It came. It went. It vanished without a trace.
Last week America’s secretary of state appeared before what passes in Washington for a gathering of the great and good and announced that a “new American Moment” had arrived. Unfortunately for Hillary Clinton (and her hopelessly pedestrian speechwriters), the secretary’s effort to brand our age didn’t take. The duration of the new American Moment did not extend beyond the peroration of her eminently forgettable speech.
The temptation to pass quietly over Clinton’s performance and move on is strong—but should be resisted. To read the speech carefully is to confront the central problem bedeviling American diplomacy: Infested with people who (like Clinton) are infatuated with power, Washington has increasingly become a city devoid of people who actually understand power.
They chant the empire seemingly oblivious to the fact that the empire’s foundations are rapidly crumbling.
“[A]fter years of war and uncertainty,” the secretary of state informed her audience at the Council on Foreign Relations, “people are wondering what the future holds, at home and abroad. So let me say it clearly: The United States can, must, and will lead in this new century.”
That settled, Clinton then proceeded to make her case for American leadership by resurrecting familiar clichés and reciting a long list of aspirations. Hers is a No Child Left Behind approach to statecraft: There is no global problem, however large or however remote from U. S. interests, that will evade America’s sympathetic ministrations.
[I]n this day where there is nothing that doesn’t come to the forefront of public awareness: What do we give up on? What do we put on the backburner? Do we sideline development? Do we put some hot conflicts on hold? Do we quit trying to prevent other conflicts from unfreezing and heating up? Do we give up on democracy and human rights?
No, we do not. By extension, therefore, everything becomes a priority. Besides, according to Clinton, to admit that A should take precedence over B while categorizing C as too hard “is not what Americans do.”
Americans have always risen to the challenges we have faced. That is who we are. It is in our DNA. We do believe there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved.
History itself testifies to what American leadership can accomplish, as demonstrated by Clinton’s own concise rendering of the postwar era.
After the Second World War, the nation that had built the transcontinental railroad, the assembly line, the skyscraper, turned its attention to constructing the pillars of global cooperation. The third World War that so many feared never came. And many millions of people were lifted out of poverty and exercised their human rights for the first time. Those were the benefits of a global architecture forged over many years by American leaders from both political parties.
The Cold War? A nuclear arms race? CIA instigated coups and dirty tricks? A penchant for bedding down with right-wing dictators? Vietnam? None of these qualify for mention in Secretary Clinton’s carefully sanitized and upbeat take on the past. (One wonders how Hillary Clinton, Wellesley ’68, would have responded to such a grotesque exercise in historical revisionism.)
Although Clinton offered assurances that the Obama administration is “committed to maintaining the greatest military in the history of the world,” her approach to policy centers above all on the conviction that “engagement” holds the key to solving almost any problem. Diplomacy requires all-out engagement everywhere, 24/7. Clinton recalls her predecessors warning her that “[y]ou can either try to manage the building or manage the world; you can’t try to do both.” She admits to rejecting that counsel, congratulating herself on managing both her department and also the world. (She topped this off with simultaneously managing her daughter’s wedding: a perfect trifecta.)
Banalities laced with smug self-delusion: In the new American Moment this is what passes for smart thinking. Meanwhile, in present-day Washington, the capacity for serious strategic analysis—not to mention a once-vibrant American tradition of plain speaking—has seemingly vanished.
What do we need to hear from a serious and plain-speaking secretary of state? For starters, these five points:
First, the world is not plastic and the future is opaque. To think that Washington, for all that it spends on “intelligence,” has the capacity to forecast or direct the trajectory of events is manifestly absurd. If the American governing class can claim a specialty, it’s getting caught by surprise. After September 11, Iraq, Katrina, the financial meltdown, etc., a bit of modestly might be in order. Rather than leading the world to some globalized utopia, the United States will do well if it can simply cope with whatever debacle awaits around the next bend.
Second, for decades now, a tendency to overinflate threats and to privilege near-term objectives over long-term interests has been a persistent hallmark of American statecraft. Time and again, the “solution” hyped to remedy today’s problem breeds tomorrow’s “crisis.” Hyper-activism yields unintended and all too frequently baleful consequences. The record of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan over the past 30 years offers a case in point.
Third, when it comes to discerning what distant peoples need or want, U.S. officials are clueless. Sure, people want to escape poverty and avoid being brutalized. But development comes from within and can seldom be engineered from without. (If aid programs worked as promised, Egypt would today be a very prosperous nation.) Worse, the effort to protect those subject to arbitrary violence all too often finds would-be protectors perpetrating their own violence. More often than not, what others want is to be allowed to determine their own destiny in their own way.
Fourth, however imposing, U.S. military might is of limited relevance to actually existing national security challenges. There exists no problem today to which military power offers a definitive solution. This statement is true regarding near-term concerns (violent jihadism) or emerging ones (climate change). As measured by return on investment, therefore, the money lavished on the Pentagon produces precious little.
Fifth, money itself is in increasingly short supply. Even in Washington, people at odd moments say things that are both true and important. Not long ago, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, let it be known that our skyrocketing national debt constitutes “the most significant threat to our national security.” Although Mullen refrained from drawing any correlation between mushrooming indebtedness and mushrooming military spending, his point is essentially correct. American statecraft has achieved the condition that Walter Lippmann once described as insolvency. We no longer possess the means needed to achieve the ends to which we are committed. Retrenchment has become the order of the day.
These are disconcerting facts, but facts they are. A secretary of state willing to acknowledge their existence would perform a great public service. But don’t expect this secretary of state to do so. She’s too busy managing the world.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book is Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.