August 17, 2009
By the end of the Bush presidency all but the most bloodthirsty hawks allowed that a change in American foreign policy was needed.
With that call, however, came the risk that the new administration would overcompensate. That it would go begging for hearts and minds, walk on eggshells, fearful to offend, and stop pressing leaders to conduct their affairs more responsibly and humanely.
During her tour of seven African countries earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear that America still intends to lead and it won’t pussyfoot to do so.
She was respectful. She listened. She vowed to “work together [with Africa] to build a global architecture of cooperation.”
All the while she spoke her mind, about South Africa’s failure to tackle its AIDS epidemic, corruption in Nigeria and Kenya, and mineral depletion and rape in the DRC.
This followed a trip to Asia in which she was equally forthright, likening North Korea to an “unruly teenager” and warning Tehran of a “defense umbrella” over the Persian Gulf to counter Iran’s aggressive behavior in the region.
Despite her bursts of pugnacity, delivered in parts of the world that had tired of US meddling during the Bush years, Clinton enjoyed considerable support from local activists, leaders, and no less, the media.
How could this be?
Certainly the Obama Administration’s efforts to more fully engage the world beyond the narrow prism of terror has helped refill the goodwill reservoir. But that doesn’t fully explain it.
The fact is there remains a yearning if not a need for the US to urge for reform and accountability. The world got a taste for life without the practice during Bush’s second term, by which time every American lecture whiffed of hypocrisy and stoked resentment, and so the practice was curbed. World opinion drifted to the idea that no nation should meddle in another’s internal affairs. It was a great idea in theory but conveniently neglected global decay – a food shortage in southern Africa, a rape epidemic in central Africa, a genocide further north, and nuclear crises in east Asia and the Middle East. Sans US pressure for justice the world grew neither kinder nor more stable.
Indeed calls for reform is an indispensable component of global leadership, a point not lost on Clinton, as evinced by her two recent trips.
There was a refreshing sincerity in the tone she struck, watching her, for instance, chide a Congolese student who asked her what her husband thought about an issue.
And yet it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t a little calculation behind them too, delivered as they were from the lips of a veteran politician skilled well-versed in the art of diplomacy. Whatever the case, her forthrightness provided a litmus test for what the world will tolerate from the US and whether American pressure can still wield influence.
And the early signs are encouraging.
Two weeks after Clinton’s unruly teenager remark, North Korea’s Dear Leader posed with her husband and released two US journalists sentenced to 12 years hard labor. There may not have been a direct connection between the two episodes, but it is noteworthy that no high price was paid for her sincerity with a country widely believed to require kid-glove treatment.
In the Congo, while the Western media used the student episode to paint her as a harpy, local and international activists praised Clinton’s tough talk. “If the U.S. has the will and if they give a very strong warning and say first of all we want to stop the violence, it can have a big impact,” one activist was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, in response to US calls this week that Malaysia tackle its human trafficking crisis, Malaysia’s home minister promised to do “whatever it takes”—a sharp contrast from the Muslim government’s brazen dismissal of US urgings last year.
Of course a variety of factors help determine the degree to which countries will let the US dictate their course of action. But at a minimum, US pressure is showing signs of being a galvanizer once more and challenging the notion that it is necessarily a bad thing.