What Do We Stand for?
Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, and now candidate for the presidency, used an interview with the Atlantic Monthly to distance herself from Pres. Obama. She criticized his conduct of foreign policy for lacking a clear organizing principle. Obama is extremely cautious. His motto is "don't do anything stupid." But Clinton finds him deficient because he has no clear goals and no clear sense of what we stand for.
She is certainly right that foreign policy needs to be guided by more than a desire to avoid stupid errors. You need a sense of what foreign policy should accomplish. How can we tell that our foreign policy is, what it should be?
Clinton's organizing principle of foreign policy is well known. We can put it in fancy language: America must maintain its leadership in the world. (Pres. Obama actually shares that principle.) Or we can put it in the language of the common man: "America Number One."
Such a national chauvinist stance may appeal to many voters but it is, of course, no more serviceable when formulating foreign policy than "don't make any stupid mistakes." It does not tell us what we need to do to maintain American leadership.
The Internet provides us with many rankings of countries with respect to healthcare, education, industrial productivity, and much else. In these rankings, the United States holds the 35st place with respect to life expectancy. We are in 21st place in the educational ranking and with respect to overall happiness of the people, we are in 17th place. In these and other international rankings America is not in a leadership position. If we really wanted to be "Number One" we would struggle mightily to improve our ratings in the international comparisons.
But that is not what Clinton is talking about. What she seems to have in mind is American officials going around the world and telling people what to do and – that's the important part – the other countries paying attention to them. Her view of leadership is thoroughly patriarchal. America is the father of all the countries and what America says, goes. What Clinton really means by American leadership is: 'Be a bigger bully than everyone else, America.'
That is an effective organizing principle but should not be ours. We present ourselves often as champions of freedom and equality and of democracy. You cannot champion those and be a big bully at the same time.
Telling people what to do is, at best, a part of leadership. The other, more important part is listening and being really attuned to what the followers think and need. Bullying is not leading. Good leaders need to be good listeners.
As all parents and teachers know only too well, one does not lead by preaching, one does not lead by haranguing people. One leads by example. If America wants to maintain its leadership position it has to practice what it preaches. If we are really concerned to promote peace around the world, we cannot continue to be the country that spends more per capita on its military than any other country.
It is important to remind ourselves that the sort of leadership Clinton wants to maintain has passed from our hands a while ago. We did not manage to create a peaceful Iraq where different ethnic groups lived and worked together for their mutual benefit. We did not manage to defeat communism in Vietnam and our fighting in Korea left the world with the bizarre state of North Korea and no reconciliation between the two Koreas in sight. Clinton and many other leaders are completely in the dark about the limits of American power in spite of the humongous amounts of money we spend on the military. There is no world leadership to maintain for us.
We pay a high price domestically for adopting Clinton's organizing principle for foreign policy. (To give her credit, she did not invent the principle. Being a big bully has been the ambition of many previous US governments.) Being so concerned that other countries listen to us and do what we want them to do, distracts us from what we should be aiming for. We should put much more energy and money into improving healthcare, improving education and improving the happiness of all of our citizens.
If we did this, others might have more respect for us. They might actually listen to us not because they are afraid but because they admire us.
Now that looks like a good organizing principle for foreign policy to me.