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Letter from Aspen: Hillary Clinton and Her Hard Choices

Hillary Clinton Hard Choices

Hillary Clinton Hard Choices

Memoirs are subject to something like the law’s “hearsay rule”: They are admissible not for the truth of the statements they contain but for the fact that the declarant said them. This is especially true of former statesmen, writing to frame the judgment on their past actions. It is even truer of those still in the political arena, trying to position themselves for the future. And it is most true of Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices, which bears the double burden of both justifying the ample and controversial career of someone already an historical figure and simultaneously advancing the anodyne pronouncements of a candidate.

Nevertheless, what the author chooses to reveal about herself is still revealing. The publication of Hard Choices essentially marked the beginning of the former Secretary of State’s pursuit of the presidency – and in many ways, the book and its launch proved to be a doppelganger for the subsequent campaign: Overly ponderous, overly expensive, and overly long, calculatedly unexciting and unintentionally controversial. Yet, if Hillary Clinton is any guide to Hillary Clinton, then the “vast right-wing conspiracy” needn’t be as concerned about a radical President Clinton as it once was. The most significant passage in the book may be this rather insignificant biographical tidbit:

“As a girl in Illinois, I played my share of softball, and one of the lessons that stuck with me was that if you try to hit only home runs, you’ll end up popping out more often than not. But if you also go for singles and doubles, even walks, they can add up to something bigger”.

This isn’t an original idea, and could reflect Clinton’s tactical approach without speaking to any larger strategic vision. What’s striking about Hard Choices, however, is that this appears to be the strategic vision: Whatever her politics, Hillary is, essentially, a tactical, and conservative, thinker. Partially, this is again due to the book’s emphasis on narrative: In relating major world events from the perspective of day-to-day, sometimes hour-to-hour developments, it reflects all too well the reality that those in high government positions rarely get to think deeply and long-term but rather react simply to the crisis du jour. But, consistently, even in those situations Hillary’s is the voice for going slow, for doubts and suspicions – for conservatism: As the Arab Spring erupts and spreads, she longs to join in the enthusiasm and idealism of both President Obama and his aides – which she consistently identifies with youthfulness – but sees more reason to stand with the regimes that have historically served as the cornerstone of US foreign policy. She opens a chapter specifically on the world-changing nature of new technologies with a lengthy denunciation of Wikileaks and, by extension, all the ways in which these technologies are undermining the nation-state.

Again, one can dismiss all this inherent conservatism as promoting other narrative needs – distancing herself from Obama’s Middle East policies, or proving she’s sufficiently patriotic and pro-security to be president. But it’s clear even when Clinton comes closer to articulating a global “vision.”

Like most thinking people on the left today – in fact, like even the military and virtually everyone outside the increasingly hermetic world of Republican politics – Clinton contemplates a much broader conception of US national interest than military might and balance-of-power politics. “I wanted,” she writes at the outset, to deal with a range of emerging challenges that were going to require high-level attention and creative strategies…. I knew there would be traditionalists in the foreign policy establishment who would question whether it was worth a Secretary of State’s time to think about the impact of Twitter, or start programs for women entrepreneurs, or advocate on behalf of American businesses abroad. But I saw it all as part of the job of a 21st-century diplomat.

Well, maybe the first two; “advocating on behalf of American businesses abroad” isn’t exactly a groundbreaking preoccupation for an American diplomat. She starts to give this a more visionary framework, declaring that “now we needed new architecture for a new world, more in the spirit of Frank Gehry than formal Greek classicism. Where once a few strong columns could hold up the weight of the world, now a dynamic mix of materials, shapes and structures was needed.” This promising metaphor is followed by a list of subjects outside “the traditional work” of foreign policy – social media, pipeline routes, carbon emissions, marginalized groups, human rights, common economic rules – that “would be crucial measures of our national power.”

But just when it appears that Clinton aims to present a “21st-century” vision of America’s national interests, the limits of that vision become clear: Using the au courant term “smart power” to encapsulate all these non-hard (i.e. military) aspects of national strategy, Clinton writes, “For me, smart power meant choosing the right tools [emphasis added] … for each situation,” and, “The goal of smart power and our expanded focus on technology, public-private partnerships, energy, economics, and other areas beyond the State Department’s standard portfolio was to complement more traditional diplomatic tools and priorities, not replace them.” In case this isn’t clear, she provides illustrations of her concept from “our work on Iran”: “We used new financial tools and private-sector partners,” “energy diplomacy [to] help[ ] reduce sales of Iranian oil” and “social media to communicate directly with the Iranian people.” In other words, Clinton seems to envision all of this in the context of rather traditional jostling between traditional states: This is a book about new means, not new ends; about tactics, not strategies; and about new playbooks, not necessarily an entirely new game.

Of course, Hard Choices, intended primarily to highlight its author and her experiences, is inherently backward-looking, and thus only in the book’s final section – 100 of its 600 pages – does it address “The Future We Want.” This future apparently consists of environmental sustainability, Third World development, new communications technology, and human – largely gender – rights. Apart from passing references to Arab countries’ poor treatment of women, and an early mention of “food,” however, the issues on which this volume of Aspenia focuses are otherwise largely absent from the book’s Frank Gehry “architecture.” For instance, the causes of the Arab Spring are nowhere analyzed, other than occasional references to the fact that maintaining corrupt autocratic regimes probably wasn’t a good long-term strategy either for those countries or for the US; almost as soon as such a lull for reflection intervenes, however, we are back to the latest phone call with a foreign minister or meeting with President Obama. Yet, given that almost half the book is given over to problems in Islamic countries (about one-third of that to Afghanistan and Pakistan), one might hope for some deeper analysis of what’s causing all these, in order to help get to that “Future We Want.” A great deal of analysis suggests that rising commodity prices – a consequence of global climate change – is what ignited the Arab Spring and poses one of the great challenges to global stability over the next several decades. But this subject is merely hinted at in Hard Choices.

It’s not that Clinton doesn’t see the problems, and can’t connect the dots. At the outset of the final “Future” section of the book, she writes, “In the 21st Century, we’ve also had to pay attention to the emerging global challenges that affect everyone in our interdependent world: pandemic diseases, financial contagion, international terrorism, transnational criminal networks, human and wildlife trafficking – and, of course, climate change.” That discussion would make a terrific book. It would even make a terrific section of this book. But out of all those topics, the only one that gets any real attention is climate change.

Here, Clinton muses, “Imagine the violence that could follow in the wake of more severe droughts and extreme food and water shortages in fragile states, or the effects on global commerce as farms and infrastructure are destroyed in floods and storms. What will be the effect on global trade and stability as the gap between rich and poor countries widens further?” What, indeed. Unfortunately, the reader will have to imagine on his or her own, as Clinton provides little guidance on these problems. A few pages later – right after she brings up the softball analogy with which I opened – she gives a sample of the type of “small-ball” policies she pursues: a “Climate and Clean Air Coalition” (in other words, a working group of the type beloved of policy wonks) to reduce short-lived particulates “that would buy the world precious time to develop new technologies and the political will to deal with the tougher carbon problems.” In other words, Clinton, brilliant though she may be, is no grand-strategist.

Perhaps what is really a campaign screed rather than a serious attempt at either historical analysis or 21st Century agenda-setting isn’t where to expect a real discussion of the ways in which non-traditional problems, such as pandemic disease and population movements, are going to change calculations of national interest and national security – or how emerging technological and economic forces will alter not just the “tools” at the disposal of nation-states but also the challenges they face and the very foundations upon which they stand.

There is one area, however, where Hillary Clinton holds the promise of being a truly revolutionary president. She has worked hard not to be a women’s candidate – but Hard Choices makes clear that she would be very much a women’s president. The theme that global women’s empowerment could be transformative burbles in the background of the entire book but it finally gushes forth in the very last chapter, on human rights. As noted, “human rights” for Clinton is very much wrapped up in questions of gender (she spends almost as much time on LGBT issues as on women, per se). But she does not state her case as a matter of justice; rather, it is an issue of a more secure, stable, and prosperous world:

“This was a point lost on many of the men working across Washington’s foreign policy establishment, but over the years I came to view it as one of the most compelling arguments for why standing up for women and girls was not just the right thing to do but also smart and strategic. The mistreatment of women was not the only or even the chief cause of our problems [around the world]. But the correlation was undeniable, and a growing body of research showed that improving conditions for women helped resolve conflicts and stabilize societies…. I became convinced that this was a cause that cut to the heart of our national security.”

Clinton comes to her feminism naturally. But it also reflects a broader reality that she seems to have come to intellectually: Like many Americans of differing ideologies – but especially the Midwest Republicanism with which she was raised – she sees economic development as leading to bourgeois values that eventually produce more liberal, open and stable societies that are, in turn, conducive to American security and supportive of American values: “The global middle class is a natural constituency for America. It’s in our interest to see it grow to include more people. We should do everything we can to expand it at home and around the world.” Unfortunately, this declaration concludes a chapter; how exactly to do that isn’t worked out in the book.

But it’s clear from her earlier asides, and certainly by the time one reaches the final chapter, where Hillary Clinton thinks the answer lies. Currently, more than half the world is consigned to lives that limit their productive capacity along with their happiness and fulfillment, purely because of their sex. As the World Bank concluded several years ago, this is the biggest reason for the Islamic world’s poor economic performance. It is what is holding back Africa, the continent growing the fastest in the 21st Century, and India, which will be the century’s largest nation. Expanding education and entrepreneurship for women in these regions is probably the single biggest change that could unleash global growth, stabilize dangerous societies, and relieve global population and environmental pressures, and (incidentally) generally make the world a better place for Americans.

Pursuing such policies would not really be a hard choice. But it’s pretty clear that a Hillary Clinton Administration is the only one that will make it.


One Comment

  1. Julie Stauch-Reply
    November 6, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    I live in Iowa and am a Democratic Caucus participant. Your analysis of the book Hard Choices is interesting background for me because, as one who supports Hillary. She has been rolling out policy pieces since last June, at a pace of about one new piece every two weeks. Several of the points where you indicate you would have liked Hard Choices to provide more detail, you can now find the detail on her website.

    It’s comforting to me to see the thoughtful development and roll out of the book and the subsequent plans because it shows both a constancy toward dealing with the issues, a pattern of thought and a dedication to find solutions.

    I always value your analysis, Eric.

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