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Big Ideas for a New President

Seven years have passed since the Clinton administration left office. It’s election year, and the prospects look good for a Democratic—perhaps even a Clinton—comeback. Those who served under Bill Clinton, whether or not they hope to be back in office themselves, can reasonably hope that the public will be interested to hear from them again: not as memoirists this time—those with salable memoirs have long since published them—but as elder statespersons, offering wisdom distilled from their experience.

So here are three books written by people who, at different levels, were involved in making foreign policy under the president who may or may not soon be referred to as “Clinton 42.” Madeleine Albright served him in his first term as ambassador to the UN, and in his second as secretary of state. Strobe Talbott, starting as ambassador-at-large for Russia and the former Soviet Union, was soon promoted to deputy secretary of state, which he remained until 2001. Nina Hachigian and Mona Sutphen, from a younger generation, shared a “converted broom closet in the West Wing,” which they also refer to as “the frenetic guts of America’s foreign policy machine,” in the closing years of the second term—when, as they recall fondly, “Clinton was greeted by mobs of cheering crowds everywhere he went.”

All three books are clearly aimed at influencing the next administration, while reminding it (and the public) of the authors’ existence. This does not necessarily mean that all of them expect or even want to return to office (though in the case of Hachigian and Sutphen it seems likely that the thought has crossed their minds). It clearly does mean that they all believe what they have to say to be of more than merely academic interest.

Albright’s work, from the title onward, is the most explicitly didactic. She asks the reader to imagine her addressing it to the successful candidate as a “MEMORANDUM (personal and confidential)” on “Election Night, 2008.” The artificiality of this device is a little too obvious to be effective, since Albright, writing in 2007, does not know any more than we do who the successful candidate will be. The reader should be grateful, however, that a judicious editor has removed such folksy touches as “A Word (If I Might) Before We Begin”—the title of the prologue in the uncorrected proof sent to reviewers.

The first half of the book, written largely in this tone of cracker-barrel philosophy, is concerned essentially with “process”: it purports to warn the incoming president of the pitfalls lying in wait for her, or him, in the thickets of the Washingtonian jungle. A few of these tips might actually be useful—the warning against announcing “a bold plan for a presidency’s first hundred days,” for instance; the suggestion of a “comprehensive policy review” as a way of allowing unwise promises to fade from memory; or the reminder that, if foreign diplomats insist on dealing directly with the White House, it is because they think the president more likely to compromise than “the professionals by whom you are represented.” And the case for foreign aid is made with admirable succinctness:

We can and should do more because it is right and because others will care more about the extraordinary dangers threatening us if we show we care about the everyday dangers confronting and often killing them.

But when Albright seeks to bolster her commonsense wisdom with some half-remembered lessons from ancient history, she quickly makes blunders of her own, confusing Thucydides with Euripides and Macedon with Persia. And no doubt Beltway insiders will find this half of the book no less trite and uninspired than the tour d’horizon of global issues to which the reader is subjected in the second half. Here too, the elder stateswoman relies too much on her memory: “Before Mr. Putin became president,” she tells us, “some in the Russian press had begun referring to their homeland as ‘Upper Volta with rockets.'” Perhaps, but if so they were quoting Western journalists, among whom this phrase was popular as a description of the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. Only rarely is this foreign policy 101 course relieved by something resembling wit, as when Albright remarks that “America has had limited success when declaring war against nouns—such as terror, poverty, drugs, disease, or inflation.”

Strobe Talbott’s essay is much more ambitious, and clearly the fruit of several years’ wrestling with a Big Idea, conducted in the interstices of a third career (after journalism and diplomacy) as president—i.e., fundraiser-in-chief—of the Brookings Institution. Here I must declare, if not an interest, at least a degree of empathy, having followed a similar path at a lower level. Part of the appeal for journalists of a spell in public service is that it is an unrivaled opportunity to improve one’s Rolodex; and this is very useful if one then reverts to authorship, since it enables one to get a manuscript read in draft by a formidable group of “experts.” Talbott, a man of painstaking honesty, lists fifty-six such people, including myself, in his acknowledgments at the end of the book. Not surprisingly it is hard (for me, anyway) to fault him on facts.

My empathy goes beyond that, however. Although his public service was given exclusively in a national government, Talbott is a passionate multilateralist. He believes in international organizations, and especially in the United Nations—not, of course, as something fully functional in its present form, but as an ideal, and as an institution with potential, whose current failures are in large part those of its member states, including notably the one that he himself served. Since I worked in the UN Secretariat, my heart cannot but be warmed by this enthusiasm even if, having seen the defects of the system up close, I hesitate to follow Talbott in some of his more optimistic passages.

The book as a whole is endearing. I would like to say it is also convincing, but I fear that those Americans not already disposed to take Talbott’s view may remain unconvinced. Although an overdose of unilateralism under “Bush 43” has generated something of a backlash, Talbott’s own warning to Clinton in a memo just before the 1992 presidential election (quoted in an endnote to the book) remains broadly valid: “Multilateralism is still a suspect concept in the US. It smacks of goo-goo one-worldism, naïveté, even dubious patriotism.”

Hachigian and Sutphen quote opinion poll data to show that in fact most Americans are, and have been consistently, multilateralist, and Clinton himself as observing, with characteristic acuity, that the “real problem is not that people are opposed to the UN or opposed to us paying our fair share…. [The] problem is that there’s no penalty for not doing it, and there’s always other competing claims on the dollar.” In other words, support for multilateral institutions is broad but shallow: it lacks the passionate intensity displayed by those on the other side, and therefore counts for relatively little in the voting booth.

Talbott’s book is endearing because it is so intensely personal. References abound to Talbott’s parents, his education—at “the Hotchkiss School in the Berkshires,” followed by Yale and Oxford, where his classmates included, respectively, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton—his wife Brooke, even the family dogs. These reminiscences are used to illustrate, or enliven, a kind of potted world history, with an emphasis on political thought, which seeks to trace the widening scope of human loyalty and solidarity, as men and women became aware of sharing a common destiny with ever larger numbers of their fellow human beings. These two inspiring tales—the story of humanity and the story of the Talbott family—are constantly intertwined so that, for instance, the transformation of Christianity from Jewish sect into world religion is rendered thus:

It is a testament to Saint Paul’s success in converting gentiles that my family worshipped at an Episcopal church bearing his name nineteen hundred years later and 4,600 miles away, on Fairmount Boulevard in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

While this may sound grandiloquent, its purpose is not so much to blow the Talbott trumpet as to make the human epic more intimate and less abstract, and to show us how much the author’s own feelings and ambitions are wrapped up in it. His rapid canter through medieval and early modern political thought pauses for a page and a half in front of Bruegel’s Tower of Babel, which Talbott tells us he revisited nearly every time he passed through Vienna in the early 1970s, and which he interprets lovingly as a satire on the gap between the emperor Charles V’s dream of a unified world and “the reality of an imperial edifice that looms oppressively over the political landscape of the era and that is…destined for destruction.”

A few pages earlier, writing about medieval Europe, he observes that “the establishment of a judiciary, the rule of law, equitable taxation, parliamentary representation, and the other necessities for democracy all came slowly and painfully”—and immediately goes on to tell us:

This was a lesson of history that I tried, not always as vividly as I should have, to keep in mind when I was involved at the State Department during the 1990s in ventures known, simplistically, as “nation-building” and “democracy-promotion.” These terms, bursting with can-do Yankee optimism, are deceptive since they refer to tasks that have, in Western history, taken decades to begin and centuries to accomplish.

Indeed, when the narrative reaches the 1990s it abruptly slows down, and the camera zooms in close for three chapters devoted to the experience of the Clinton administration. (This accentuates the odd structure of the book, which might almost have been subtitled “A Brief History of the World, Including Those Aspects of Bill Clinton’s Foreign Policy Not Covered in My Previous Memoir.”1 ) These chapters are notable for their modesty. Talbott acknowledges the very inadequate record of the Clinton administration in confronting warlords in Somalia and genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda. He also recounts Clinton’s frustration at his own and his speechwriters’ inability to sum up his multilateralism in “a single phrase…some big think that gets us a headline!” and remarks that “not until after Clinton was out of office did he give speeches and interviews that flowed and soared on the subject of American leadership in the age of globalization.”

One cannot help suspecting, however, that behind this failure lay an uncertainty on Clinton’s own part about just how multilateralist he really wanted to be—or, at any rate after the Republicans captured both houses of Congress in 1994, could afford to be. I remember feeling moved by a speech Clinton gave in Baden-Baden, Germany, in 2004, in which he declared that helping to make Kofi Annan secretary-general of the UN (in 1996) was one of the things he was proudest of about his term in office. But then I thought, “Just a minute. Having done that, what exactly did you do to support him, or to strengthen the UN?”—and it was hard to think of anything. Although Clinton, like other US presidents, showed up regularly to make the statutory speech on the first day of the UN General Assembly’s “general debate,” none of those speeches was particularly memorable, and he never devoted a speech anywhere else to explaining the value of the UN to the United States, or why Americans should support it.

It was not until after he left office that the arrears of US dues were partially paid off, under the terms of the Helms-Biden Act. Thus the gentle rebuke administered to US leaders in 2006 by UN Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown, who accused them of making use of the UN without ever telling “middle America” that they were doing so, was applicable as much to Clinton as to “Bush 43,” and arguably more so than to “Bush 41.” But that did not stop John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN at the time, from denouncing it as outrageously partisan.

If anything, one can fault the Clinton administration for showing too little “can-do Yankee optimism” rather than too much. The world had, after all, just witnessed the extraordinary and unexpected changes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union which Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission at the time, referred to as “les accélérations de l’histoire.” Why shouldn’t nation-building, too, be speeded up—and, by the same token, what Talbott saw as its logical conclusion: “The Birth of the Global Nation” (the title of a column he wrote in Time magazine in 1992)? A decade and a half later many of us are sadder, if not wiser, but Talbott sounds if anything a more confident multilateralist now than he did then:

As the problems requiring multilateral solutions grow in magnitude and complexity, there is reason to hope—and also to predict—that individual states will increasingly see it in their interest to form an international system that is far more cohesive, far more empowered by its members, and therefore far more effective than the one we have today.

“Reason to hope—and also to predict.” There you have it. The spirit of “can-do Yankee optimism” in all its glory. Tellingly, in the uncorrected proof this appeared as “reason to hope—and therefore predict” [emphasis added]. Talbott must have realized, on rereading this phrase, that hope is not a sufficient basis for prediction. Yet the emendation does not really alter the message. In Talbott’s world, if there is reason to hope for a given outcome, then there is also reason to predict it.

Alas, there may be reason not to predict it. Indeed, cynics and pessimists would argue that this way of thinking is very dangerous, since it leads policymakers to embark on ill-advised adventures on the basis of rosy assumptions, without due attention to less favorable scenarios. The Iraq war springs to mind—not that Talbott supported it, but some unilateralists seem to be products of the same “can-do Yankee optimist” cast of mind.

Indeed, Talbott himself hints as much when he recounts his friendly arguments with the arch-neocon Charles Krauthammer about the right way for the US to exploit the opportunities offered by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war:

When I argued that we should make the most of global and regional organizations such as the UN, the incipient European Union, and NATO, Krauthammer countered that we must not let ourselves fall into the trap of “giddy Wilsonianism.”

Yet the argument of Krauthammer and other Bush supporters that the US should exploit its “unipolar moment” without concern for the views of other powers was hardly less giddy, and led more or less directly to the disaster of Iraq.

By 2007, Talbott describes himself as confident—more so, he admits, than some of the foreign officials he had got to know during the Nineties—“that America’s unilateral moment was over.” In a few concluding pages, he therefore sketches a multilateral agenda for the next administration, starting with a declaration of

full adherence to the Geneva Conventions on treatment of civilians and prisoners of war, a similar statement with regard to the UN Convention against Torture, an affirmation of the right of habeas corpus for US-held detainees, and a revalidation of President Clinton’s signature on the treaty creating the International Criminal Court.2

Measures like these, he says, “would constitute initial repair work that is necessary if the United States is successfully to reclaim its leadership of the long, slow process of strengthening a rule-based international order.”

In this order, as Talbott imagines it, the UN will be indispensable “as a convener of the governments of the world and as a legitimizer of decisions and actions taken in their name,” but “incorporated into an increasingly variegated network of structures and arrangements”—a network that will need to be broad and deep enough “to supplement what the UN does well, compensate for what it does badly, and provide capabilities that it lacks.”

Surprisingly, he does not mention the ability or will to legitimize necessary action, including military and police action, as one of these missing capabilities, even though a large part of his earlier narrative is devoted to the problem of taking appropriate action, notably in relation to Kosovo. The problem there lay not in the “sheer numbers and diversity of its membership,” which he mentions as a “drag on [the UN’s] effectiveness,” but in the probability that Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council, would veto any military action against its protégé Yugoslavia.

Talbott seems to think that this problem was solved by a statement from the secretary-general, Kofi Annan, to the effect that “there are times when the use of force may be legitimate in the pursuit of peace.” As Talbott himself points out, “Annan had no authority to bless NATO action in the absence of a Security Council resolution.” But, he goes on to argue,

in giving priority to outcome over process and putting his personal prestige on the line, [Annan] not only helped the Clinton administration manage its difficulties with Russia—he saved the organization from once again risking irrelevance.

Having helped draft the statement in question I am grateful for the compliment, but I am not sure that I follow the reasoning. Annan himself was certainly worried about the risk of irrelevance, which he believed the Security Council ran by its repeated failure to take action to halt ethnic cleansing or genocide—in Bosnia, in Rwanda, and, at that time, in Kosovo. But he did not see his own statements as an alternative source of legitimacy. Rather, he used them—and most notably his speech to the General Assembly in September 1999—to incite the council to take strategic positions.

As Talbott notes, Annan achieved a significant success, at least on the level of rhetoric, at the 2005 world summit, when all member states of the UN formally accepted the principle that the international community, acting through the Security Council, had a “responsibility to protect” populations against genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, whenever the sovereign state in which those populations lived failed to do so. (This doctrine, an inspired reformulation of Annan’s argument, had first been put forward by an international commission that the Canadian government set up in response to his 1999 speech.) But as Talbott also notes, the council still failed egregiously to exercise this responsibility in Darfur. This time “China was the principal obstructionist” but

like Rwanda in 1994, Darfur in 2005 was not solely, or even mainly, a failure of the UN. In both cases, an American commander in chief was too preoccupied with a military debacle elsewhere—Clinton’s retreat from an intervention gone horribly wrong in Somalia, and Bush’s ever-deepening troubles in Iraq—to have the energy, the resources, or the political backing at home to get out in front of the Security Council.

So even if China recently has been making some demands on Sudan, should we expect a new US administration, miraculously freed from the troubles in Iraq, to galvanize the international community into effective action against atrocities, in Darfur, the Congo, or elsewhere, and to persuade the Security Council to legitimize it? I’m afraid I find it hard to imagine this happening any time soon.

In any case, Talbott—rightly, I fear—now sees two other dangers as much more immediately threatening to humanity as a whole: nuclear weapons proliferation and climate change. “These mega-threats,” he writes,

can be held at bay in the crucial years immediately ahead only through multilateralism on a scale far beyond anything the world has achieved to date….

It is asking a lot of the world to grapple simultaneously with nuclear proliferation and climate change, but it is not asking too much, given the stakes.

His preferred solution, or part of it, is “a twenty-first-century version of the Atoms for Peace plan of 1953,” making peaceful nuclear energy (which “relies on available technology and produces no greenhouse gases”) available to “emerging nations” if they are willing to “accept tighter controls on the material and know-how that otherwise can be used for bombs and forgo efforts to acquire fuel-production technology, which can also be applied to making weapons”—in other words, an updated and improved version of the bargain that formed the basis of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Talbott interprets Article VI of that treaty as encompassing “the goal of eventually abolishing nuclear arsenals,” and points out that many prominent “realists,” including Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn, have now embraced such abolition as the only long-term security. (“Mutually assured destruction” may have worked in the cold war, but cannot be presumed to deter would-be nuclear terrorists.) As steps toward that goal, he urges the next US president to “work with India, Pakistan, and the five NPT-approved nuclear-weapons states to impose a moratorium on the production of fissile material, pending a verifiable treaty that would formalize and universalize a ban,” while also working with the Senate to put the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty “back on a path toward ratification.”

On climate change, he warns that “in order to slow down the rate at which the earth is warming, the United States, the European Union, Russia, and nine other countries—the so-called ‘dirty dozen’ that account for 80 percent of the problem—will have to accept mandatory cuts” in their greenhouse gas emissions. Several of these nine are developing countries, which “get a pass on binding reductions” under the Kyoto Protocol—the big three being India, China, and Brazil. Their carbon emissions, as well as those of the US, will have to be subject to limits, and there is, as yet, no clear prospect of imposing them.

Thus while Talbott is anxious that the UN should “serve as a forum for the diplomacy,” he acknowledges that the crucial deals have to be done, at least in the first instance, by the US and a relatively small number of “big powers.” Clearly these are no longer the five permanent members of the Security Council as named in the UN Charter, even with the tacit amendment that allows the Russian Federation to assume the seat assigned to the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” A new distribution of power has emerged, and this is the subject of Hachigian and Sutphen’s lively and readable book.

Although there has been much talk about the “BRICS”—Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa—as the new emerging powers, these writers firmly exclude Brazil and South Africa from their list of “pivotal powers,” meaning those that “have the resources to support or thwart US aims, to build the world order or disrupt it.” Brazil, they say, “is not an essential player globally except on a few issues, like trade negotiations, and does not yet appear to have the clear determination to become a great power,” while South Africa “has a modest economy and military.” So their list consists of China, Europe, India, Japan, and Russia.

Many Europeans might be surprised to see how confidently they include Europe as a single power, and one to be reckoned with at that. Hachigian and Sutphen argue persuasively that all of these powers see their interest as lying in a cooperative world system rather than a contest for primacy, and that the US’s interest lies in seeking “strategic collaboration” with them, rather than attempting to “contain” them in a vain attempt to perpetuate its own “primacy.” In particular, they say, “there is no feasible strategy for weakening China” (a quote from Francis Fukuyama and G. John Ikenberry), but the attempt to do so would ensure that “a nation of some 1.5 billion people would become deeply resentful of the US.” Their book is written in a language probably more attractive to tomorrow’s power-holders than either Albright’s or Talbott’s. Let us hope that theirs is the voice of the future, for if it is, there is hope.

  1. 1

    The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy (Random House, 2002), reviewed in these pages by Christian Caryl, July 18, 2002. 

  2. 2

    This last is in fact another example of Clinton’s weak multilateralism, since the signature was delayed until his very last days in office, and even then accompanied by a statement that he would not advise his successor—who in any case had no intention of doing so—to submit the statute to the Senate “until our fundamental concerns are satisfied.”