David Rothkopf

Good news: American political leadership at work … far from the beltway

Good news: American political leadership at work … far from the beltway

In this moment of national confusion and public despair with officials in Washington, variations on the following cry have often been heard, "Somewhere in the world there must be an American political leader with a vision of tomorrow, a focus on what is really important and an ability to translate rhetoric into success."

I’m pleased to report that there is. If it has escaped your attention it’s because that politician has been on the other side of the world the past couple of weeks advancing American interests and the policies of the president with meaningful results and exceptional skill.  

That politician is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is just completing an around-the-world mission that has taken her from the economic frontlines of the eurozone crisis to the markets of tomorrow in Asia. The trip, obscured in the noise around the debt ceiling debate, has been a real triumph for the Obama administration and has revealed that many of its policies over the past two years are now bearing significant fruit. It has also revealed the State Department’s deftness and bench-depth in dealing with an Asia agenda that is vastly more important in every respect than virtually anything that has been discussed inside the beltway for months.

Given that most trips by senior officials, even secretaries of state, are more often than not a series of pro forma efforts in diplomatic box-checking, the scope and results of the Clinton trip are worth noting. In Greece, she conveyed at a critical moment, America’s unequivocal support for that country’s economic recovery plan. When visiting Pakistan, the site of America’s most difficult relationship, her performance was even hailed in the local press. The Pakistan Observer carried an article stating, "Drum roll for Hillary because she has hit a home run." Her India visit was also widely hailed producing progress on a number of fronts from counterterror cooperation to opening up investment flows between the two countries. More importantly, it also continued the important work that will be a central legacy of her efforts at State which is the elevation of the U.S.-India relationship to being a centerpiece of America’s 21st century foreign policy.

The focus on the U.S.-India relationship is, as the trip also revealed, part of an even broader reorientation of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. This administration was the first in U.S. history to enter office acknowledging that China was America’s most important international counterpart — one that was both vital partner and challenging rival. But, rather than simply acknowledging this fact and focusing on that relationship, Obama, Clinton and their Asia team have systematically worked to establish a foundation for managing that relationship. What is more their choice was not kow-towing or bluster nor was it the blunt instrument of containment. Rather than have chosen what might be called broad engagement, deepening not only the relationship with Beijing and with potential counter-weights like India, but also systematically and often invisibly working to strengthen ties with many of the smaller countries in Asia.

The approach was clearly illustrated during several other stops on Clinton’s trip. In Hong Kong on July 25, she delivered an address to the American Chamber of Commerce which was not only a model for a sweeping, specific, thoughtfully-argued policy address, but which revealed a clear vision for the future of America’s relationship with China and the rest of the region. It did not hesitate to press the Chinese to abandon unfair economic practices and to embrace the openness healthy markets demand. It was effectively built around the enumeration of four core principles: markets be open, free, transparent, and fair. But it also underscored the mutual dependence at the center of the relationship and outlined a systematic strategy for how to build upon it. It did not stop there, however. It addressed as effectively as anything I have heard the nature of the current debt-ceiling debate in an effort-successful to date at ensuring continuing Asian market confidence. And it emphasized the importance the United States places on deepening ties elsewhere in Asia, from the Korea-U.S. trade agreement the administration is pushing hard to win passage of to links to ASEAN’s rising economies. The full text of the speech is worth a read and appears here.

Prior to the visit to Hong Kong, Clinton attended the ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali, Indonesia, and actively engaged with not only many of the region’s leaders but made real substantive progress on issues from re-opening conversations with North Korea to managing a constructive multi-national approach to addressing tensions in the South China Sea. These meetings were also a chance to advance the systematic strengthening of relations with all the region’s players, including many that have often been overlooked by the United States. This process has over the past two years included both establishment of formal policy dialogues with many countries in the region and also work on issues from reform in Myanmar to those associated with the Mekong River delta area that have been an important part of the Obama team’s Asia strategy.

Regional diplomats not only give Clinton high marks for her efforts and in particular for this trip, but they also cite her top lieutenants including Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. One of Washington’s most respected senior diplomats specifically cited to me the contributions of Campbell in helping Clinton shape the regional strategy, in managing complex core relationships with China, Japan and Korea but recognizing the importance of other players as well. "He is the most effective assistant secretary of state for East Asia in modern memory," said the official. "No one else even comes close and I have high regard for many of them."