While commentators fret about the end of American ascendancy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton believes that “the United States can, must, and will lead in this new century.”
Speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC on Wednesday, Clinton stressed that the world is counting on the United States. “When old adversaries need an honest broker or fundamental freedoms need a champion, people turn to us,” she said. “When the earth shakes or rivers overflow their banks, when pandemics rage or simmering tensions burst into violence, the world looks to us.” At the same time, America cannot stand alone. “The world looks to us 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.”
Beyond whatever “reach and resolve” one may imagine in terms of influence and sheer will, the United States’ status as a superpower continues to rely, before anything else, upon its overwhelming military might. Clinton recognized that, noting that the administration remains “committed to maintaining the greatest military in the history of the world and, if needed, to vigorously defending our friends and ourselves.” But she understands that ships and planes alone won’t do.
What is needed for America to remain not just a rather the most important global player is the careful buildup of a multilateral “architecture” of international relations. Clinton spoke of “a network of alliances and partnerships, regional organizations and global institutions” which, together, can meet the challenges of the twenty-first century and “adapt to threats that we cannot even conceive of.”
Both Secretary Clinton and the president are convinced that such an “architecture” can come into being for, as she pointed out, America has done it before. In large part, the global security and cooperation structure which the United States promoted after World War II led to more than half a century of unprecedented peace between major powers. The problem today is posed by “new actors,” as Clinton put it, which “are increasingly shaping international affairs.” Terrorism and rogue states, some of which fund paramilitary action against others, are yet to be “integrated” in a system that is otherwise quite capable of resolving conflicts and preventing them from escalating into war.
As much as American leadership must be “dynamic”, there are “two constants,” according to Clinton, which must be reinforced.
First, America’s economic power and moral authority both have to be strengthened not only to allow the country to conduct a successful foreign policy but more so because “America’s greatness has always flowed in large part from the dynamism of our economy and the creativity of our country.”
The second constant is a diplomacy aimed at rallying nations to solve common problems and achieve shared aspirations. As Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s secretary of state, put it in 1951, “the ability to evoke support from others” is “quite as important as the capacity to compel.” To this end, the administration is busy repairing old alliances (Europe, Japan) and forging new ones (Brazil, India, Turkey).
Referring specifically to emerging nations as Brazil and India, Clinton professed that, “being a twenty-first century power means accepting a share of the burden of solving common problems.” So far, these countries have shown little willingness to lead. They must also abide “by a set of rules of the road,” according to the secretary; “everything from intellectual property rights to fundamental freedoms.” This, obviously, was aimed at China, which hasn’t been particularly cooperative on global economic governance lately and continues to violate human rights.
This strategy, of integrating rising powers in a global security structure and urging them to do their bit, is beginning to pay off, as far as this administration is concerned. “We are advancing America’s interests and making progress on some of our most pressing challenges. Today we can say with confidence that this model of American leadership works, and that it offers our best hope in a dangerous world.”
As an example of the concrete results which the United States are achieving with more robust international diplomatic engagement, Clinton cited the Iran sanctions passed this summer by the United Nations.
Until Washington “became a full partner and active participant in international diplomatic efforts regarding Iran, we had been on the sidelines,” she said. “Through our continued willingness to engage Iran directly, we have reenergized the conversation with our allies and are removing all of those excuses for lack of progress.” Iran is beginning to feel the pressure, but it has to decide for itself whether it meets “the responsibilities incumbent upon all nations and enjoy the benefits of integration into the international community, or continue to flout your obligations and accept increasing isolation and costs.”
Iran is indeed something of a test case for this administration’s wider and more encompassing approach to foreign policy challenges. It has, so far, managed to persuade nearly everyone else, from Western Europe to Russia to China, to sanction Iran for its nuclear activities but notable regional hegemons as Brazil and Turkey had their own approach and subsequently objected to disciplinary action taken at the UN level.
Repairing relations with allies in Europe and former Cold War rival Russia are significant accomplishments; indeed, they were very necessary ones after the estrangement that was allowed to take place between them and the United States during the Bush Administration. But the real challenge of the decades ahead will be to foster closer ties with rising powers in South America and Asia.
Many of these countries are democracies, ruled by moderate, internationalists political parties often in favor of free trade. This makes them natural allies for the United States and an asset in cracking down upon the few nonintegrated states persistently defying the rest of the world community, be if by sponsoring terrorism or proliferating nuclear weapons technology. Any multilateral “architecture” aimed at bonding these countries together with the West has to recognize their regional interests and pretensions or risks being perceived as little more than an attempt to perpetuate an American order that is on the decline.