Hillary Clinton is running for president not only on her record as secretary of state, but also by presenting herself as tougher than Barack Obama on foreign-policy issues. With this stance, she presumably plans to distance herself from a president increasingly branded as “weak” in his approach to international issues, and to appeal to the supposedly more hawkish instincts of much of the electorate.
It is therefore necessary to ask a number of related questions, the answers to which are of crucial importance not just to the likely course of a hypothetical Clinton administration, but to the future of the United States in the world. These questions concern her record as secretary of state and her attitudes, as well as those of the US foreign-policy and national-security elites as a whole. They are also linked to an even deeper and more worrying question: whether the country’s political elites are still capable of learning from their mistakes and changing their policies accordingly. I was brought up to believe that this is a key advantage of democracy over other systems. But it can’t happen without a public debate—and hence mass media—founded on rational argument, a respect for facts, and an insistence that officials take responsibility for evidently disastrous decisions.
The difficulties that a Democratic politician must overcome in designing a foreign and security policy capable of meeting the needs of the age are admittedly legion. These include US foreign-policy and national-security institutions that are bloated beyond measure and spend most of their time administering themselves and quarreling with one another; the weakness of the cabinet system, which encourages these institutions and means that decisions are constantly thrown in the lap of the president and a White House staff principally obsessed with the next election; an increasing political dysfunction at home, partly as a result of the unrelenting American electoral cycle; a Republican opposition that is positively feral in its readiness to use any weapon against a Democratic White House; a corporate media that, when not working for the Republicans directly, is all too willing to help turn minor issues into perceived crises; and problems in some parts of the world (notably the Middle East and Afghanistan) that are indeed of a hideous complexity.
* * *
Even more important and difficult than any of these problems may be the fact that designing a truly new and adequate strategy would require breaking with some fundamental American myths—myths that have been strengthened by many years of superpower status but that go back much further, to the very roots of American civic nationalism. These myths, above all, depict the United States as—in one of Clinton’s favorite phrases—the “indispensable nation,” innately good (if sometimes misguided), with the right and duty to lead humankind and therefore, when necessary, to crush any opposition.