady went about becoming and being Senator. Despised at first as a carpetbagger from outside the state of New York, she got to know the people she planned to represent by thoroughly criss-crossing the state. She introduced herself to ordinary people as well as local leaders, king makers and money bags. In the Senate she adjusted to her junior status without being mousy. By the time she resigned to run for president, she had the respect and affection of her colleagues and constituents, who would have voted her in for another term. She was, after all, a worker bee.
Pressing the Flesh Works
I’d like to put Clinton’s much criticized global travels into a similar context. As Secretary of State, one’s constituency is the world, and Clinton logged almost a million miles in the air getting to know, as directly as possible, the friends and allies, the fragile places and the already troubled places, the competition and the dependencies, giving comfort, delivering admonitions, all to gain the influence and personal experience (in addition to all the second hand briefings, reports, books, advice, etc. a Secstate can count on) so as to be able to make up her own mind in tricky, risky situations and and also to better advise the President.
Henry Kissinger couldn’t count on cables and phone calls to judge his counterpart decision-makers in other countries. Ditto for Hillary Clinton. The world of electronic communications may be extensive and downright miraculous in its potential for human communication at a distance, but you can’t have a nuanced discussion via 140 character bursts and you don’t necessarily want every tough love word you utter to a foreign minister in another country to be instantly available to clever hackers in China—or even necessarily to history. What’s more, those face to face acquaintanceships made it a lot easier for the Secretary of State to make personal calls to world leaders and get things done quickly when necessary. And there’s this: air travel is a lot cheaper and easier on the environment (and human life) than war. Finally, only those who don’t travel for a living imagine that business travel is fun.
A Simple Formula for a Complex World?
A final contextual element (or cluster of elements) I’d like to mention has to do with the extraordinary complexity of our rapidly changing world, domestic and international. The latter first. Muslim civilization is in transition. There’s chaos in some places, civil war in others, and there are renegade Islamist groups spreading terror around the world. Russia is showing totalitarian tendencies. Europe’s economy is only now recovering from crises which seemed to undermine the entire European project as well as the Euro. China seems sometimes to be dangerously, powerfully aggressive; at others its economy seems ready to implode. Multinational corporations elude regulation. Tax havens foster tax evasion on a scale that undermines the economies of countless countries. Technological innovations accelerate revolutionary change in most every dimension of political and economic life.
There’s more, but enough! Any doctrine at the level of generality capable of encompassing all these phenomena would be useless at the level of implementation. No one formula fits all in this world of contesting ideological systems and multiple power centers (not an indication of American failure, but of others' growth). How could anyone but a pragmatic realist begin to deal with such a herd of cats and crises that arise as frequently as acne on a teenager's chin?
Soft Power Melts Away
Meanwhile, the U.S. itself is in such disarray that its once extraordinary soft power in world affairs is practically gone. Voraciously greedy financial institutions and profound inequality undermine the appeal of American capitalism as a great recession’s negative impact continues to cast a pall over most people’s lives. Ideological polarities generate legislative gridlock. Corruption corrodes institutions and money plays such a major role in elections that the word plutocracy is increasingly applied to the American system. Where once the U.S. was the international leader on human rights issues, its moral authority has been undermined by it well-publicized maltreatment of prisoners, its not always well-aimed drone attacks and the institutionalizing of torture in once secret foreign dungeons, practices that have not been adequaately analyzed, punished or foresworn, as the case may be.
Presented with such a sorry-looking snapshot of America, why would developing or post-revolutionary societies wish to model themselves after the U.S.? Why would they respect our opinions or accept our leadership? And worse: soft power often rests on financial power, and we don't have a surplus of money to throw around. But money alone doesn't work either, not when it isn't properly audited to prevent corruption. And billions of dollars in assistance haven't even made a supposed friend like Israel cooperative, much less grateful.
Over-Militarization Still a Problem
It's hardly surprising, then, that diplomacy has all too often given way to coercive efforts in the conduct of U.S. international relations, with the result that the State Department’s budget is nothing compared to that of the Pentagon. Hillary Clinton, who assumed the Secstate position with an openly declared determination to build bridges to the military, was unable or unwilling to reverse or resist this trend, despite the demonstrably equivocal results of military intervention over the past decade. Saddam Hussein is gone, but Iraq is hardly a stable multi-ethnic democracy; Afghanistan will shortly revert to its traditional patterns, even if a face-saving handful of American troops remains on the ground there; Pakistan’s military cannot be bribed into reliability as a U.S. tool; North Korea can't be zapped for fear of a blitzkrieg that would obliterate Seoul. And still the U.S. maintains hundreds of very expensive bases all around the world, as if to sustain the illusion of total global dominance. The purpose of this critique isn’t to deny an appropriate role for the military, but to question assumptions, goals and proportionality. With hierarchies everywhere undering long-needed modification or toppling, a little less strutting and a little more realism on the part of the American colossus seems to be indicated.
However, there's not much possibility of moderating the militarization of foreign policy, it seems to me, until there’s a change of mood in the U.S. itself. An irrationally frightened public seems to be willing to starve every other budget item to fatten the military. That same public acquiesces in supporting the national security state's ever more aggressive intrusions on Americans’ civil liberties and privacy. What’s more, people seem to crave guns to solve their problems at home as well as abroad. Despite massacre after massacre, gun control legislation is considered to be a hard sell. Gun nuts rush out to buy more assault weapons as soon as the specter of a ban appears. We can hardly blame Clinton for failing to strengthen the role of diplomacy in the pursuit of American interest abroad when Americans themselves create enormous home arsenals and see nothing amiss as citizens murder fellow citizens by the ones, twos and dozens.
Pandering Undermines Diplomacy
Still, the State Department hasn’t added to its stature by dumbing down its self-description on its web site. Check here for the list of “Ten Things You Should Know about the State Department,” i.e., what State does for the American people, a cheap public relations ploy that gives people no notion of what diplomats actually do or why, like Ambassador Chris Stephens in Libya and his luckier colleagues just last week in Turkey’s capital, they risk their lives to represent the U.S. abroad, without guns. In fact, the State Department, so far from educating people about diplomacy, seems to be running away for its very reason for being. Yes, there are aid programs and yes there are public diplomacy programs and they are all geared, ultimately, to ensure the economic and political welfare of Americans. But the state department isn't an employment agency or a charitable or ganization or an arts center or a tourist bureau. Its officers have special skills and unique assignments which call for them to work effectively with people in foreign countries and international organizations. Foreign service officers observe, analyze, interact, persuade, cajole, debate, negotiate, mediate, write agreements and treaties at bilateral and multi-national levels, design assistance programs and, yes, dispurse aid and arrange cultural and intellectual exchanges, all to create a global regime in which Americans (and others) may be safe and prosperous— without resorting to armies, which are much more expensive to run and, by definition, are designed to kill people. Furthermore, what's achieved by diplomacy is likely to be more durable, since generally it's based on mutual agreement.
My experience in talking with friends and acquaintances has shown that most Americans have so little idea of what diplomats do, how they do them, or the skills that make their achievements possible that the State Department is held in contempt. The cocktail party image prevails, where there's any image at all. This web site list of the nifty-nice-things-we-do-for-you perpetuates such ignorance. If Hillary Clinton approved the “Ten Things” message, she did a disservice not only to the members of the Foreign Service but to the citizens of the U.S. who don’t need to be pandered to. They don't need to be talked down to. They need straight, honest, accurate talk about what the often heroic but always dedicated people who represent abroad us actually do and how they do it. How about some rotating vignettes of real people and what they've achieved, as individuals or collectively, under normal conditions and in danger zones?