Challenges Hillary Clinton Would Face as the Next Secretary of State


The wild cheering and celebrations around the globe that followed Barack Obama’s presidential victory show just how much the rest of the world had at stake in this election. Senator Hilary Clinton, expected to be formally nominated as secretary of state after Thanksgiving, will find that goodwill to be an asset.

At the same time, managing those extraordinarily high expectations will be the biggest challenge for America’s next top diplomat. Assuming she is confirmed in the post, Clinton’s task abroad will be much like the one that she and President-elect Obama have just faced: to turn an adversarial relationship into an alliance.

Global opinions about the United States remain significantly less favorable than before the start of the Iraq war, according to the annual Pew Global Attitudes Surveyreleased this summer. Many respondents viewed U.S. foreign policy as too unilateral and too reliant on military power. In addition, a solid majority of respondents in many European countries felt that the United States hurt national economies elsewhere in the world. Clearly, America has been suffering from a decline in our soft power, or the influence that comes from goodwill, leadership, and other elements beyond the guns and bombs of traditional “hard” power.

The election itself seems to have reversed some of that loss of soft power. A priority for the next secretary of state should be to continue to restore global goodwill as part of a broader strategy to enhance support at the times when we must resort to hard power. This requires restoring U.S. credibility on human rights and international justice; engaging in efforts to slow global climate change; reducing the proliferation of nuclear weapons; collaborating in efforts to stop the spread of diseases in impoverished nations; and helping to build a global middle class. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, North Korea, Pakistan, and elsewhere, it means using the full menu of policy options including strategic diplomacy, development aid, and insistence on the rule of law.

When it comes to the most intransigent problems, like the Israel-Palestine conflict, Iran, North Korea, or the Russian-Georgian impasse, acting in close concert with other nations enhances America’s leadership.

The world’s euphoria will not last, though, as high expectations bump up against difficult realities. Will the United States be willing to more actively engage partners and cede some control on global issues that demand cooperative approaches? At the same time, are other countries willing to shoulder more of the financial burden of ensuring global security?

Clinton has been an effective senator because of her ability to read her colleagues’ interests and identify ways to pursue areas of mutual gain. That skill in listening will go far in both finding and creating diplomatic openings. For example, the world must convince China that it shares an interest in stemming the flow of weapons to Africa and stopping the ethnic violence there.

If Secretary Clinton is to effectively strengthen the role of U.S. diplomacy, she must win increased resources for America’s Foreign Service and international development. We spend six times as much on our military abroad as we do on non-military international aid and diplomacy that could reduce the need for military interventions. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has pointed out, there are fewer professional diplomats in the entire U.S. Foreign Service than there are personnel on an average aircraft carrier strike group.

America must reverse the post-9/11 trend that has dramatically increased military spending while skimping on diplomatic and development functions, some of which have been moved from civilian to military agencies. Instead of saddling the military with tasks that it does not want, the United States government should strengthen our diplomatic and development capabilities, without which the armed forces cannot achieve their goals of promoting security and stability.

In one important way, Clinton’s past reputation as a foreign policy hawk may stand her -- and America -- in good stead. It should send the message that a broader strategic approach to security does not imply weakness.

Finally, a big part of the new secretary of state’s role will involve the overlap between global and national issues, above all issues related to the economy and on policies that both secure our borders and ensure the orderly flow of workers and visitors in and out of our country.

The world depends on the United States’ ability to address shared challenges. In turn, America depends on the ability of the rest of the world to work with us. The new secretary of state will be at the center of the global effort required to calm financial markets and restore global economic growth, to promote international justice, and to find common approaches to global security challenges. No country, even a superpower, can do any of this on its own.

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