Lost in all the horse race discussion of whether Hillary Clinton should run for president in 2016 is a central strategic point: the foreign policy debate needs her. Leave aside that she is a woman, and other obvious reasons why her candidacy for the highest office in the land would be fascinating and ground-breaking. Rather, of all those who might run, she is best positioned to catalyze debate on the big issues facing the country and the world.
This is not because Hillary was necessarily an historic secretary of state during President Obama’s first term. To be sure, she was supremely competent, diligent, and tireless. She helped America’s image and standing abroad while protecting its core security and economic interests. She vigorously promoted women’s rights, and human rights more generally. But she lacks a signature, defining accomplishment. There was no big Mideast peace deal, or Iranian or North Korean disarmament accord, or brilliant victory in Afghanistan, or turnaround in relations with Pakistan, or climate treaty, or full blossoming of an initially promising Arab spring.
That said, there was one subject where Hillary’s accomplishments are too easily forgotten, and where we need a big dose of what she brought to the table—how to handle the rise of China, and more generally how to sustain the Asia-Pacific “rebalance” in American foreign policy.
This fundamental shift in strategic emphasis was arguably the cornerstone of first-term Obama foreign policy. Through coordinated actions of the secretaries of state, defense, and the treasury among others, as well as various key deputies and under and assistant secretaries like Jim Steinberg, Michele Flournoy, Jim Miller, Kurt Campbell, and Jeff Bader, the Obama administration revitalized America’s role in the fastest growing and most quickly militarizing part of the world. President Obama led the way, to be sure, including during an important trip to Australia and elsewhere in 2011. But it was Hillary’s consistent presence at ASEAN forums and other meetings throughout the region, combined with her steadfast and vocal commitment to the security of key allies and to international maritime norms, that captured the essence of the policy better than anything else. She countered Beijing’s new aggressiveness with firmness, but also with grace and without unnecessary provocativeness.
Unfortunately, much of this positive energy has been lost. Despite valiant efforts by national security advisor Susan Rice in a solid speech last fall, as well as occasional low-key visits to the region by various officials of late, the rebalance is facing headwinds. The challenge goes well beyond the president’s need to cancel his trip to the region last fall due to the government shutdown, or the partial sequestration of the defense budget that is weakening the resource base from which the military components of the rebalance derive, or the slow pace of trade talks under the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Indeed, Mr. Obama did not even mention the new paradigm in his recent State of the Union address. And the priorities of Secretary Kerry in particular are clearly found more in the region of the world that we are supposedly trying to pivot from rather than rebalance towards.
To be sure, and in fairness to the new foreign policy team, it was bound to be harder to say what should come after the rebalance was complete. The first term team had the easier job of simply announcing it as an overdue corrective, and countering those instances where China was too assertive. But the policy is too important to let it wither away, as other matters foreign and domestic suck the available oxygen out of the policy debate.
In one sense, the rebalance was always a sufficiently vague concept that it could be adapted to shifts in available resources and attention from Washington. But in another sense, it was designed to counter exactly that tendency—to take the Asia-Pacific region for granted, and to devote only what resources we could there—a tendency that had been prevalent in the decade after 9/11.
Moreover, whatever one thinks of the rebalance per se, the rise of China is an undeniable and seismic transformation in the international system. If the next American chief executive serves two terms, China’s GDP could quite likely reach that of the United States during his or her presidency, and its military budget could begin to approach America’s. In other words, China will arguably become a superpower on the next U.S. president’s watch. While we bog ourselves down debating Hillary’s role in Benghazi and other matters of second-tier importance, momentous things are happening on the world stage, and we need presidential candidates up to the challenge of wrestling with them.
Enter the former first lady, senator from New York, member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and secretary of state. Hillary has the resume to address an issue of the magnitude of China’s rise. She also has the brain. She has the toughness to cope with the military side of China’s rise as well as the diplomatic credentials to address its enormous and ongoing issues of human rights, environmental policy, and economic fairness. She can do both hard and soft power.
Ok, enough gushing about Mrs. Clinton. Clearly I like her abilities—but that is not the point. Rather, the point is that she has the savvy, the sense of history, and the personal memory of the rebalance’s early phases to ensure that China, and the Asia-Pacific more generally, will be a central part of the next presidential campaign. Other candidates won’t all agree with her. We will have a debate, on issues such as, how much military superiority should the United States seek to preserve over China for the foreseeable future, and how should that affect our defense budget plans? Which new types of confidence building measures and, perhaps, arms control regimes might foster stability in the region? Where if anywhere should new American military bases in the broader Asia-Pacific be considered? How much should Washington try to mediate in disputes between Japan and China, or Japan and Korea?
Perhaps someone will beat Hillary, on the merits of these issues and in the election itself as well. So be it. It seems dubious, however, than anyone else can get these crucial issues and questions before the electorate and the world. For that reason more than any other, I hope she runs.
Michael O’Hanlon is coauthor with Jim Steinberg of the forthcoming book, Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: Managing U.S.-China Relations in the 21st Century.
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Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.
Over the arc of his presidency, Trump has shed himself of cabinet secretaries he doesn’t trust and surrounded himself with loyalists. That will continue and escalate. But the big problem is, he doesn’t know where he’s going.