Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took her goodbye-for-now tour to the Council on Foreign Relations Thursday, using a speech there to recap her four years as the country’s top diplomat and outline a vision for preserving American dominance in the 21st century.
While there’s been a lot of attention during Clinton’s last days on the job on her relationship with President Barack Obama and her potential 2016 White House run, she focused her speech on policy: how the United States continues to build and rebuild international relationships while taking a leading role in creating new modes of global cooperation.
“We need a new architecture for this new world, more Frank Gehry than formal Greek,” Clinton said, after describing the system dominated by the United Nations, NATO and several other large organizations as the equivalent of the Classical Parthenon in Athens.
By contrast, there’s Gehry’s modern architecture.
“Some of his work at first might appear haphazard, but in fact, it’s highly intentional and sophisticated,” Clinton said. “Where once a few strong columns could hold up the weight of the world, today we need a dynamic mix of materials and structures.” She pointed to the emergence of the G-20 during the financial crisis, the creation of international groups working on climate change and U.S.-Turkey cooperation on counterterrorism as examples of this new, varied architecture.
While encouraging an evolving role in the international community, Clinton also offered an optimistic view of America’s future.
“We may be indispensable. Doesn’t mean we’re perfect,” she continued. “Probably as close to perfect as anybody has done, but we’re not there yet. We’re still trying to form a more perfect union.”
But, she added, “If you look back, we’ve done some really stupid things.” … Over the course of more than 200 years, “we’ve made our mistakes.”
Looking to the challenge ahead for her successor, Clinton attacked the idea of mandatory spending cuts because of sequestration, calling them “absurd” and unnecessarily damaging.
“Are we really going to in effect handicap ourselves? We’ll see. I hope not – I hope that cooler and smarter heads prevail,” she said.
At the start of the Obama administration, Clinton and the president touted their notion of “smart power,” and Clinton said she still believes in the philosophy. “There are limits to what soft power on its own can achieve. And there are limits to what hard power on its own can achieve,” she said. “That’s why from day one I’ve been talking about smart power.”
Clinton did a brief survey of issues around the world, describing the U.S.-China relationship as “uniquely consequential” and “uniquely complex.”
The United States doesn’t have all the solutions to the instability in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world, but it is clear about its goals, Clinton said: “We want to see a region at peace with itself and the world, where people live in dignity, not dictatorships.”
The United States must keep pressuring Iran and North Korea on their nuclear programs, she said, and continue to fight Al Qaeda and its offshoots, while also developing more sophisticated ways to combat the growing challenges of cybersecurity. The Obama administration will continue to advocate for human rights, she said, and should “keep looking for the next Burmas,” countries that “are not yet at a position where we can applaud, but which have begun a process of opening.”
One piece of reaching out to the world is for the U.S. government to do a better job reaching people on the ground through the media they consume. Clinton said she connected with Al Jazeera to encourage the Arabic media company to cast the United States in a better light. The network, she said, told her its coverage was shaped by the fact that U.S. officials were not on its airwaves and Clinton made sure to change that, encouraging greater cooperation with its news operations. Under Clinton’s leadership, she noted, the State Department has expanded its presence on social media with accounts in close to a dozen languages.
Hitting on an issue that’s always been central to her, Clinton said that ensuring that women and girls have rights equal to men is “an economic issue and a security issue … and it is the unfinished business of the 21st century.”
Though Clinton’s hour-long appearance didn’t include speculation about her lingering political aspirations, it did end with a joke about her fashion sense, as host Richard Haass looked ahead to Clinton’s successor.
“I would simply say that John Kerry has some fairly large Manolo Blahniks to fill,” Haass said to laughter, the loudest and most enthusiastic of which came from Clinton.