By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009
SEOUL, Feb. 20 -- Hillary Rodham Clinton has a new campaign and message: The United States wants to listen.
To that end, on her first overseas trip as secretary of state, Clinton is talking a lot. Her schedule is packed with so many town halls, ceremonial events, television shows and meetings with community leaders that it has the feel of a presidential visit -- or even a presidential campaign.
Before departing tropical Indonesia on Thursday for snowbound Seoul, Clinton carved out an hour to chat with the Muslim nation's president. But she also appeared on a highly popular youth television show, "Dahsyat" ("Awesome"), met with a group of Indonesian journalists, answered questions on a radio program and went on a campaign-style walk through a lower-middle-class neighborhood, where she studied recycling efforts as hordes of Indonesians gathered around her. "I love your hat," she called out to a man in a New York Yankees baseball cap.
"There is a hunger for the United States to be present again," Clinton told reporters as she flew to Seoul. "Showing up is not all of life -- but it counts for a lot."
To a large extent, this is Clinton's new campaign -- repairing the U.S. image abroad. Her boss, President Obama, has helped ease the way simply by not being former president George W. Bush. But it is unclear whether all this public outreach will yield much beyond a few extra lines in the foreign news media, especially when America's policies -- and how they are viewed around the world -- are largely responsible for its image.
Everywhere she has gone in Asia, Clinton has tried to highlight some of the tangible ways that the Obama administration hopes to be different from its predecessor: a commitment to address climate change, the appointment of a Middle East peace envoy, a refocusing on Afghanistan and an effort to reach out to longtime U.S. antagonists such as Iran, North Korea and Burma.
The administration is so new that many of these shifts are still wisps of ideas, not fully formed policies. In some areas, such as relegating human rights in China to a side issue, it is uncertain whether Obama's team will do things much differently than Bush's.
But as every politician knows, the tone can make all the difference. Clinton has emphasized that she is looking for partnership -- or better yet, a "comprehensive partnership" -- on these issues.
Her pitch is that the problems of the world -- the financial crisis, climate change and extremism -- are so overwhelming that no country can handle them alone, certainly not the United States. Remember, she's saying, how the Bush administration went to war in Iraq virtually by itself (with Clinton's vote of approval)? That's in the past. We need help. And we want to listen.
"My trip here today is to hear your views, because I believe strongly that we learn from listening to one another," Clinton told students at Tokyo University on Tuesday. "And that is, for me, part of what this first trip of mine as secretary of state is about."
Clinton has made a big deal of her choice to go to the Pacific rim of Asia for her first trip, rather the standard European or Middle Eastern tour. Yet in many ways that has made her job easier: The U.S. image is pretty good here.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs conducted a survey last year in the four countries Clinton is visiting this week -- China, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia -- and found that the United States outperformed China in political, diplomatic, economic and human capital "soft power," a favorite Clinton buzz phrase. Indeed, the survey concluded that the view of the United States in these countries, even majority Muslim Indonesia, is "largely positive."
Still, there are few better ambassadors for a listening tour than Clinton. And not because she has already conducted one -- the famous trip through New York state a decade ago when she contemplated a run for the U.S. Senate -- but because the world stage fits her like an old shoe.
She may still be mastering the finer points of arcane foreign policy issues -- a question about U.S. base logistics in Japan stumped her -- but she has quickly demonstrated that her many years in the public glare have left her with a politician's touch and a BlackBerry full of contacts.
After landing in Tokyo, she went to see Hirofume Nakasone, whom she first met 18 years ago, when he was a parliamentarian, and who laughingly pulled out a photo of the two of them looking much younger. As it happens, Nakasone is now Japan's foreign minister.
And she had tea with her old friend Empress Michiko, who almost never meets mere diplomats at her residence nestled in a forest in the center of the city. Yet the empress rushed out to clasp Clinton's hand and chat animatedly when the motorcade arrived.
Clinton's operating style differs significantly from those of her immediate predecessors. Colin L. Powell, a former general, surrounded himself with former military aides and spoke like he was giving a PowerPoint briefing. Condoleezza Rice, a wonky former professor, gathered around her a mix of deep foreign policy thinkers and savvy press aides, and delivered her messages in a blizzard of modifiers, caveats and subordinate clauses. Both Powell and Rice were very-early-to-office types who kept their schedules timed to military precision.
Clinton's immediate staff members are political operatives drawn from her Senate and first lady years. Traveling with her on this trip are Huma Abedin, a longtime aide who silently will hand Clinton a glass of water when her voice rasps during a briefing, and Kiki McLean, who once worked as a press aide for then-Gov. Bill Clinton at the Democratic Leadership Council.
The new secretary arrives at 8 a.m. at the State Department, where her office is stocked with a steady supply of New York state apples. Her schedule, even on the road, has a loose feel, with events never quite starting on time.
She appears to be enjoying herself immensely on her trip, despite a punishing pace from early in the morning to late at night. During a 9 p.m. dinner with community leaders in Indonesia, her exhausted aides were surprised at the constant laughter that burst out from her table.
She doesn't always talk with diplomatic nuance at this point, acting more like a senator as she answers questions. She generated headlines in South Korea with remarks on the succession question in North Korea, a topic that Rice probably would have avoided.
But Clinton has a politician's knack for words and a well-honed human touch. She told one of Japan's female astronauts that she had always wanted to be an astronaut when she was a little girl. She declined an invitation to sing on the Indonesian youth show, joking that she would drive the audience from the room. She roars with laughter, her head tilted back, when she hears something funny. And she speaks in simple and direct sentences, creating perfect sound bites.
It helps that she is already a world-famous figure, someone who is instantly greeted with awe and respect.
"It is glorious to meet you," exclaimed a Japanese student.
An Indonesian journalist burst out, "We love you both," referring to Clinton and Obama.
And in a front-page article, the Jakarta Post reported that "journalists held their breath" when Clinton arrived for a news briefing with the foreign minister. "She looks more beautiful than on TV," declared a reporter quoted in the article.
In Indonesia, a young democracy, people seemed especially intrigued that she was so quickly able to bury the hatchet with her once-bitter rival, Obama. When you are in politics, Clinton joked, "you have to have a high threshold for pain."
She "was very surprised" when Obama offered her the job, Clinton told a small group of Indonesian journalists who had covered the U.S. election. "It was not anything I had reason to expect or thought about," she said, and it was a "hard decision," but "President Obama was very persuasive in our conversations."
"President Obama is so focused on our problems at home," Clinton added. "He's not going to be able to travel as much as he wants to." So, she said, it is important "that I get out and do as much travel as possible to send a message that he wants the world to hear."
In other words, she'll be listening everywhere.