Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

Take the time to read Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices.  Read it carefully and take it seriously, as many critics have not.  Instead, having salivated in anticipation of  its publication date, they swooped in, intending to gorge on juicy (but highly unlikely) revelations, then panned the actual book.  It isn’t the tell-all exposé they’d prayed for.  

Gossip’s Not the Point

For one thing—and wisely, not coyly, as some critics believe—Clinton, in these pages, limits herself to confessing she’s still weighing the pros and cons of making another run for the presidency.  Whether she’s even leaning this way or that, she doesn’t tell.  And thank goodness for that!  Spring 2014 is way too early for presidential hat-tossing. Her reticence is a grace note for ordinary Americans who feel that presidential campaigns are much too long.  

Meanwhile, others sneer that Hard Choices is “merely” a campaign tool allowing Clinton to test the waters while ostensibly just signing books.  But there’s nothing wrong with that.  Nor with the fact that little or nothing on any page can hurt her much.  What kind of an idiot commits political suicide?  Should she decide to run, however, there’s much worth gleaning here.  Above all, voters would know beyond a doubt that  we’d have with her, for the first time since George H.W. Bush was on the scene, a president who understood from the get-go how the world works and how to work with it.
So Hard Choices is not gossipy. It’s certainly not a long delayed sob story, even as Monica Lewinsky attempts to rake up the sordid sex life of the 42nd  president.   Never ever expect Hillary Clinton to spill her guts about her partnership with Bill, although she does expose her deep love for her daughter Chelsea.  Unlike the recent memoirs of Robert Gates, it’s not sprinkled with snarky put downs of erstwhile colleagues either.  Yet, for all that she avoids gratuitous personal pot shots at political opponents, Clinton does, as relevant,  acknowledge differences of opinion on policy-making.  

 What’s Wrong with Solid and Reliable?

Some would say that Clinton is simply playing it safe in Hard Choices.  I don’t think so.  The Hillary we get here is the real thing.  Intelligent.  Conscientious.  Earnest.  Hard-working.  Intense.  Straightforward.  Principled and pragmatic.  Not flamboyant.  Not bombastic.  Not vicious.  And so, maybe, a trifle boring, as serious people are often held to be.  

No, Clinton’s not a drama queen, and thank god for that.  There’s already enough drama in today’s world.    To those who think they’d prefer a more exuberant political performer at center stage, I suggest a hard look at a powerful  politician who dominates Europe without pizzaz or a wasp waist: Angela Merkel.  She doesn’t seem to have a unified grand theory of diplomacy either, but wow!  Whether or not you agree with her all the time, Merkel, these days, puts every other European politician in the shade.

What!  No Grand theory?

Hillary Clinton set out to write a book about her role in the formation (maybe not so much) and carrying out (tirelessly) of U.S. foreign policy as Secretary state in the first Obama administration, a task at which some say she failed.  The dreadful deficiency?  She never evolved a grand theory to guide the Obama administration’s encounters with the rest of the world.  The touchstone for this criteron?  Something on the order of George Kennan’s policy of containment, which worked so well during the Cold War.   

These critics don’t seem to have noticed how much simpler the world was back then.  Bipolar is the modern word for it.  Facing a credible threat of nuclear war, it fell to the U.S. to blunt the U.S.S.R.’s geographic and ideological ambitions until that sudden implosion in 1989.  To a very large extent the richer state won, although it feels much better to say that the better system won, which I can’t help thinking was no less true.  Unfortunately, today’s world is anything but  the harmonious unipolar system imagined by American triumphalists contemplating the rubble of the Berlin Wall.  For one thing, they overlooked the possibility that countries getting richer—China, Brazil, et. al.—would seek the equivalent in power and influence as well.  Worse, who dreamed that the U.S. would also have to deal with a proliferation of non-state actors whose tactics, weapons and dedication make for a serious threat? 

In sum, what single, non-vague, actionable grand theory could possibly cover all the following acute contemporary challenges:  China’s aggressive claims on the East and South China seas, Vladimir Putin’s neo-Stalinist imperial ambitions, the collapse of global financial institutions, post Arab spring political chaos, violent Islamist jihadism, etc., etc., etc., to say nothing of urgent climate-related issues and—well, enough!    Note that “showing backbone,” “making them pay” and other such declarations are not strategies.  Nor (as Clinton didn’t say in Hard Choices but has more recently) is it sufficient to govern under the motto of “don’t do stupid things.”   So what would her policy guidelines be?  She doesn’t make them explicit here.  Hard Choices is a memoir, not an election manifesto.

An Essential Text on Diplomacy

Clinton’s reviewers to date don’t seem to have noticed something else.  The value of  Hard Choices goes far beyond anything that’s revealed about the qualities of the author as Secretary of State and potential president.  Whether she meant to or not, Clinton has produced a terrific textbook, a definitively detailed and precise description of how diplomacy works in the twenty-first century, which is one reason why it isn’t a quick and breezy read.  All the traditional ways of dealing with “foreign entanglements” continue to be essential, we learn, even as they are generously supplemented by newer, technology-based tools that extend enormously the reach of human eyes, ears and bodies.  Turn to Clinton’s chapters on Iran, Afghanistan, China, trade, global warming, etc., etc., to discover how the Obama team carried the ball, often successfully.  Systematically, in each case, Clinton fills us in on the  history and  context of the matter at hand, the institutions and personalities involved, the interplay of domestic and international pressures, and whatever else we need to know in order to follow the step by step progress toward goals whose achievment can never be taken for granted. 

Lawyerly, fact-driven granularity makes Hard Choices a must read for any future diplomat as well as for those desiring to study diplomacy academically.  Read this book to see how it’s done by the pros who know which tool to use—and when and how.  High level face-to-face talks.  Fast reaction tweeting. Bilateral and multilateral discussions.  Mediation and negotiation.  Quiet persuasion and arm twisting.  Out-in-the-open straight talking or indirection.  Secure phones and public speeches.    Carrots or  coercion.   And much much more.   If anyone is  inclined to wonder whether diplomacy is a serious, demanding profession in its own right, Hard Choices is the perfect antidote.  Clinton mentions plenty of political appointees in these pages, often her own, but the amateurs wouldn’t get anything significant done if the pros weren’t doing the heavy hauling.  Because Clinton was willing to recognize this and give credit where due, she was well regarded at the State Department.

From time to time in Hard Choices, though always without rancor or dramatics, Clinton discloses disagreements  with the President and/or his chief aides.  When overruled, she accepts defeat and gets to work.  Meanwhile, whether her personal approach has prevailed or not, she doesn’t use her memoir to blacken anyone’s character.  Nor does she pass the buck or dredge up scapegoats—and often she expresses appreciation.  These qualities are plus points in a potential president, as is this: never once does she advocate duplicity and disinformation in the pursuit of America’s interests abroad.   

Worth Emulating: The Really Hard Choice

Should she or should she not accept Barack Obama’s invitation to join his Cabinet as Secretary of State?  This was the first hard choice that Clinton confronted after she had lost the hotly contested primary race.  Her opponent, having gone on to win the presidency, wanted her to join his team.  There were alternatives.  She could have retreated into a stereotypical mother-of-the-bride’s role, she could have stagnated in a pool of self pity, she could have accepted any number of positions that would have kept her political viability intact—or she could accept the call of duty and help her rival succeed in the position she’d wanted for herself.    Which did she choose?  The latter.  When the President asks for you help, she writes, you can’t turn him down.   Win or lose, you have a duty to your country.  Tugs at the heart, doesn’t it?  The way it feels when you’re young and you raise your hand to take the oath of office, promising to defend the Constitution.   

What if Hilary’s motto were shared by losing candidates in other countries?  What if Abdulla Abdulla and Abdul Ghani decided to work cooperatively in Afganinistan?  What about the bloody mess that uncompromising presidential rivals have made of South Sudan, the world’s newest country?  What of the naked self-seeking that prevents Iraqi politicians from forming a unity government, even in the face of I.S.I.S?  What about the agonizing tribalism of Kenya?  And so on and on and on.  Barack Obama will complete his second term, step down and spend the rest of his life as a respected former president.  Hillary Clinton, her reputation enhanced by devoting four years to serving in his cabinet as Secretary of State, will probably make another run for the presidency. Win or lose, she’ll accept the results gracefully.  Many aspects of the election process in the U.S. could use a little improvement, but the Obama/Chinton interaction that’s portrayed in Hard Choices is a good example of America at its best.