Alex Massie

Hillary & Barack’s Conventional Hawkery

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The problem with Major Foreign Policy Speeches is that different folk are listening. For instance, this section from Hillary Clinton's "Hey guys, remember me?" speech today:

"...we will remain clear-eyed about our purpose. Not everybody in the world wishes us well or shares our values and interests. Some will seek to undermine our efforts. In those cases, our partnerships will help constrain or deter their actions. And to these foes and would-be foes, let me say: You should know that our focus on diplomacy and development is not an alternative to our national security arsenal. You should never see America's willingness to talk as a sign of weakness to be exploited. We will not hesitate to defend our friends and ourselves vigorously when necessary with the world's strongest military. This is not an option we seek. Nor is it a threat; it is a promise to the American people."


When you say "this is not a threat" you are, usually, actually making a threat. That's doubly so when the open willingness to use force is presented as a "promise to the American people". Now, here in dear old Britain we may think that the US might be right to take such an approach but what we think matters less than how these things are seen elesewhere. There, it could be taken as indicating that the American won't negotiate in good faith and, therefore, there's no reason to trust them or have any faith in their good intentions. Quite the opposite in fact.

Similarly, it's no surprise that Clinton would update Madeleine Albright's concept of America as the "indispensable nation" and argue that "Just as no nation can meet these challenges alone, no challenge can be met without America." This too might be true, but it's also a reminder that this administration, like its predecessors, is a firm believer in American hegemony. There might be differences in how that hegemony expresses itself (we're now in a "multi-partner" world, dontcha know?) but the essential analysis - and the premise upon which it is based - remains pretty much the same (at least when seen from overseas) regardless of which party happens to be in power in Washington.)

Not that this should surprise anyone. During the campaign the striking thing was how conventional Obama's foreign policy thinking was. The same might be said of Clinton's. Each has always bee quite happy to countenance attacking Iran, while after a brief flicker of thought, Obama retreated to the conventional Washington view of the Russo-Georgian conflict last summer.

The differences of tone and emphasis in the new administration may constitute a welcome break with the way the previous administration did business* and the new crew may have a greater, if still hardly broad, understanding of the limits of American power, but these are merely different, perhaps more palatable, means to an end which is more or less unchanged. 

For more on how the speech went down amongst CFR types, check out Dan Drezner's live-blog. He doesn't seem bowled over either.

*A good thing - since tact and realism matter. So it's encouraging, I think, that the Obama administration is more likely to take its cue from the George HW Bush era and not that of George W Bush.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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