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Correction to This Article
An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that President Obama had already visited China and hosted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to a state dinner. Both events are scheduled for November.

David Rothkopf -- Hillary Clinton Redefining State Department and Her Own Role

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By David Rothkopf
Sunday, August 23, 2009

When it comes to Hillary Rodham Clinton, we're missing the forest for the pantsuits.

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Clinton is not the first celebrity to become the nation's top diplomat -- that honor goes to her most distant predecessor, Thomas Jefferson, who by the time he took office was one of the most famous and gossiped-about men in America -- but she may be the biggest. And during her first seven months in office, the former first lady, erstwhile presidential candidate and eternal lightning rod has drawn more attention for her moods, looks, outtakes and (of course) relationship with her husband than for, well, her work revamping the nation's foreign policy.

Even venerable publications -- such as one to which I regularly contribute, Foreign Policy -- have woven into their all-Hillary-all-the-time coverage odd discussions of Clinton's handbag and scarf choices. Daily Beast editor Tina Brown, while depicting herself as a Clinton supporter, has been scathing and small-minded in discussing such things as Clinton's weight and hair, while her "defense" of Hillary in her essay "Obama's Other Wife" was as sexist as the title suggests.

Indeed, sexism has followed Clinton from the campaign trail to Foggy Bottom, as seen most recently in the posturing outrage surrounding the exchange in Congo when Clinton reacted with understandable frustration to the now-infamous question regarding her husband's views. Major media outlets have joined the gossipfest, whether the New York Times, which covered Clinton's first big policy speech by discussing whether she was in or out with the White House, or The Washington Post, where a couple of reporters mused about whether a brew called Mad Bitch would be the beer of choice for the secretary of state.

Amid all the distractions, what is Clinton actually doing? Only overseeing what may be the most profound changes in U.S. foreign policy in two decades -- a transformation that may render the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush mere side notes in a long transition to a meaningful post-Cold War worldview.

The secretary has quietly begun rethinking the very nature of diplomacy and translating that vision into a revitalized State Department, one that approaches U.S. allies and rivals in ways that challenge long-held traditions. And despite the pessimists who invoked the "team of rivals" cliche to predict that President Obama and Clinton would not get along, Hillary has defined a role for herself in the Obamaverse: often bad cop to his good cop, spine stiffener when it comes to tough adversaries and nurturer of new strategies. Recognizing that the 3 a.m. phone calls are going to the White House, she is instead tackling the tough questions that, since the end of the Cold War, have kept America's leaders awake all night.

In these early days of the new administration, it has been easy to focus on what Clinton has not achieved or on ways in which her power has been supposedly constrained. Indeed, some of her efforts have been frustrated by difficult personnel approvals or disputes with the White House about who should get what jobs. But this is the way of all administrations. More unusual has been the avidity with which the new president has seized the reins of foreign policy -- more assertively than either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton before him. Obama's centrality amplifies the importance of his closest White House staffers, while his penchant for appointing special envoys such as Richard Holbrooke (on Afghanistan and Pakistan) and George Mitchell (on the Middle East) has been interpreted by some as limiting Clinton's role.

Given the challenges involved, it was perhaps natural that the White House would have a bigger day-to-day hand in some of the nation's most urgent foreign policy issues. But with Obama, national security adviser Jim Jones, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates absorbed by Iraq, Afghanistan and other inherited problems of the recent past, Clinton's State Department can take on a bigger role in tackling the problems of the future -- in particular, how America will lead the world in the century ahead. This approach is both necessary and canny: It recognizes that U.S. policy must change to fulfill Obama's vision and that many high-profile issues such as those of the Middle East have often swamped the careers and aspirations of secretaries of state past.

Which nations will be our key partners? What do you do when many vital partners -- China, for example, and Russia -- are rivals as well? How must America's alliances change as NATO is stretched to the limit? How do we engage with rogue states and old enemies in ways that do not strengthen them and preserve our prerogative to challenge threats? How do we move beyond the diplomacy of men in striped pants speaking only for governments and embrace potent nonstate players and once-disenfranchised peoples?

In searching for answers, Clinton is leaving behind old doctrines and labels. She outlined her new thinking in a recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where she revealed stark differences between the new administration's worldview and those of its predecessors: The recurring themes include "partnership" and "engagement" and "common interests." Clearly, Madeleine Albright's "indispensable nation" has recognized the indispensability of collaborating with others.

Who those "others" are is the area in which change has been greatest and most rapid. "We will put," Clinton said, "special emphasis on encouraging major and emerging global powers -- China, India, Russia and Brazil, as well as Turkey, Indonesia and South Africa -- to be full partners in tackling the global agenda." This is the death knell for the G-8 as the head table of the global community; the administration has an effort underway to determine whether the successor to the G-8 will be the G-20, or perhaps some other grouping. Though the move away from the G-8 began in the waning days of the Bush era, that administration viewed the world through a different lens, a perception that evolved from a traditional great-power view to a pre-Galilean notion that everything revolved around the world's sole superpower.

Obama and Clinton have both made engaging with emerging powers a priority. Obama visited Russia earlier this year and will host Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his first state dinner in November. Clinton has made trips to China and India, and she would have been with Obama in Russia had she not injured her elbow. Both have visited Africa and the Middle East, reaching out to women and the Islamic world.


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