WASHINGTON – It was not quite as lofty as Madeleine K. Albright’s description of the United States as the world’s "indispensable nation," but Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton came close to channeling her predecessor Wednesday in declaring a "new American moment."
In a speech meant to showcase the successes of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, Clinton emphatically reasserted the primacy of U.S. power in a dangerous world. Whether it is American aid after the floods in Pakistan or American brokering of the recently revived Middle East peace negotiations, she said, "the world is counting on us."
"After years of war and uncertainty," she said, "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."
In an era of engagement and multilateralism, Clinton’s speech at the Council on Foreign Relations was almost a throwback – an unalloyed statement of American might. It seemed intended to send a bracing message during a tough election season in the United States, with President Barack Obama battling economic problems at home. But it also sent a strong message about Clinton herself.
Fourteen months ago, she stood before the same audience, her arm in a sling with a broken elbow, and spoke about the need for the United States to develop a "new mind-set about how America will use its power" – one based on partners and persuasion rather than raw force.
Today, as Clinton prepares to plunge into Middle East peacemaking, the talk of partnerships and persuasion is still there, but the emphasis of her speech was far more on the need for American leadership. She even dipped her toe into domestic politics, if only to argue that the swelling federal debt, and the bitter debate about it on Capitol Hill, threatened America’s standing abroad.
"It undermines our capacity to act in our own interests, and it does constrain us where constraint may be undesirable," she said. "It also sends a message of weakness internationally."
In the category of foreign policy achievements, Clinton said the administration had put U.S. relations with Russia on a new footing, deepened its dialogue with China and India, and masterminded a global response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
On several of these, however, it may be premature to claim victory. Clinton said, for example, that the United States had prodded the United Nations into passing its most robust sanctions ever against Iran and that the Iranian government was starting to feel the heat.
"Through classic shoe-leather diplomacy," she said, "we’ve built a broad consensus that will welcome Iran back into the community of nations if it meets its obligations, and will likewise hold Iran accountable if it continues its defiance."
But two newly ambitious players, Brazil and Turkey, voted against the Security Council resolution, displeased that Washington brushed aside their attempt to broker a diplomatic solution. It is also unclear how much sanctions have slowed Iran’s enrichment of uranium for nuclear fuel.
Similarly, Clinton said the United States had re-engaged with Asia and with the alphabet soup of economic and political organizations in that region. But none of that has prevented relations between the United States and China from fraying over exchange rates, North Korea and military issues.
Success in foreign policy process, in other words, has not always translated into success in foreign policy substance.
Given the sweeping nature of her remarks, Clinton said surprisingly little about Afghanistan, where the United States is trying to extricate itself from a nine-year war, or about North Korea, where it is nervously watching Kim Jong Il’s apparent effort to turn power over to one of his sons.
One indisputable success is Russia, where, as she noted, the White House signed an arms treaty that now goes to the Senate for ratification. Calling for a "detente" with Republicans on foreign policy, she said, "something should just be beyond any kind of election or partisan calculation."
Clinton also drew attention to Sudan, an often-overlooked foreign policy problem, saying that a referendum next January, in which southern Sudan is expected to vote to break away from the north, is a "ticking time bomb of enormous consequence." The United States, she said, was trying to get both sides to confront the potential dangers.
In another eye-catching statement, Clinton compared Mexico’s rampant drug trafficking to an insurgency and said the drug cartels threatened to turn the country into Colombia 20 years ago, "where the narco-traffickers control certain parts of the country."
The last time Clinton spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations, she was battling a perception that she had been marginalized. This time, the council’s president, Richard N. Haass, ribbed her over persistent Washington chatter that she may one day swap jobs with Vice President Joe Biden to bolster Obama’s chances of re-election (she smiled and ever so slightly shook her head).
Next week, Clinton will travel to Egypt and Israel to take part in the next round of talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Both leaders, she conceded, faced steep domestic hurdles to making a deal.
Still, Clinton said, prognosticators who would write off the negotiations as an inevitable failure were wrong "because both sides and both leaders recognize there may not ever be another chance."