What Will U.S. Diplomacy Look Like in the 21st Century?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton envisions a future shaped by pragmatism, collaboration and shared values

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York City on Sept. 24, 2012

Rising above the clamor and broadsides of the U.S. election campaign, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a glimpse of her and the Obama Administration’s vision for the future of American foreign policy. Her Monday keynote speech (dubbed Designing Diplomacy for the 21st Century) at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting in New York City, hosted by her husband, President Bill Clinton, dwelled on how the U.S. intends to reshape its commitment to global development in the face of a rapidly changing world. “We have to think fast and innovatively and be willing to change ourselves,” warned Clinton. Her message was a world away from the bluster of those in the U.S. who still hunger for a militarist, muscular stance on the global stage.

And it was a message Clinton’s audience seemed very keen to hear. As my colleague Bryan Walsh adroitly wrote yesterday, CGI’s annual meeting “is the apotheosis of philanthrocapitalism.” More sharply focused than the World Economic Forum’s vast conclave in Davos, Switzerland, the meeting brings out luminaries in the private sector who are already committed to tackling an array of development challenges. Madeleine Albright, President Clinton’s former Secretary of State and moderator of a panel called Champions of Action, summed up the proceedings with a somewhat ungainly metaphor: rather than a forum for telling people which way the wind is blowing, says Albright, “we enlist the help of others to change the direction of the wind.”

For Secretary Clinton, the U.S.’s top diplomat, the end goal for the State Department’s development and aid programs ought to be “putting ourselves out of business.” By shifting from aid to investment, from throwing money at governments to targeting projects with the private sector, from dictating terms to encouraging reforms, the U.S. can with greater agility and precision affect how development plays out in poorer countries worldwide. As it is, aid from the West is a far smaller proportion of the capital flowing into the coffers of developing nations now than half a century ago. “I look forward to the day when our development assistance is no longer necessary,” said Clinton. “We are working with partner countries to strengthen their political will for reform and provide technical assistance on issues like taxes.” That last point drew murmurs of audience approval that Clinton seized upon, insisting that “collecting taxes in an equitable manner, especially from the elites in every country” is essential for countless nations. “There are rich people everywhere, and yet they do not contribute to the growth of their own countries,” said Clinton, alluding cheekily to the status quo in the U.S.

In keeping with CGI’s (and the Obama Administration’s) liberal internationalism, Clinton’s speech made clear moral gestures, appealing to the importance of universal values. At root, she said, is a shared commitment to “freedom, democracy, opportunity and dignity,” which she hailed as “the great cause of the 21st century.”

There’s little unfamiliar about that sentiment, but it came at a rocky moment for U.S. foreign policy. The shadow of recent events hung over the ballroom — namely the unrest and violence of the past two weeks in the Middle East and North Africa, triggered in part by an obscure, controversial anti-Muslim video made in the U.S. If stung, both by the supposed anger of the Arab street and by opponents in Washington who have branded the Administration weak, the Secretary of State remained resolute, defending her belief in the importance of the Arab Spring’s revolutions. “The people of the Arab world did not set out to trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of the mob,” said Clinton, who went on to applaud last Friday’s popular uprising in the Libyan city of Benghazi, where tens of thousands marched against the extremist militia that was behind an assault on the U.S. consulate there and the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. “Dignity does not come from avenging insults but advancing our common humanity,” she concluded.

Few would dispute that. Yet implicit in Clinton’s address was a sticky tension: the champion of American diplomacy was facing up to the dawning reality that, in the decades to come, the U.S.’s ability to impose itself on global affairs will shrink. Clinton’s trumpeted platitudes — “We are standing up for democracies that unlock people’s potential and against extremists who seek to exploit people’s frustration” — belied the fact that her good intentions are still not welcomed or trusted by many overseas. Writing in the New York Times today, Indian commentator Pankaj Mishra discussed the “inevitable retreat” of the U.S. from the Middle East, a region that has long bristled at U.S. diplomatic and military interventions.

It is not just extremist Salafis who think Americans always have malevolent intentions: the Egyptian anti-Islamist demonstrators who pelted Hillary Rodham Clinton’s motorcade in Alexandria with rotten eggs in July were convinced that America was making shady deals with the Muslim Brotherhood. And few people in the Muslim world have missed the Israeli Prime Minister’s blatant manipulation of American politics for the sake of a pre-emptive assault on Iran.

With emerging powers flexing their muscle on the international stage, the scope for assertive U.S. action is narrowing everywhere. Clinton seemed intuitively aware of this, painting a picture of American diplomacy that engages a range of diverse “partners,” from governments to the private sector to fledgling civil societies. She said the principle of development was as vital a tenet in U.S. national security as defense. American power, in this vision, is diffuse, subtle — it cares more for collaboration than confrontation, it wields no big stick. That’s a note that sounds just right in a forum of international do-gooders. How it plays out in an election year is another matter altogether.