Clinton scores big in China

There were concerns when Hillary Clinton headed off on her maiden voyage as secretary of state. Some on the right were concerned that she would not be tough enough on issues such as North Korea’s sabre-rattling. China hands were concerned she would replay her performance at the Women’s Rights Conference a few years back and ...

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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing on February 21, 2009. Clinton called here for a deeper partnership between the US and China, saying the world powers needed to unite to tackle the economy and climate change. After controversially saying she would avoid the sensitive issue of human rights in her talks with China's leaders, Clinton struck a warm and engaging tone in her first meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. AFP PHOTO / OLIVER WEIKEN / POOL (Photo credit should read OLIVER WEIKEN/AFP/Getty Images)

There were concerns when Hillary Clinton headed off on her maiden voyage as secretary of state.

Some on the right were concerned that she would not be tough enough on issues such as North Korea's sabre-rattling. China hands were concerned she would replay her performance at the Women's Rights Conference a few years back and hector the Chinese in a way that would make advancing critical interests difficult.

There were concerns when Hillary Clinton headed off on her maiden voyage as secretary of state.

Some on the right were concerned that she would not be tough enough on issues such as North Korea’s sabre-rattling. China hands were concerned she would replay her performance at the Women’s Rights Conference a few years back and hector the Chinese in a way that would make advancing critical interests difficult.

Realists feared she would not be practical. Asians worried that she would not listen. The anti-Hillary crowd worried that she would make it all about her and that she would fail to represent the agenda of President Obama effectively. Those who supported her wondered how she could utilize her great gifts as a politician while still respecting the important distinction between public and private diplomacy. She was green and she had a full agenda of security issues, economic issues, issues associated with the arrival of a new administration in Washington. Some feared she would stumble. Others hoped she would.

She did not. 

Hillary Clinton’s returns from Asia having made a first-class debut. First and foremost, she effectively communicated President Obama’s message of change while underscoring the importance the United States places on relations throughout Asia. She used local media and public fora with exceptional skill. She made clear that the Obama Administration has different priorities from its predecessors and carried important new messages on the centrality trans-Pacific collaboration to addressing the global economic crisis, to fighting climate change, and to containing security threats. 

Her openness generated criticism on several fronts. Glen Kessler’s piece in Monday’s Washington Post notes that human rights activists were unhappy that she observed that while she would raise human rights issues with the Chinese, she knew what their practiced response would be. But as she is quoted as saying in the Kessler piece:

I think that to worry about something which is so self-evident is an impediment to clear thinking. And I don’t think it should be viewed as particularly extraordinary that someone in my position would say what’s obvious.”

This is realism and common sense. She did not say she would not raise the issue. (Indeed meeting to promote gender equality or visiting a church was dealing in important ways with critical human rights concerns.) But she did soundly seek to advance the national interests in terms of economic collaboration and working together on climate issues where she could. Similarly, her comments about the failure of sanctions in Burma or the questions associated with succession in North Korea were consonant with the kind of openness and directness that has won kudos for President Obama, and they indicated a desire to deal with real problems and not to engage in the useless kabuki theater of diplomacy where it is counterproductive. 

This is was plain-speaking, deft diplomacy. Her point that the United States and China would rise or fall together recognizes that the core superpower relationship of the 21st Century is not the zero-sum game of the Cold War years but requires a new doctrine of interdependency that recognizes the challenges and imperatives associated with the fact that our most vital partner on many issues may be a vexing rival on others.

It is also worth noting an important theme that emerged in the foreign policy of this new administration last week. In Canada, President Obama made the creation of a green energy dialogue a centerpiece of his discussions with Prime Minister Harper. In China, Hillary Clinton did likewise regarding the urgency and the opportunity associated with U.S.-China cooperation on climate. In the upcoming Summit of the Americas, there is already talk of a central theme being hemispheric energy cooperation. Similarly, the issue was an important component of the G8 Summit and looms large with the end of year Copenhagen meetings on the horizon. In the past, this was a back tier issue except to the extent the United States was the world’s most prominent outlier on global climate talks. In the past, falling oil prices and economic difficulties of the sort the world is facing would push such issues further down on the agenda. But clearly something profound has changed. At just the moment you would expect climate to fall from view based on past experience, it has gained a prominence it never before had and at just the moment past administrations would have directed it onto a side track, it is now front and center. This is one of the most profound early signs of how the global outlook of the Obama administration is new and it, as Obama and Clinton have demonstrated, offers a terrific issue via which we can find common ground with other nations. Or in the case of China one where we may have considerable difference but both parties have a real sense of the urgency associated with issues of energy supply and climate risks.

So, from the green diplomat a winning performance thanks in part due to green diplomacy. (And a week in which it appears the national security side of this administration is hitting its stride a lot faster than their counterparts on the economic side.)

OLIVER WEIKEN/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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