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Secretary Clinton Sets Diplomatic Style, Tone on First Trip

February 23, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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In her first trip abroad as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton fused serious policy discussion with lighter conversations as she toured Asia. Analysts discuss how her approach to diplomacy is developing.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just returned from her first trip abroad to Asia and is already planning her second trip. Margaret Warner is here with a look at the secretary’s focus so far.

MARGARET WARNER: In a break with tradition, Secretary of State Clinton made her maiden trip in her new role not to Europe or the Middle East, but to the world’s most populous region, Asia.

HILLARY CLINTON, secretary of state: I have come to Asia as my first trip as secretary of state to convey that America’s relationships across the Pacific are indispensable.

MARGARET WARNER: Secretary Clinton’s trip began with a visit to long-time ally and economic partner Japan. From there, she went to Indonesia, South Korea, and China.

The economy and strategic issues dominated her agenda on every stop. She made that intention clear to reporters before leaving Seoul for China.

While we have to continue to press the Chinese on human rights, she said, “pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis.”

In Beijing Saturday, after meeting with China’s president, foreign minister, and premier, she spoke of the Obama administration’s desire to work with China on the biggest global issues of the day.

HILLARY CLINTON: There are a number of areas we can work on together. We are constructing and have agreed in principle to a strategic and economic dialogue.

MARGARET WARNER: She tried to reassure her hosts that China’s investment in U.S. government debt remains sound.

HILLARY CLINTON: I appreciate greatly the Chinese government’s continuing confidence in United States Treasuries. I think that’s a well-grounded confidence.

MARGARET WARNER: She also highlighted climate change, touring a thermal power plant that produces about half the emissions of a typical coal plant. China recently surpassed the United States as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Clinton’s candid, straight-talking style was also in evidence in South Korea, where she had some strong words for North Korea.

HILLARY CLINTON: North Korea is not going to get a different relationship with the United States while insulting and refusing dialogue with the Republic of Korea.

MARGARET WARNER: And she raised some diplomatic eyebrows by talking to reporters about the deteriorating health of North Korea’s leader and her concerns that a succession struggle there could hamper efforts to deal with the North’s nuclear program.

In Jakarta — capital of the world’s largest Muslim nation, Indonesia — she was greeted at the airport by students from the elementary school President Obama once attended.

Everywhere, she reached out beyond government officials to the public. She was interviewed by a blogger in China and on this TV show in Jakarta.

TELEVISION HOST: What is your favorite music and artists?

HILLARY CLINTON: You know, I am older than you are, so I — for me, it’s really the old standbys, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And I am really very…

Oh, good!

MARGARET WARNER: Secretary Clinton returned to Washington last night. Today, the State Department announced she will leave next week for the Middle East.

Reframing the global dialogue

MARGARET WARNER: And now, for an assessment of Secretary Clinton's first official trip, Wendy Sherman was State Department counselor to Secretary Madeleine Albright and special adviser on North Korea. She's now a principal with the Albright Group.

And Christian Brose was chief speechwriter and a policy adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He is now a senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

Welcome, both of you.

Wendy Sherman, beginning with you, what did Secretary Clinton achieve on this trip, do you think?

WENDY SHERMAN, former counselor, State Department: I think Secretary Clinton began to re-set the table for national security and foreign policy of the United States of America. She went out to Asia to say that we really are in a global century, where we have to focus on the whole world. And as we've seen with the global economic crisis, it does engage the entire world.

And so I think she went to listen, to present the face of President Obama and the Obama administration, and to begin to build the long-term relationships we need to deal with economics, deal with transnational issues like proliferation and climate, and to deal with the values that we hold dear -- human rights, democracy -- and all the issues that give people prosperity and hope in the world.

MARGARET WARNER: I want to come back to the human rights question, but, first of all, Chris Brose, re-setting the table, is that what it looked like to you?

CHRISTIAN BROSE, Foreign Policy magazine: That was my sense. You know, I think this is a re-branding tour. This is an opportunity for Secretary Clinton to make her maiden voyage and say that things are now entirely different.

I think that it was a smart move to go to Asia first. But I do think that, you know, there's a lot more continuity here than we realize.

I think the decision to go to Asia was one that Secretary Rice's policy planning staff recommended. And I think that largely what you see on this stop are, you know, an attempt to sort of reach out to these rising powers in Asia, to say that we want to work together to solve global problems. And that's broadly consistent with the approach the Bush administration passed off to the work that they did in their second term.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there anything really different that she signaled, Wendy Sherman, policy-wise?

WENDY SHERMAN: Well, I think she signaled...

MARGARET WARNER: Or is it sort of a continuation policy-wise?

WENDY SHERMAN: I think there is some continuity, but I think what she said is: We are here to listen, not to lecture. We are here to work with you, but on issues of concern to us and our national interest. We are here to highlight Indonesia's enormous efforts towards democracy, which they did from the inside out, as opposed to from the outside in. And we're here to look at those issues that are really going to take all of us in this boat together to solve.

MARGARET WARNER: But are you saying there was a focus that was missing from the previous administration?

WENDY SHERMAN: I think the previous administration led us into a war in Iraq. That said to the rest of the world that we had a focus, we weren't interested in other people's interests, we weren't interested in listening to them and working together in solving big problems that cut across sovereignty and cut across boundaries.

And I think with Secretary Clinton, what President Obama has been saying repeatedly throughout the campaign, and more importantly now that President Obama is president of the United States, is: We are here to work together to solve these global issues.

New focus on climate change

MARGARET WARNER: Did you see any new policy direction, Chris Brose, other than being in more of a listening mode?

CHRISTIAN BROSE: I think the focus on climate change was a departure. I think that the attempt to put that front and center with our relationship with China was not something that you would have seen the Bush administration do.

That being said, I do think that the attempt or the contours of that relationship are broadly the same. I think that the -- getting past looking at China as either a strategic partner to engage or a strategic threat to contain, and looking at its rise as a geopolitical fact, and putting the question of, how is China going to use its rising power in the new century? What global problems is it going to work with us to solve?

I think this is the responsible stakeholder policy that the Bush administration passed to the Obama administration. And I think the focus on climate change, though a departure to some degree, is broadly consistent with the strategy that the Bush administration was pursuing.

MARGARET WARNER: And by "responsible stakeholder," you mean trying to make China be a more, quote, unquote, "responsible stakeholder" in the global order?

CHRISTIAN BROSE: Correct. To shoulder the burdens, as well as the benefits of globalization.

MARGARET WARNER: What explains, Wendy Sherman, what she said about human rights? Now, this is a woman who 14 years ago as first lady went to Beijing, gave a very high-profile speech, a very vehement speech, passionate defense of human rights and women's rights, so much so that I'm told the Chinese had pulled the plug on her address on Chinese television. Why this new tone?

WENDY SHERMAN: I think that everyone knew she had given that speech. When she gave the Asia Society speech before she left for the trip, she laid out the importance of human rights, democracy, civil society, so she was very clear that this is part of an American framework. These are our values.

But she also understood that we're trying to build relationships, that the greatest human rights that a person has is the right to a livelihood and that, first and foremost, we had to focus on the global economic crisis to make sure that people can raise their families and look forward to educating their children and having health care.

That's true here. That's true in China, in South Korea, in Japan, and in Indonesia.

Human rights activists upset

MARGARET WARNER: But was she signaling, do you think, that the concern about human rights, what's happening with dissidents in China, what's happening in Tibet, in the U.S. view is going to take a back seat to these other issues?

WENDY SHERMAN: I think it might take a more private seat, in the sense that it isn't about whether you're going to be candid about these issues. I'm sure in her meeting with the foreign minister she discussed these issues; she said as much.

But is she going to do it in front of the curtain? Is she going to do it quietly?

Face in Asia is a very important thing. People want to make sure that their pride and dignity are maintained. And I think she's respectful of other people's societies, but very clear about the value of human rights and democracy.

MARGARET WARNER: Human rights groups were very critical of this, Chris Brose.


MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it was the right tact to take?

CHRISTIAN BROSE: No, I think it was a mistake. You know, I think it was a gaffe. I think that it's one thing to not say anything and to go and have those meetings and raise those issues in private, but to essentially cut the legs out from your policy by saying that it's not going to be working I think is a mistake.

MARGARET WARNER: That's what she said. She said they know what we're going to say; we know what they're going to say. And so it's not...

CHRISTIAN BROSE: And to her defense, she met with religious groups, labor groups, women's groups. So deeds matter, but words matter, too.

MARGARET WARNER: No, I was just going to follow up with that. Would you say, though, that that was also kind of the Bush administration policy, that they did not let human rights concerns get in the way of certainly the economic agenda they were pursuing...

CHRISTIAN BROSE: Absolutely. I think that...

MARGARET WARNER: ... with China?

CHRISTIAN BROSE: ... there was the recognition in the Bush administration that this didn't need to be a false choice, you know, that you could -- you could both hold China to the high standards that we all try to hold ourselves to in regard to human rights, but at the same time work on issues of common interests and common concern.

And I think that the shift of emphasis is something that didn't need to happen publicly. It's something that, you know, you can engage that conversation privately, but you're just creating problems for yourself, because the next time you come out, everyone will ask you, "So what are you going to do about human rights this time?" And it's just a needless distraction.

WENDY SHERMAN: I think, however, though, that actions do matter here. During the last eight years, before the Obama administration, we had a lot of secrecy. We had some human rights problems of our own, with Abu Ghraib, with Guantanamo, with the policy on torture.

And so the Obama administration has to signal that this is a new day, that these are important issues, that our deeds matter. So the meeting with 23 advocates, going to Indonesia, which is a really burgeoning democracy, all of these matter a great deal.

The risks of candid discussion

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both how you think this candor, the candor about what she was going to do about human rights, candor about the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il's, failing health. We Americans love that kind of straight talk, but is there a risk for a chief diplomat in this?

CHRISTIAN BROSE: I think there can be a risk at times. I think the Bush administration got itself into a lot of problems with its candor at times.

But I think, with regard to some of her more candid moments on the trip, I think, you know, you have to separate them out. I think what she said about North Korea, what she said about Burma, I think that was candor and it was stating the obvious and it wasn't very problematic. With regard to Burma, it was also the recognition that they were reviewing the policy, so admitting that it was failing was OK.

But when you say that, you know, your human rights dialogue, your efforts to discuss human rights with China aren't going to get anywhere, I think that's a different situation and it's more problematic.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, let me ask you both about -- there's been a lot of commentary that she subcontracted a couple of the toughest issues or toughest areas in the world -- the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan -- to these special envoys. How active should we expect her to be on those fronts?

WENDY SHERMAN: I think you've seen the answer right away. She's traveling in a week to Egypt for a Gaza donor conference. She's going to the West Bank and to Israel. So I think you'll see her very active on those issues.

You know, there is a lot going on in the world. And I think it is a great tribute to the president and to the secretary that they have brought on board very senior, very serious diplomats to help solve these problems.

This is not a new phenomena. Every president has used this device. And I think it's very wise to do so in this very difficult time.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see that playing out, in terms of her involvement in those areas?

CHRISTIAN BROSE: I think that's largely true. I think she'll continue to be engaged in these issues.

But I also think that it's -- you could read it as a very smart and savvy move on her part, which is she'll allow some of these envoys, some of these other members of the administration to bang their heads on some of these intractable problems, and she'll focus on a sort of low-risk/high-reward place like Asia, where she can really make her mark and make a legacy for herself, in addition to the work she'll be doing inside the State Department on reform issues.

So she'll be engaged in all of these issues for sure, but I think where she really sees making her mark, at least from this first trip and what we've been hearing in reports, is a real focus for her on Asia.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Christopher Brose and Wendy Sherman, thank you both.