What would it take for Hillary Clinton to reconsider her knee-jerk American exceptionalism?
In one of the most enduring images from the lead-up to the 2008 Democratic primaries, frontrunner Hillary Clinton appeared in a rogue political ad as Big Brother.
It was a take-off on the infamous 1984 Super Bowl commercial that pitted upstart Apple against Big Blue (IBM) and urged consumers to “Think Different.” In the campaign makeover two decades later, Clinton is intoning political platitudes on a screen in front of an audience of grey worker drones. A young woman races down the aisle, her Obama t-shirt ablaze with color in a black-and-white world, and launches a hammer at the screen. It explodes, and Clinton disappears. The ad is titled “Vote Different.”
Like Apple, Obama styled himself as the younger, hipper, more unconventional alternative to the staid mainstream choice. Obama was so much of an outsider that many believed he’d been born outside the United States, while Clinton, the former first lady, was a consummate insider. He opposed the Iraq War while she voted for it. He embraced “purple America,” while she was as Big Blue as you could get. He was a swirl of different flavors, while she was plain vanilla.
Each of these contrasts broke down on closer examination. But in part because he cultivated this image of a disrupter in the mold of Steve Jobs, Obama went on to win the Iowa primary, the Democratic Party nomination, and the presidency. Hillary Clinton had to content herself with secretary of state.
Seven years later, Clinton is considering another run at the presidency. Once again, she is the dominant brand in the marketplace, the one to beat. Just as IBM borrowed some of Apple’s shine to reconnect with consumers—adopting for example a more user-friendly interface—Hillary will try, if she declares her candidacy, to capitalize on whatever remains of Obama’s popularity to become America’s first woman president. The right, without an obvious candidate to support, has already poured money into efforts like the websiteWashington Free Beacon to disrupt her candidacy. Several potential insurgents on the left—Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders—are waiting off stage.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton consolidates her position. She has just published a thick memoir that is probably the heaviest trial balloon in U.S. political history. Hard Choices offers 600 pages on her tireless globetrotting and her commitment to “smart power.” A scant 20 pages cover domestic issues. As with the memoir, foreign policy will be central to Hillary Clinton’s bid. She will be both running on and against her own record as secretary of state. With the Republican Party pulled ever rightward by the Tea Party, Hillary will also likely position herself right of center in order to attract independents and Republican Party moderates.
It’s not just tactical. Though she has centrist instincts on domestic issues, Clinton ran to the right of Obama on foreign policy during the 2008 presidential primary. She portrayed herself as the resolute hawk to his indecisive dove. As secretary of state, she continued to take more hawkish positions within the administration. In Hard Choices, she emphasizes that not only can she make the hard (not easy) decisions but she’s willing to adopt the hard (not soft) positions on security issues.
She is not about to “feminize” the White House. She truly wants to play hardball with the big boys.
For instance, Hard Choices confirms what newspaper accounts have already covered—that Clinton supported the surge in Afghanistan, wanted to arm Syrian rebels at the outset of the civil war, and favored maintaining ties with Hosni Mubarak in Egypt even after the Egyptian population was overwhelmingly rejecting his rule. In her memoir, she stresses her friendship with Bibi Netanyahu and distances herself from Putin and the reset of relations with Russia. She dismisses the notion that NATO expansion had anything to do with Putin’s grabbing Crimea and salivating over eastern Ukraine. She has little patience for the “imperial overstretch” arguments of “declinists” like Yale historian Paul Kennedy: “It’s never smart to bet against the United States,” she insists.
Given these positions, it is reasonable to believe that Clinton will not only run as a more hardline Democrat but, should she be elected, govern as one as well.
The range of foreign policy options in Washington these days is admittedly narrow. Considered in the broader spectrum of choices from Noam Chomsky to Dick Cheney, the differences between Clinton and Obama might seem relatively minor. The secretary of state was not happy with the deadline that the president imposed for the withdrawal of the troop surge from Afghanistan; she acknowledged the dangers of arming Syrian rebels but was willing to take the risk; she might have been a tad more cautious in engaging with Russia.
But despite the burnishing of her hawkish credentials in Hard Choices, Clinton ends up sounding a great deal like Obama himself. She admits that the war in Iraq was a mistake. She basically adopts the very approach to diplomacy with receptive human-rights-abusing governments like Burma that, during the Democratic primaries, she criticized Obama as “naïve” for embracing. And, in perhaps the most telling similarity, she admits near the end of her book that “we’ve learned painfully that force should be our last resort, never our first,” the refrain that has become the centerpiece of the amorphous Obama doctrine.
So, is the Clinton-versus-Obama divide on foreign policy just a convenient narrative that the candidates used during the primary to distinguish themselves for voters—and that the media adopted because conflict is considerably more newsworthy than concord? If Clinton is not exactly a militarist, Obama is certainly no peacenik (despites the hopes of some on the left that he would suddenly dismantle the military-industrial complex on gaining the White House). His surge in Afghanistan, his Nobel Prize speech emphasizing the necessity of war, his use of drones for extrajudicial murder: these were not departures for Barack Obama. He is a realist nonpareil.
Like Apple, Obama has had a great user interface. His innovations have been largely a question of style (though, in today’s surface-obsessed global culture, innovations in style are not trivial). Like Apple, once Obama became powerful, he fell back on the same old policies of his rivals (indeed, he adopted the drone program and the secret cyberwar against Iran directly from George W. Bush).
The major question, then, is whether there will be any significant shift in U.S. foreign policy if Clinton succeeds Obama. Will the “hawk with clipped wings” fly unimpeded once she achieves a perch in the White House? Or will she stay the course and adopt the same cautious middle-ground strategies that Obama favored? Or, more improbably, will she emphasize the more transformative but unfinished elements of the Obama legacy (détente with Iran, nuclear abolition)?
In the field of technology and innovation, “disruption” has been all the rage for more than a decade. Technologies, we are told, don’t evolve in a smooth linear path of innovation. According to disruptology, change happens in punctuated bursts of upheaval from below as records give way to cassettes, which give way to CDs, which give way to MP3s. As Jill Leporeexplains in The New Yorker, the tenets of disruptology have spread from business schools to other realms of society: universities, hospitals, newspapers. Everyone is looking to reinvent institutions through innovation. Everyone is applying the koans of start-up gurus—disrupt the pattern, failure is good, be like Jobs—to otherwise staid and inertial institutions.
Hillary is no disrupter. She is the same Big Blue she was in 2008. But as Lepore points out, innovation doesn’t just come from the disruptive edges. IBM is still thriving more or less, and that’s not because it’s still selling huge laptops with floppy disk drives. It’s entirely possible that 2016 will be a ho-hum election and U.S. foreign policy will continue unchanged whoever takes office. But here are some possibilities for a more disruptive experience that reorders American politics.
Hillary disrupts herself: Clinton might decide not to run for president. She has seen how difficult the position is from three angles now: first lady, senator, secretary of state. But this is quite unlikely. She is an extraordinarily ambitious politician. She didn’t “stand by her man” in the 1990s just so that she could retire from the game early to be a doting grandmother. The possibility of making history as the first female president is like industrial-strength catnip for a politico like Clinton.
Disruption from the right: David Brat, the Virginia insurgent who unseated Eric Cantor in the recent Republican primary, is the possible future of the Republican Party. The dinosaurs—John McCain, Mitt Romney—have proven incapable of delivering the White House. If the Tea Party doesn’t send one of their own into battle, like Ted Cruz, then they may nevertheless put all of their money and libertarian energy into a wild card who can represent an anti-establishment position far more effectively than Barack Obama, the darling of Wall Street, ever did.
Disruption from the left: With so much money already riding on Clinton—supporters have already raised millions of dollars to incentivize her run—other potential candidates are understandably cautious about entering the race. Some equally centrist politicians are testing the waters, like Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer. On the left Vermont maverick Bernie Sanders is considering a bid. But it’s really only someone like recently minted Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren who has the potential to fire up the base as Obama did in 2008. Only she could pick up the hammer dropped by the Obama team six years ago and once again hurl it at the image of Clinton on the video screen.
She feels the earth move under her feet: Politics is not just about what politicians promise, believe, or plan. Disruptions—and innovation—come from unexpected places, both within established institutions and from newcomers. The Soviet Union was transformed by the one-two punch of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, both career apparatchiks within the Soviet Communist Party. Hillary Clinton could play that role as well—not because she has harbored a wish to shake things up from the start but because she is forced to do so.
There are enough white swans out there to transform the political environment that we don’t even have to introduce a black swan as deus ex machina. China will soon be surpassing the United States in terms of overall economic output, so the global economy will continue to make its not-so-gradual shift eastward. The perils of climate change, largely unaddressed during the Obama years, will present themselves more forcefully to the next president. The overspending on the military will intersect with greater indebtedness to extend the current overstretch to catastrophic proportions.
The last secretary of state to be president was James Buchanan. Since then, we haven’t prioritized diplomatic experience and foreign policy acumen in a POTUS. But Clinton’s experience of working well with others all over the world might just put her in good stead to become a transformative president—not in the sense of transforming the presidency or America’s economy, but in terms of fundamentally altering America’s place in the world. To deal with the white swans—not to mention problems like failed states, nuclear proliferation, global economic inequality, and health pandemics—we need a radically different United States, one that will cooperate with other countries to put the global interest above competing national interests.
Let’s be frank: Hard Choices is full of the typical American exceptionalism that presidential wannabes feel the need to spout. Hillary Clinton will abandon knee-jerk America Firstism only if she is pushed in that direction by the world, by circumstances, and by those of us in the United States who realize that America the over-armed and under-cooperative doesn’t cut it for the 21st century.
Yes, there are other potential presidential candidates out there who get it and could more ably play the role of disruptive innovator. But we should be prepared to be stuck with Big Blue—and figure out ways to move the earth under her feet.