The seismic shocks rocking the Middle East this week — renewed war in Iraq, an emerging radical Sunni Caliphate, and a possible independent Kurdistan — remind us anew that, before politicians jump into the race to succeed President Obama, they better have serious foreign policy credentials.
That is one reason Hillary Clinton’s new book on her tenure as secretary of state, “Hard Choices,” has appeared at such an auspicious time. It provides insights into the kind of global leader she might be if she wins the presidency in 2016.
Much of the commentary on her book from right and left is, predictably, politically driven, especially on Benghazi. But she deserves to be judged more fairly on her record. After four years of diplomatic service and just shy of a million exhausting miles to 112 countries, she has a strong foreign policy resume. What stands out is her confidence and effectiveness at the highest level of international politics. She does not claim to have achieved the kind of historic diplomatic breakthroughs authored by her predecessors Dean Acheson on NATO and Henry Kissinger on China. Nor did she and President Obama engineer a fundamentally new American grand strategy. But the critics who insist she delivered few real foreign policy accomplishments judge her too harshly. Having worked for both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, I think her performance in one of Washington’s toughest cabinet positions stands up well.
Consider the facts. She implemented Obama’s Asia pivot by focusing on that critical region as a first priority. She stood up to Beijing’s bullying of the Philippines and Vietnam in a dramatic test of wills with the Chinese Foreign Minister at an ASEAN meeting in 2010. She negotiated successfully to expand the international sanctions on Iran that eventually forced that difficult government to the negotiating table. She does not get enough credit for brokering an end to the rocket war between Hamas and Israel in late 2012, averting a possible major conflict. These are concrete and hard-earned accomplishments.
Clinton also brought to the office some of Madeleine Albright’s passion for democracy and human rights and the skill of Condoleezza Rice and James Baker in deploying American diplomatic power. As Nicholas Kristof wrote recently in The New York Times, she touted the importance of integrating development more closely with diplomacy and promoted programs to help women and girls succeed, especially in poorer countries. Old-school critics have derided these initiatives as well intentioned but tertiary to our vital interests. But that misses an important point about the way the world really works — continued poverty, disease, and discrimination against girls rank among the major challenges of our time.
I had the chance to discuss these issues with Clinton at a recent Washington dinner and came away impressed. She is a protean figure on the national stage — experienced, tough-minded, and smart with in-depth knowledge of issues great and arcane.
But it’s much too early for a coronation. Presidential candidates must be held to a high standard on foreign policy. Do they have the experience, balance, and judgment to lead the world’s remaining superpower? When should we intervene in civil wars like Iraq and Syria and when should we not in a messy and complex world?
We need a national debate about how best to balance military power with diplomacy. Our next president must also persuade a tired public and distracted Congress to summon the energy and will to remain the predominant global power as isolationism takes hold in both parties. Historian Robert Kagan warned recently in the New Republic that “there is no democratic superpower waiting in the wings to save the world if this democratic superpower falters.” Clinton has made clear in her new book what she thinks. There are, indeed, “hard choices’ ahead for America. Let the debate begin.
Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.