Clinton’s Foreign Policy

I’ve noted this before, but reading Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy manifesto in Foreign Affairs is once again a reminder of how nice it would be for politicians to give us some idea of what they mean by terms like “vital interests.” When, for example, Clinton says that she will “use force to protect . . . our vital interests” she’s not telling me very much. I’m pretty sure all the candidates would use force to protect the interests that they consider vital. The thing they’re going to disagree about is which interests those are.

Beyond that, though Clinton’s essay is similar to her Democratic rivals’ in most respects, she gives a couple of hints that she’ll take a more hawkish approach than some. One such hint is her odd way of joining John Edwards and Barack Obama in their endorsement of the Kissinger/Perry/Shultz/Nunn call for the United States to commit itself to verifiable worldwide nuclear abolition as a goal:

Neither North Korea nor Iran will change course as a result of what we do with our own nuclear weapons, but taking dramatic steps to reduce our nuclear arsenal would build support for the coalitions we need to address the threat of nuclear proliferation and help the United States regain the moral high ground. Former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn have called on the United States to “rekindle the vision,” shared by every president from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton, of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons.

Given that the op-ed actually called on us to “rekindle the vision shared by Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev,” namely “an agreement to get rid of all nuclear weapons.” I’m not sure exactly what she’s trying to signal by means of this characterization, but I’m not thrilled with it. On Iran, instead of offering normalization of relations in exchange for better behavior, she says that “if Iran is in fact willing to end its nuclear weapons program, renounce sponsorship of terrorism, support Middle East peace, and play a constructive role in stabilizing Iraq” then in exchange we “should be prepared to offer Iran a carefully calibrated package of incentives.” Again, I’m not exactly sure in what way (if any) that differs from I would have liked her to say, but the intent seems to have been to shade the position in a slightly-more-hawkish direction. Similarly, while she takes a generally praiseworthy line on multilateral institutions, she seemed to me to be straining to work in a swipe about Sudan being on the UN Commission on Human Rights. I was very glad to read this:

Getting out of Iraq will enable us to play a constructive role in a renewed Middle East peace process that would mean security and normal relations for Israel and the Palestinians. The fundamental elements of a final agreement have been clear since 2000: a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank in return for a declaration that the conflict is over, recognition of Israel’s right to exist, guarantees of Israeli security, diplomatic recognition of Israel, and normalization of its relations with Arab states. U.S. diplomacy is critical in helping to resolve this conflict. In addition to facilitating negotiations, we must engage in regional diplomacy to gain Arab support for a Palestinian leadership that is committed to peace and willing to engage in a dialogue with the Israelis. Whether or not the United States makes progress in helping to broker a final agreement, consistent U.S. involvement can lower the level of violence and restore our credibility in the region.

In particular, that last sentence shows a healthy awareness of the reality that too many people are inclined to ignore — that America’s attitude toward the Palestinians is central to how we’re going to be viewed in the Middle East. That’s not the kind of statement Democrats have been incredibly inclined to make, but it’s very true.

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Broadly construed, I think Clinton accomplished her goals here: She’s laid something out that I think most people will regard as indistinguishable from what her rivals have put on the table but that contains subtle signals to people paying close attention that she’ll probably govern more hawkishly than they will. That said, I keep meaning to write a post noting that campaign rhetoric has, historically speaking, been a terrible guide to how presidents actually conduct foreign policy so I sometimes have my doubts as to whether or not close readings of these kind of texts are actually worth anything.