Sunday, February 22, 2009

The New Hillary

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Asia this week on her first outing as a member of the Obama Administration. She talked with leaders in Myanmar (Burma), Japan, South Korea, China, and Malaysia, and according to news reports, some of her comments were unusually candid. She emphasized economics and climate change, not human rights with China. She talked about North Korean regime change in Seoul, and wondered aloud if sanctions against Burma were useful. There’s nothing wrong with saying what’s obvious, she told reporters (Kessler, G.: Washington, 22 Feb 09).
(Clinton in China Feb 09 LA Times Photo)

But that is exactly what is not obvious. As she herself has said, diplomacy is a head game. Stating the obvious may not be to one’s advantage. Human rights organizations are furious with her for not emphasizing human rights issues in China. Others wonder if she is just trying to be well-liked or if she has any policy in mind, and if it is a policy, since when did the US no longer care about human rights?

But I think she is doing the right thing, and I confess I did not realize she had the flexibility to think in a different way, whether directed by Obama or not. Her comments show a subtlety of mind I did not know lurked there.

Her comments mark a sharp break with the Bush foreign policy. She is saying, we are no longer going to throw our weight around like the bullies we have been. We are now willing to talk plainly and listen with an open mind. That is a fundamental change in direction for US diplomacy and it is important to indicate to all, that is what is happening.

She is also saying, especially by choosing Asia for her maiden voyage, that our important future allies are not necessarily going to be in Europe but in Asia. That’s the truth, and it is smart to signal that, to both Asia and Europe. So there is a policy behind her remarks and it is much larger and more important than whether Tibetans should be allowed more autonomy.

The Chinese can be harsh in dealing with their own citizens, but so can we. They have a billion people to keep in check, three times what we have, with much more diversity in culture and language, and with with a fraction of the wealth and education we enjoy. “Human Rights” should be re-thought in less absolute terms. What do we know about how China works? We barely know how the US works.

The US has been the world leader in promoting human rights since the Carter presidency, and that should continue, but perhaps, in view of our abominable performance in the last eight years, with a bit more humility.

I am impressed with Clinton’s comments. If she continues in such a candid and yet subtly strategic way, she might well be the best secretary of state we have had in living memory. I never saw that coming.

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