Thoughts on Secretary Clinton’s CFR Speech

I have written often about the Obama administration’s unwillingness to confront reality when it comes to foreign relations. Every time there is a new opportunity to reorient U.S. foreign policy, I hold out some hope that the president has taken stock of our relative security, examined the potential strength of our strategic partners, and decided to discard our costly and counterproductive strategy of the past twenty years, one premised on American global primacy. 

Once again the Obama administration had an opportunity to articulate a more restrained global posture, this time in a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before the Council on Foreign Relations. And once again the administration has chosen to cling to the tired old approach that holds out the United States as the “indispensable nation” and that saddles American taxpayers and American troops with nearly all of the burdens of global governance.

Secretary Clinton’s speech today reaffirms the administration’s preference for “leadership” in all areas, and a lack of interest in encouraging other countries to play a larger role.  Indeed, the speech seems a step backward from a similar address last year. Whereas Clinton eighteen months ago had stressed partnering with other countries and engaging with adversaries, the tone in today’s speech, notes the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, “was subtly different, focused much more on the importance of the U.S. role in managing difficult problems.”

This sort of meddling might appeal to Washington policy elites who are so confident in their ability to “manag[e] difficult affairs”, but it is unnecessary and dangerous. And much of this effort, good intentioned though it may be, is likely to fail.

It need not have been this way. There is ample evidence that a different approach could save hundreds of billions of dollars over the next ten years, while actually enhancing our security by reducing the likelihood that U.S. troops would become involved in unnecessary wars. Though his claims for what he would do to the domestic economy were grandiose, Obama’s rhetoric with respect to foreign policy evinced signs of humility. There was talk of a need to prioritize, and signs of open-mindedness to shedding some of the missions taken on by past presidents.

Within days of the election, however, the president-elect named Clinton Secretary of State, and announced that Robert Gates would remain at DoD. This move signaled continuity over change, and, more worrisome, suggested that Obama was now questioning some of his own good judgment in opposing the war in Iraq and other “dumb wars,” which other members of the incoming administration – Clinton most prominent among them – had supported.

Any lingering humility within the Obama administration seems to have been extinguished. The lesson to take away from the past decades, according to Secretary Clinton, is not of the need to temper our ambitions, husband our resources, and prioritize to deal with the most urgent treats. Rather, we are obligated to ”lead” everywhere. “The world looks to us,” she explains:

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.

“For the United States,” she continues, ”global leadership is both a responsibility and an unparalleled opportunity.”

The language and tone is strikingly similar to Madeleine Albright’s confident assertion in 1998 that “We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”

Albright might have been forgiven such arrogance in the days before 9/11, before Afghanistan, before Iraq. But it is unconscionable for U.S. policymakers today to cling to American “leadership” in the face of our recent setbacks. There is an urgent need to rethink the purpose of American power. If we do not, the costs of attempting to police the planet will continue to mount, and the gap between our goals and the resources available to satisfy them will grow wider.

We should reaffirm that our military exists to advance our security, and shed our pretensions that we can manage other people’s conflicts, and build other people’s countries. While we will lead some of the time, we need not, and we should not, lead all of the time. It is long past time for others to step up.