By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; 8:42 PM
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared Wednesday that "a new American moment" has arrived in international relations, "a moment when our global leadership is essential, even if we must often lead in new ways."
In a lengthy speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in which she defended the Obama administration's foreign policy approach, Clinton said that "this is a moment that must be seized - through hard work and bold decisions - to lay the foundations for lasting American leadership for decades to come."
Critics have said that the administration's diplomacy has yielded little on such difficult issues as Israeli-Palestinian peace and Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, but Clinton argued the opposite, saying that substantial progress has been made on those fronts through "classic shoe-leather diplomacy." She urged patience, saying that the fruits of the administration's labors will not be apparent for some time.
Answering questions from the audience after her speech, Clinton took a shot at the Iranian government. "I don't think there's any doubt that Iran is morphing into a military dictatorship with a, you know, sort of religious ideological veneer," she said. "And I don't think that's what the Iranian revolution for a republic of Iran, an Islamic republic of Iran, was ever meant to become."
But she said that the United States is trying to strike a balance - being publicly supportive of efforts in Iran to promote democracy without doing anything to "either endanger or undermine those very same people."
The speech in many ways marks Clinton's emergence as a foreign policy leader at a time when President Obama is consumed with the lagging domestic economy and November's midterm elections. Clinton will travel to the Middle East next week to foster direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and in Wednesday's speech she spoke confidently about the administration's agenda and the United States' role in the world.
On the upcoming negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, Clinton said she senses a "certain momentum" because "both sides and both leaders recognize that there may not ever be another chance." She said that Israel has "threats it faces demographically, technologically, ideologically," so "the idea of striking a peace deal with a secular Palestinian Authority that is committed to its own people's economic future makes a lot of sense if it can be worked out." She added that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas considers a deal "the culmination of a life commitment."
Clinton's speech offered few specifics about new policy initiatives. But after more than 18 months on the job, she appears to have gained a renewed appreciation for the role the United States plays in the world.
More than a year ago, in the same venue, Clinton spoke of "tilting the balance away from a multi-polar world and toward a multi-partner world" and emphasized the administration's willingness to engage with its adversaries. On Wednesday, her tone was subtly different, focused much more on the importance of the nation's role in managing problems.
"This is no argument for America to go it alone - far from it," Clinton said. "The world looks to us because America has the reach and resolve to mobilize the shared effort needed to solve problems on a global scale - in defense of our own interests, but also as a force for progress. In this we have no rival."
She added: "For the United States, global leadership is both a responsibility and an unparalleled opportunity."
Clinton said the administration has put into practice the ideas she laid out a year ago and has begun to build what she called "a new global architecture" of alliances and interests. As a prime example, she pointed to the administration's successful drive to win U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran, which have been further strengthened by individual actions of major powers. She said the administration won over skeptics of new sanctions by emphasizing its interest in dialogue with Iran and renewing its own nuclear disarmament efforts.
She also lauded the administration's push to improve relations with Russia. She said the cooling ties at the end of the George W. Bush administration "may have invigorated spy novelists and armchair strategists, but anyone serious about solving global problems such as nuclear proliferation knew that without Russia and the United States working together, little would be achieved."
After ticking off what she listed as advancements in U.S.-Russian relations, Clinton quipped to laughter about the recent ouster of Russian agents operating in the United States: "Of course, as we were reminded this past summer, the spy novelists still have plenty to write about, so it's kind of a win-win."
She conceded that the administration is still seeking solutions for some intractable problems. In response to a question, she described the looming referendum in Sudan, in which the oil-rich south may vote to secede from the rest of the country, as "a ticking time bomb of enormous consequence."
Clinton said that the south does not have the resources to conduct the referendum and that the north is not inclined to do it unless it is certain of the outcome. The administration is upping its diplomatic efforts, she said, but "the real problem is, what happens when the inevitable happens and the referendum is passed and the south declares independence?"
Clinton said she does not know the answer. "We've got to figure out some ways to make it worth their while to peacefully accept an independent south, and for the south to recognize that unless they want more years of warfare and no chance to build their own new state, they've got to make some accommodations with the north as well," she said, adding that she would welcome ideas from the questioner.