Much mail arrived after the column published in this space last Sunday, wherein I examined the likely character of a Clinton II foreign policy—dangerous to Americans and all others—and the flaccid logic common among those planning to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton come November. All but one of the letters were from women. They all said, one way or another, “I can’t vote for her, but now what? Where does this leave me?”
A novelist friend of discerning, historically informed judgment telephoned. “O.K., but what is it you propose we think about when we think about American foreign policy?” he asked. “What makes Hillary Clinton dangerous? What should we want as an alternative, what work toward, what support?”
All good questions. I thank those who took the trouble to pose them. And having made the case that Clinton’s record on the foreign side renders her undeserving even of critical support or the support of those who judge her the least evil offered by what we pretend is our political process, I owe these questions answers.
Where to begin?
This will do: “Great nations need organizing principles.” So Clinton asserted in her much-noted interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, published in the Atlantic a couple of years ago. Fine. What are Clinton’s thoughts on this matter?
She was quick on the draw in the exchange with Goldberg. After dismissing President Obama’s famous assertion— “‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle”—Clinton came forth with, “Peace, progress, and prosperity. This worked for a very long time.”
Already we find problems. They tell us what we need an alternative to.
One, Clinton’s three simple words are so apple-pie anodyne as to have no meaning. Goldberg should have pressed her on this, for she told him nothing. We are left to wonder what her principles are and then wonder why she declines to discuss them in any serious fashion.
Two, these terms have a totemic significance that must not be missed. At least since the Wilson presidency a century ago they have functioned as wrapping paper within which we find none other than American imperial ambition. So does Clinton take her place in modern American history. Nothing she proposes bears even a whiff of departure from the tradition.
Three, anyone who surveys the decades since Wilson, especially the post-1945 period, and finds peace, progress and prosperity to be an adequate descriptive of the century we named after ourselves must love wrapping paper and fear looking at the contents within it. In truth, American foreign policy has not worked for a very long time. The magnitude of its failures grows larger as we speak.
The compelling reality here—and it is pressing that Americans face it—is that we will get nowhere in restoring ourselves to an orderly world until we accept these failures. Nobody ever advances in any context without first taking a clear-eyed look at where one stands and how one got there. In other words, subsisting on silliness such as “peace, progress and prosperity” is a serious impediment to all three.
Four, we find in Clinton’s condescension toward Obama one more case of the flippant defensiveness that we must take great care to read at this point. In this case it tells us that foreign policy has always been the business of sequestered cliques and this is as it should be. In my estimation, Obama’s “Don’t do stupid stuff,” while recessive rather than assertive, is vastly better as an organizing principle. At the very least it is a sound start toward one, given the paradox before us: So much of what we must do in the cause of constructive policies abroad rests upon all that we must stop doing.
With this deconstruction of a casual observation, we can begin our list of what right-thinking people ought to seek in an alternative to our standing foreign policies. We want an organizing principle, certainly, but we want one that is humane, defensible and clearly stated. We want honest language, devoid of obfuscation and scout-troop platitudes. And we want a policy process that is subject to what remains of our political process. All of these would breach tradition, and that is precisely what we want above all.
The previous column singled out the exceptionalist consciousness we Americans share even when we think we have surmounted it. With this we can continue to answer the questions readers posed: What must we reject in Clinton and what do we want instead? To exceptionalism I will add a distinction Perry Anderson, the British writer interviewed for this column last summer, taught me to make: There is our exceptionalism and our universalism, and of the two the latter is the more pernicious.
The need is dire for leadership that can advance us beyond both of these beliefs—neither can be considered a thought—but let’s take these one at a time.
For most of us exceptionalism is more a habit of mind than an ideology, fair to say. And most of us have neither held high office nor sought the highest. Hillary is not most of us in either respect. Exceptionalism is her ideology as she seeks the presidency. One has no idea how or when this came to be—during her Goldwater Republican years, maybe—but she has made the point plain many, many times.
This is not an abstraction, for Clinton’s ideological exceptionalism is an organizing principle, it is a bad one and it comes with consequences. Chief among these I rank blindness and undesirable continuity. She is incapable of shifting perspective—of seeing the world and others as they see it and themselves. She cannot register anyone else’s aspirations unless they match ours. As to continuity, Clinton’s foreign policy thinking is bound tightly to the past: “This worked for a very long time.”
These are not ignorable, forgivable shortcomings. One of the essential responsibilities of our time—for everyone—is to exit ourselves sufficiently to enter “the Other” for the sake of understanding. We must allow ourselves to become “strangers to ourselves,” to borrow a phrase from Julia Kristeva, the French psychoanalyst. Another of our responsibilities—this one specific to Americans—is to find the courage to break with our past. Many of us are getting there on these scores. They are the keys to constructive American behavior in the 21st century, and we ought to be looking for leadership that registers this reality. Hillary Clinton does not.
As to universalism, this is the belief that our way of being—our “values,” if we have any left apart from money and the corporatization of everything—is best for everyone. Those who reject this notion—people who prefer their own traditions and values and rootedness in place and history—are impediments to our worldly mission. They cannot, as the history of our foreign policy tells us, be tolerated.
Exceptional America, universally right America: These two beliefs are bedrock to Hillary Clinton. From them flows all we must reject in Clinton’s foreign policy agenda as it has been and as it will be an HRC presidency—and by obvious extension, all we ought to seek in alternative leaders.
One caveat as I propose a list of the primary problems Clinton faces us with: When you have a liar as compulsive as Hillary Clinton, a political simulacrum whose inauthenticity seems to occupy the whole of her personality, you have to distinguish between what is said and what is done. The latter is what we go by, of course.
There is, first, the problem of American ambition and the corollary question of international law.
Since Truman unsheathed what was declared his doctrine before Congress 69 years ago this month, so starting the Cold War, global domination has been the principal goal of American strategists. This has passed through various iterations. The first we knew as containment, and it applied not only to the Soviets: Washington also sought to foreclose on any alternative pole of power that might originate among Continental Europeans, most notably the French. The evidence of this we still live with.
There is a straight line between containment and “pre-emptive war” as Bush II advanced the principle. By then the Project for a New American Century had published its 2000 report, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” wherein full-dress global hegemony—military and economic—come out the far end of the Truman Doctrine as explicitly stated objectives.
It is easy enough to see how this amounts to a commitment to operate outside of international law. Any newspaper archive or Web search will demonstrate this connection in a record of events as they turned out. In effect, we claim the position of the sovereign who is above the law because he is the source of law. This assumption so envelops us that we long ago lost any ability to distinguish between illegality and legality in the international context. At this point the question is a more or less complete blur.
The most obvious case in point is Washington’s long-established habit of fomenting coups in nations that, one way or another, resist our claim to universalist values. Of late the term “regime change” may obscure the reality for some or most of us, but the reality of American lawlessness changes not at all. In response to the American-cultivated coup in Ukraine two years ago, the Russians appear to have put Washington on notice that coups as an instrument of policy will no longer go unopposed (as the attempt in Syria has not). Parenthetically, we need to ask ourselves why it took the Russians to make a point we ought to have made long ago.
The tradition of lawless behavior is the tradition to which Clinton adheres, having done her part to shape it in the post-Cold War period, and she has given no substantive indication of departing from it. She refers rarely to international law but frequently to “vacuums,” as in this from the Goldberg interview:
America has the capacity to grow our economy, solve our problems and continue our global leadership…. And yes, there will be real consequences if we fail to live up to our own promise and potential. Our allies will lose confidence, our adversaries will be emboldened, and other powers will start to fill the vacuum.
This is the sound of exceptionalism and universalism all at once when Clinton articulates these two beliefs. Dean Acheson or John Foster Dulles would not have to change a syllable.
To address readers posing questions, we must demand another sound now.
I cannot be the only one to note the unusual prominence of foreign policy in the presidential contests now under way. It is more squarely on the table than at any time since the Vietnam war, I would say. This is right. How America has acted in the world since 2001 has been decisive in creating a degree of global disorder that matches any in my lifetime (which grows long). Our conduct in the next decade or so will be at least as consequential, if not more so. Let us grasp this.
For right-thinking people it is a question of recognizing what time it is. Once one does, it should be clear that the questions raised here cannot be overlooked. They are not secondary. They are intimately related to the domestic messes too many of us assume to be primary. To put the point another way, we have a choice now between empire abroad and democracy at home. This choice has been before Americans since the Spanish-American War, sometimes more apparently than at others. With our democratic institutions hollowed out, it now reaches an acute, either/or stage.
Making this choice—making the right one, that is—requires courage, creativity and clear thinking. Courage because we are not conditioned to break with our past but we must. Creativity because we must cultivate in ourselves a new consciousness.In my term, the task is to make ourselves post-exceptionalist. A century ago Henri Bergson gave us an interesting term that now comes to mind. He wrote of élan vital—the spark of life and the dynamism needed to evolve imaginatively. It is what I mean by creativity: the exuberant embrace of change rather than the diffident, befuddled flinch.
Clear thinking, finally, because we must recognize that the time has come to acknowledge our mistakes, failures and associated injustices. As already noted, we will not progress—and never mind “peace and prosperity”-- until we enter into this process.
Is it at all necessary to say we need to look beyond Hillary Clinton if we are to take on these dilemmas? And do I have to argue again that I reject all charges of idealism in these thoughts? They are realist to the core, the only plausible way into the 21st century. Idealist it is to think we can go on as we have on the assumption Clinton articulates perfectly, “It has worked for a very long time.”
There are three spheres wherein matters are very concrete as we contemplate what to do in November. Brief reviews of each in closing.
One, I continue to rank our new confrontation with Russia, filled as it is with rancor, purposeful misapprehension and the threat of conflict, as the single most consequential disaster among the Obama administration’s many. This endangers the world, not merely one or another region. Drawing on the Cold War’s persistent legacy, it will take at least a generation to repair the damage—the damage to our minds, not to mention the squandered opportunities for cooperation and mutual gain.
Clinton, during her years as secretary of state, was among the chief authors of this stupidly unnecessary state of affairs. What did she mean when she declared her vaunted “reset” in Washington’s relations with Moscow?
This has been clear to most Russians, if too few Americans, for some while. She meant a return to the pliancy characteristic of the Yeltsin years. She meant that Russians were welcome as a partner—a junior, inferior partner—so long as they accepted American primacy in world affairs, as Yeltsin had, and forwent any ambition to rediscover themselves and what might properly emerge from their own traditions.
When Vladimir Putin refused these conditions, the reset was off, the vituperative abuse, duplicity and betrayals on. In keeping, Clinton has since taken to calling Putin “Hitler” and has done much to urge this ridiculous paranoia on far too many of us.
We need a reset in Russian-American relations, all right—as in urgently, given the danger of conflict conjured of thin air but now as real as it gets. Anyone counting on Clinton to get this done must explain to all in the comment box.
Two, there is the Middle East, and previous columns have covered Clinton’s record sufficiently. Clinton is one among many in this case, but she exerted a major influence on Obama’s decision to mount a coup from the air in Libya and then attempt more or less the same in Syria. That makes two secular governments, however extensive their faults, in a region rather short of them. We should remind ourselves, when considering Clinton’s hostility to Iran, that it is the most democratic nation in the region by magnitudes.
President and Commander-in-Chief HRC with a hand directly on Washington’s Middle East policy? Opposing this is what I mean by “urgent,” too.
Finally, there is Clinton’s position on trade. She is all over the place on this question, but before going any further, a clarification. Free trade and the various trade agreements Clinton has supported over the years are not the same thing. To oppose the latter is not to oppose the former.
Free trade as structured in the interest of whom is the question we need to ask. In the Clinton case, free trade agreements are the instrument by which Washington extends its global domination on the economic side. This takes the form of the neoliberal order, an order that cannot tolerate exceptions. Every time Clinton (or anyone else in Washington, to be fair) bobs and weaves on trade questions, look for the neoliberal within.
Dan Kaufman, a labor writer in Wisconsin, published an excellent opinion piece on the trade question and Clinton’s positions—many and varied—in Sunday’s New York Times. It turns out that her recent opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, after hailing it as “the gold standard” for FTAs, is only one instance of duplicity among many.
My favorite concerns the FTA signed with Colombia in 2011, when Clinton was secretary of state. “I will do everything I can to urge the Congress to reject the Colombia agreement,” Clinton promised a gathering of communications workers at the time. In the releases of Clinton’s emails last year, we learned that she was simultaneously lobbying hard among members of Congress to get the pact passed—assuring them, among other things, that the rights of Colombian workers would equal or exceed those of U.S. workers.
Kaufman concludes this pithy passage thus: “According to Escuela National Sindical, a Colombian labor rights group, 105 union activists have been assassinated since the agreement passed.” This is more than 20 a year on average, which computes to nearly a couple of murders a month.
With the TPP now pending—along with a similar accord across the Atlantic—what happens in the trade sphere during the next presidency will hit home very squarely in many American households. Once again, urgency. Wouldn’t those posing the questions noted at the start of this column like to see someone more given to principle than deceit address the issues certain to arise?
I see that one of those questions remains unanswered. “Where does this leave me?” one reader wrote in. And another: “At this point in the political scene I wonder who you would choose as a better candidate to run against the poor choices on the Republican ticket?”
It is perfectly simple. We are all free to do as we choose. As we do we define who we are. Forget about labels—Democrat, socialist, democratic socialist, socialist feminist. These mean nothing. Our choices make us, and we must all be prepared to take responsibility for our choices and what we make ourselves when we make them.