Hillary on the Hill

While reading the official transcript of Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton’s opening statement at her confirmation hearing yesterday, I had a brief moment of excitement somewhere around paragraph twenty-five.  Here’s what made me sit up straight (emphasis added): Of course, we must be realistic about achieving our goals. Even under the best of circumstances, our ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
589531_090114_HillaryHill_1.14_resized2.jpg
589531_090114_HillaryHill_1.14_resized2.jpg

While reading the official transcript of Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton's opening statement at her confirmation hearing yesterday, I had a brief moment of excitement somewhere around paragraph twenty-five.  Here's what made me sit up straight (emphasis added):

Of course, we must be realistic about achieving our goals. Even under the best of circumstances, our nation cannot solve every problem or meet every global need. We don't have unlimited time, treasure, or manpower. And we certainly don't face the best of circumstances today, with our economy faltering and our budget deficits growing.

While reading the official transcript of Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton’s opening statement at her confirmation hearing yesterday, I had a brief moment of excitement somewhere around paragraph twenty-five.  Here’s what made me sit up straight (emphasis added):

Of course, we must be realistic about achieving our goals. Even under the best of circumstances, our nation cannot solve every problem or meet every global need. We don’t have unlimited time, treasure, or manpower. And we certainly don’t face the best of circumstances today, with our economy faltering and our budget deficits growing.

So to fulfill our responsibility to our children, to protect and defend our nation while honoring our values, we have to establish priorities. Now, I’m not trying to mince words here. As my colleagues in the Senate know, “establishing priorities” means making tough choices. Because those choices are so important to the American people, we must be disciplined in evaluating them — weighing the costs and consequences of our action or inaction; gauging the probability of success; and insisting on measurable results.”

“She gets it!” I thought. But then I read on and discovered what “making choices and setting priorities” actually means. Among other things, it means:
 
1. “Deepening our engagement” with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other countries in central Asia;

2. “Actively” pursuing a strategy in the Middle East that addresses Israel’s security needs and the Palestinians’ “legitimate” political aspirations, challenges Iran to end its nuclear program and sponsorship of terror, persuades Syria to abandon dangerous behavior and “strengthens relationships” with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other regional states;

3. Making new efforts to secure nuclear materials, get other states to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and renew negotiations for a Fissile Material Cutoff treaty;

4. Working to strengthen U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia, to include NATO, Japan, Australia, South Korea, and India;

5. Pursuing cooperative relations with Russia and China, while standing up for core U.S. values;

6. Working closely with Canada and Mexico on economic issues and drug trafficking, and returning to a policy of “vigorous engagement” with the rest of Latin America;

7. “Combating al-Qaida’s efforts in the Horn of Africa; helping African nations to conserve their natural resources; stopping war in Congo; ending autocracy in Zimbabwe and human devastation in Darfur; supporting African democracies like South Africa and Ghana; and working aggressively to reach the Millennium Development Goals in health, education, and economic opportunity”;

8. Leading an “urgent, coordinated response to climate change,” and continuing active efforts to address global AIDS, global poverty, global health, global education and, of course, promoting democracy and human rights;

And after covering every continent, she declared that this laundry list was just “a few of our top priorities” (my emphasis) and said she expected to “address many more in the question-and-answer session.” And she did.

These goals may all be perfectly worthy in themselves, and it would have been undiplomatic for her to spell out the countries, regions, or issue she deemed less important. Nonetheless, Clinton’s remarks were not those of someone eager to make choices or set priorities, even though she deployed clever new concepts like “smart power.” Clinton did not say which of these problems merited the most resources or the most immediate attention, which problems were the most easily solved and which might be intractable, or how the United States might deploy its power strategically, so that our actions in one area made solving other problems easier, instead of operating (as we often do) at cross-purposes.

It was an impressive performance in some respects — she’s mastered her brief, showed admirable poise, and made it clear that she’s on the same page with the president-elect. But taken as a whole, her testimony was entirely consistent with the well-engrained tendency for great powers to assume that what happens anywhere matters everywhere, and especially matters to them. I’m no isolationist, but it would be refreshing to hear a more rigorous assessment of our vital interests and a clearer acknowledgement of the limits of U.S. power, especially these days.

The good news: her presentation was clearly not this. Not surprisingly, it reminded me of this. But has anyone told her that it’s not the 1990s anymore?

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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