Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke Wednesday (September 8th) for the second time as Secretary of State to the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington. The Department and the Administration promoted this lengthy speech as a kind of report card on the Obama Administration’s foreign policy.  It was positive and upbeat generally though it dwelt on the dangers facing the international system from Iran’s presumptive efforts to go nuclear. 

What is startling to me is how ‘muscular’ this speech was with an added dollop of a kind of follow-me global leadership notwithstanding it’s call to engagement and shared responsibility.  Now, to be fair it was in front of an American audience – and a relatively sophisticated one at that - but it still seemed barely restrained notwithstanding its appeal to an American policy, according to the Secretary of State, built on alliances and partnership and good old-fashioned diplomacy. And as for the muscular well the really startling graph to me was the following:

Now there should be no mistake. Of course this administration is also committed to maintaining the greatest military in the history of the world and, if needed, to vigorously defend ourselves and our friends.

Now assuming you can get by this overtly muscular approach there is much that is attractive.  There is an emphasis on a new architectural foundation to international relations built on partnership and alliances.  And there is, as noted above, an emphasis in American policy – at least rhetorically – on diplomacy.  In the struggle in American policy between partnership and leadership, however, it leaned heavily to the latter.

I see it on the faces of the people I meet as I travel -- not just the young people who still dream about America's promise of opportunity and equality, but also seasoned diplomats and political leaders who, whether or not they admit it, see the principled commitment and can-do spirit that comes with American engagement.  And they do look to America -- not just to engage, but to lead [emphasis added].

Indeed the uniquely American exceptionalism is still heavily on display:

And now, after years of war and uncertainty, people are wondering what the future holds at home and abroad. So let me say it clearly: the United States can, must and will lead in this new century. Indeed, the complexities and connections of today's world have yielded a new American moment, a moment when our global leadership is essential, even if we must often lead in new ways, a moment when those things that make us who we are as a nation -- our openness and innovation, our determination and devotion to core values -- have never been more needed.

Standing back alittle,  she does elaborate on the Obama Administration’s model of leadership.   The American strategic vision is built on:

  1. Reengagement with America’s closest allies renewing and deepening its alliances;
  2. Developing the capacity of developing partners; giving them the tools and support needed to help them solve their own problems;
  3. Deepening the US engagement with the new emerging centers of influence, e.g. the India’s China’s and Brazil’s of this new 21st global relations;
  4. Reinvigorating the US commitment to being an active leaders in trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific and hemispheric settings;
  5. Reengaging with global institutions that are flexible, inclusive and complementary; and
  6. Upholding and defending the universal values that are enshrined in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Standing alone and togehter these approaches seem appropriate and largely necessary.  Yet as my colleague and friend Stewart Patrick at CFR posted at the CFR website - just after the speech:

Clinton has outlined a compelling vision. But it remains unclear whether a diminished U.S. superpower—widely perceived to be in relative decline, its global brand tarnished, its fiscal situation perilous, its body politic internally divided and exhausted from two wars—can still aspire to lead.

 I’d go even further. The same elements of strategic leadership remain – an emphasis on American hegemony not American partnership and all too quick appeal to the use of force with little articulation of how partnership and concert can be achieved.  For the rising powers, not to mention the traditional allies, there is not much here that is new.

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