When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came before a crowd of foreign policy players and former players, journalists and wonks to lay out the Obama administration’s new National Security Strategy Thursday, she was self-assured and in command, talking about how the U.S. is exercising what she often calls “smart power” to advance U.S. interests in the world today.
But the subtext of her remarks at the Brookings Institution carried an underlying admission of vulnerability — or at the very least a recognition that U.S. strength and influence has declined in the world, and it will take new strategies at home and abroad to bring that back. It was the sort of sober assessment of diminished U.S. standing in the world that one rarely hears spoken out loud by a leading figure on an American president’s national security team.
For those not ready to read the 52-page National Security Strategy, Clinton offered her own Reader’s Guide. “Perhaps the most important take-away is that the United States must be strong at home in order to be strong abroad,” she said. “We have to have the conditions in effect in our own country where we are able to project both power and influence.”
The starting point is right on page 2:
>”Our approach begins with a commitment to build a stronger foundation for American leadership, because what takes place within our borders will determine our strength and influence beyond them.”
The litany of our vulnerabilities was familiar to anyone who listens to President Barack Obama’s domestic policy speeches: The U.S. is losing its prosperity and competitive edge, the victim of decades of underinvestment in education, energy, science, technology and health — and of profligate spending that has saddled the country with enormous deficit and national debt. What was new and different here was to see it as the headline on a national security document.
The other striking thing was Clinton’s frank admission of what we all know but is rarely spoken publicly by a U.S. policymaker — how hard it is for the last standing superpower to work its will in today’s fragmented, turbo-charged techno-driven world. Clinton didn’t mince words:
“The kind of slow, patient diplomacy that is necessary for the vast majority of problems that have been faced in diplomacy going back in history is so much more difficult today. I mean, think about some of those critical moments that we look back at with admiration, when breakthroughs occurred. How hard is it now to imagine doing that with Twitter, with blogs, with 24/7 media coverage?
“The necessary ingredients of building some level of trust, to understand opposing points of view, to have the luxury of time, even if it’s just days and weeks, to think through approaches — that has all been telescoped.
“I’ve told a number of friends and colleagues that the intensity of the diplomatic enterprise is so much greater than it was even … back in the ’90s. It’s just a constantly accelerating mechanism that requires people to act often more quickly than the problem deserves. Yet that is the world in which we find ourselves. “
The Obama administration’s antidote for this diminished clout is to leverage U.S. influence by collaborating with an ever-swelling roster of international partners. But that demands what Clinton called “a more sophisticated and difficult mix of indirect power and influence” than the U.S. has applied in the past. These partners all have their own ideas, she said ruefully, citing last December’s Copenhagen climate change summit.
She needn’t have relied on such old news to make her point. Just this month, Brazil and Turkey tried to throw a monkey wrench in Washington’s push for U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran; China resisted Clinton’s in-person entreaties to rein in North Korea for sinking a South Korean ship; and just today, the U.S. acquiesced to a document singling out Israel’s nuclear stockpile as a price for getting 188 other nations to sign onto a blueprint to shore up the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This new approach is not just going to require “patience,” as Clinton said. It’s also going to require eating some humble pie.
You can watch Margaret Warner’s discussion with Jim Lehrer about the new strategy from Thursday’s NewsHour here: