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Hillary The Architect

This afternoon, Hillary Clinton gave what I thought was an excellent speech laying out the Obama administration's approach to the world. A sizeable portion of the Washington foreign policy establishment packed the Council on Foreign Relations to hear her remarks, and the secretary was accompanied by a gaggle of lieutenants, including (from my view of the room) special envoys Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell, Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher, and a number of assistant secretaries, including Rose Gottemoeller, Andrew Shapiro, and P.J. Crowley. Dennis Ross, who recently decamped to the National Security Council, was also there.

The key idea of the speech was that, because no nation can meet modern threats like proliferation and climate change on their own and because most nations worry about those threats, the United States should establish an "architecture of global cooperation." Clinton repeated the phrase several times and defined it as a way of enabling states to overcome obstacles that "stand in the way of turning commonality of interest into common action." A cooperative architecture would do that by reinvigorating relationships with allies; emphasizing ties to emerging global powers like Brazil, Russia, India, and China; transforming global and regional institutions; and speaking directly to foreign peoples, as President Obama did in Cairo.

Now, you'll find some of these tactics in almost any foreign policy speech, and obviously such an architecture is easier to establish in rhetoric than in actuality, but I like the connectivity inherent in the metaphor, the worldview it advances, and the diplomatic ambition it suggests. Clinton made clear that she was looking for something beyond containment, unilateralism, or balance-of-power realism. What's more, the administration is clearly not relaxing its emphasis on engagement with rogue regimes despite criticism over its handling of Iran's elections, because "[a]s long as engagement might advance our interests and our values, it is unwise to take it off the table." Finally, Clinton emphasized the essentiality of American leadership to global cooperation--"just as no nation can meet these challenges alone, no challenge can be met without America"--which I think is important both because it's true and because it represents a constructive interpretation of American exceptionalism that can be leveraged to our benefit.

The difference between this approach and the previous administration's is stark. As opposed to simple binaries, in which the United States squares off against its enemies, this framework represents an acknowledgment of the complexities we now face, in which threats are transnational and actors need not be entirely good nor irredeemably evil. In such a world, the "you're with us or against us" approach constitutes "global malpractice," as Clinton put it. If the speech was long, the key point was simple: Essentially, the secretary seemed to be saying that, despite the grave dangers we face--indeed, because of the very character of those threats--the emphasis in U.S. foreign policy today must be on cooperation rather than conflict. Not because the world is suddenly a friendlier place, but because meeting threats bluntly may be ineffective or even counterproductive.

As one of my colleagues complained yesterday, Clinton's every action is read less for what it is than for what it might indicate about her position within the administration. But this is a speech worth reading simply for what it says.

--Peter Scoblic