Old-Fashioned Diplomacy in theTwitter Age

An exclusive interview with the secretary of state.

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Amid her high-stakes negotiating over the fate of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat down for an interview with Foreign Policy Editor in Chief Susan B. Glasser in Beijing. 

On the plight of Chen Guangcheng: It was a very personally poignant tale. I have followed this guy. I’ve talked about him. I’ve raised him with the Chinese. He has an incredible, almost — whatever the Chinese equivalent of a Horatio Alger story is. So we were … guided by his choices and our values. And we tried very hard to understand what he wanted. And he came into the embassy saying from the very beginning, "I don’t want to leave my country. I want to stay in China. But I want to be able to pursue my studies. I want to live a more meaningful life instead of being kept imprisoned in my house in my province in my home village."

Actually, I thought that was a very courageous and thoughtful response. And we worked to understand what he wanted, and then we worked with the Chinese to create the circumstances in which he could pursue that, including having his family with him. He hadn’t seen his son for a year, I think. And he never — I mean, he was in such a terrible dilemma because when he escaped, he couldn’t take his wife and his daughter; he couldn’t obviously get his son. So he’s alone in Beijing; he needs medical treatment. He actually broke his foot coming over the wall. And so he wanted his family reunified. He wanted everybody to be able to live as normally as possible and for him to pursue his studies. And we saw this as an opportunity not only to work with the Chinese government on his particular case, but to really extend our intensive dialogue about human rights and rule of law.… Because he was clear that he didn’t hold the national authorities responsible. He really focused his ire and fear on the local authorities who had mistreated him. And he had this idea that if only the authorities in Beijing knew what was happening to him, they would help me and my family. And I thought that was an interesting observation from a more sophisticated guy, with more outreach to the outside world than the average Chinese person would have.

On her 2009 remarks about human rights being just one part of the agenda with China: I didn’t realize it was going to be controversial as much as it turned out to be. Because to me, if human rights is over here, where it is separate and apart from everything else they care about and we care about, I don’t think you have the level of influence over what you’re trying to both advocate and achieve when it comes to human rights. And I also have a very strong belief — I mean, I was here 17 years ago saying women’s rights are human rights and the Chinese violate women’s rights all the time, and they pulled the plug on broadcasting my speech. And so it’s not like I was coming to the Chinese new to this. I have been an advocate for human rights and women’s rights as long as they’ve known of me, and I had heated arguments with Jiang Zemin over Tibet. So I also needed to send a signal to them saying, "Look, I’m now secretary of state. I carry this whole portfolio, and human rights is an important, essential part of it, but there’s a lot of other business we have to get done." So yes, am I going to raise human rights? Absolutely. But I’m also going to be raising economic issues and Iran and North Korea and all the rest of it. So that was certainly the signal I was sending to them, that I’m somebody you can do business with and I will forever disagree with you on all the things I’ve already told you I disagree with you about for the past 20 years, but I’m going to represent the entire portfolio.

On when to use the bully pulpit as secretary of state: There’s a whole symphony of different notes that can be played and need to be played, depending on what you’re trying to achieve. And so in this role, which is a very broad one with a large portfolio of responsibilities, we have to, I think, be strategic in how we communicate what we’re trying to explain to all the various audiences that are listening. I’m very outcomes-oriented — what’s the best way to get there? Sometimes it’s being diplomatic, and sometimes it’s being harsh. Some people criticize me for saying that Russia and China’s veto on Syria was despicable. Well, I think it got their attention. So you just have to calibrate and figure out what is the end state you’re trying to get to, because there are times when being podium-pounding and bully-pulpiting are on their own worthwhile or as part of a larger plan, other times when it would be counterproductive. It depends upon what you’re trying to achieve.

On Aung San Suu Kyi and the difficulty of navigating between human rights icon and practical politician: When you move from this icon advocate to now sitting in the parliament with men who she knows have blood on their hands, that is such a psychic journey that she’s had to make. But politically now, she cannot be immune from the criticism that will come because she is playing a political role. And it’s fascinating. And I mean, it’s the clearest arc of change that we can watch in the world today. So yes, it’s hard. It’s hard. When I was first lady, I could say anything I wanted to say, and I often did, for better or worse. But some of it was strategic, and part of my husband’s agenda, and some of it was just what I thought and felt and strongly believed. When I was a senator, I had to represent the people of New York but I also got to be an advocate on their behalf and on behalf of the issues and interests that they had. And so I feel like I am consistent, but I feel like the roles that I have been playing and the outcomes that I’m seeking require different tactics all the time.[In talking with Aung San Suu Kyi], what she was saying is "I now want to play a role." This is a chance for her to try to put into practice everything she’s been thinking about and working on her entire adult life. But she is anxious to get in and roll up her sleeves, and she has a lot of confidence in herself that somehow she’s going to be able to thread her way through all of these pitfalls and help her country. It’s very familiar to me. She could have been on a pedestal her entire life. She didn’t ever have to leave her compound. She could be propounding great thoughts and calling people to their higher selves. But she wants to be in the real world and see if she can make a difference.

On whether there’s a pragmatic, "trust but verify" Hillary approach to the world: Having come to this job from the political world primarily, I have a certain level of understanding or sensitivity to what people’s political problems are, even in authoritarian regimes, because everybody’s got politics. They may not be electoral politics, but you’ve got politics. You’ve got to keep an inner circle or a regime or interest groups on your side. But I also think I’ve just had to spend a lot of time trying to understand how people see and exercise power. And I wish that it were as hopeful and positive as everyone is crossing their fingers for. But human nature being what it is, political pressures — I can watch and see how people are getting squeezed and moved. And what can we do if it’s something we don’t care about? Well, that’s their problem. But if it’s something we care about, what are the ways we can possibly try to influence that and try to manage that? Sometimes it’s by appealing to some bigger vision, like where is it you’re trying to go in your country, what are you trying to accomplish? And sometimes it’s by trying to set in motion countering forces so that there’s at least other voices being heard. I find that the way the world works, and trying to get into it and figure out how you can help people do more of what you want them — namely, the United States wants them — to do is part of what I feel like my job is.

On America the indispensable: We are totally indispensable. But we have to be smart about how we define and use our power today, because there’s no problem that can be solved without us. But how we lead and what we’re trying to convey to the rest of the world is what I am focused on, because it was easier for people to understand what was meant when you said we were indispensable after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union and before the consolidation of the rise of not just China but the other so-called BRICs. And the increasing role of nonstate actors, transnational problems — I mean, the way the world looked even in the ’90s, when I was looking at it closely from a different vantage point, is very different than the way it looks now. But the constant is America’s being an indispensable power. But the challenge is: Are we going to be able to really live up to that and lead the world in the 21st century in a way that furthers our security, our interests, and our values? And that’s what I’ve been trying to do the last four years — is to sort of get people focused on how we have to spend a lot of time building the habits of cooperation, the institutions and mechanisms of partnership, and furthering relationships and understanding. That’s really old-fashioned diplomacy operating in the Twitter age, but I don’t think there’s any substitute for it.

On whether she thinks about running for president in 2016: No.

On what could persuade her to run: Nothing. It wouldn’t take — it would take — there is nothing it could take. I really — I’m flattered, I’m honored. I mean, God, I had — I mean, the Chinese were talking about it to me at the dinner Wednesday night, at the small dinner Dai had. Saying things like, "Well, you know, I mean, 2016 is not so far away…. You may retire but you’re very young."

On dealing with the White House: Well, first of all, I think both the president and I made it very clear to everybody on both of our teams that we were all on the same team. And he was the president, and we were going to do our very best to serve him well. And he made it clear to his people that I was the person he wanted to be secretary of state, and he wanted to see a strong and effective partnership. And we really have been able to produce that, and it’s — I mean, there is always going to be tensions between any State Department and any White House or between any bureaucracy and any other. That kind of goes with the territory. I know that from long years of experience. But I think there has been a real professionalism on both sides.

On whether she has any regrets (like the stalled Middle East peace process): We all hope — we would all hope for that someday. That would be a great moment for the world. But so far, not yet. I mean, part of the problem of taking this job at this time in history is that we had been so preoccupied for totally understandable reasons — and I say that as somebody who was a senator from New York state — on the war on terror, on al Qaeda, and then had to pay a lot of attention to Iraq, Afghanistan. I mean, we were really in need of making sure we could demonstrate to the whole world that if we were going to be the indispensable nation, that meant we were indispensable everywhere, not just in one or two places — which is why I went to Asia first and why I have put a big emphasis on developing these institutional relationships with the rising powers, and why I’ve invested a lot in having America involved in a lot of these regional and multilateral organizations. Because it’s a way of extending our influence, and in a time of American budgetary stress and certainly war/foreign affairs weariness on the part of a lot of the people in our country, it was important to say, "Now look, we have to be active. We have to be engaged. We have to lead. We will do it in new and different ways. We’re not going to carry all the burdens." That’s why Libya was such an incredibly historical pivot for us to put together a partnership of which we were clearly indispensable in every way, but other people had to step up — not only Europeans but Arabs.

On what will keep her successor up at 3 a.m.: I’d say probably everything. I mean, by the time whoever that is comes in, we’ll see what the situation is. But you have to deal with the urgent, the immediate, and the long term all at once. I mean, pay attention to the headlines and the trend lines. You can’t act like climate change is not happening, proliferation is not a problem, pandemic disease doesn’t remain a threat. I mean, you have to keep your eye on those long-term dangers, but you’ve got to deal with the here and now too, every day. 

Susan Glasser is the former editor in chief of Foreign Policy, the magazine of global politics, economics, and ideas. A longtime foreign correspondent and editor for the Washington Post, Glasser joined Foreign Policy in 2008 and has been spearheading the magazine’s ambitious expansion in print and online at During her tenure, the magazine has won numerous awards for its innovative coverage, including the 2012 award for online general excellence from the Overseas Press Club and three National Magazine Awards, for digital excellence in reporting, blogging, and multimedia. FP’s ten nominations for the awards including being a 2011 finalist for “Magazine of the Year,” the industry’s highest honor.

Glasser spent four years as co-chief of the Post's Moscow bureau and covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for the Post in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, including the battle of Tora Bora and the invasion of Iraq. After returning to Washington, she edited the Post’s weekly Outlook section and led its national news coverage. Together with her husband, New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker, she wrote Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution. Glasser previously worked for eight years at the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, where she rose to be the top editor. She has served as chair of the Pulitzer Prize jury for international reporting and is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the United States. A graduate of Harvard University, Glasser lives in Washington with Baker and their son.