Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Clinton Slips on an Easy Question

Last Friday, Secretary of State Clinton was asked if the State Department is taking a softer tone with Hugo Chavez (president of Venezuela). And if the US is doing this, then why?

And in her response (last question on this webpage), Clinton made a significant mistake: 
"So we’re going to try some different approaches. No illusions about who we’re dealing with or what the issues are. But I think it’s worth a try, because what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked very well. And, in fact, if you look at the gains, particularly in Latin America, that Iran is making and China is making, it’s quite disturbing. I mean, they are building very strong economic and political connections with a lot of these leaders. I don’t think that’s in our interest."
This was absolutely unneeded. There is no reason to -- on the record -- explicitly associate America's more cooperative posture toward Latin America with countering the "disturbing gains" that another country is making in the region. Briefly, here are some primary reasons for excluding such language:

1. First, it can be debated whether or not more cooperation (i.e. more aid and economic assistance) between China and countries in L. America is necessarily a bad thing.

2. Even if it were, it goes unsaid. Anybody who cares to know about US foreign policy knows that America would engage more readily with the world in order to have a greater degree of influence. It's implicit. And what is also implicit is that if America has more influence, then other countries necessarily have a lesser ratio of influence. 

3. Clinton herself -- as well as President Obama -- will openly agree that a healthy US relationship with China is and will continue to be one of the most important US foreign policy priorities. Publicly stating, then, that Chinese influence is "disturbing" is counter-productive. It both slaps China in the face and expresses a significant lack of trust of China. This is intensified when China is being compared to Iran, which is far more inflammatory in its rhetoric and deed than China.  

Ironically, Clinton ends her remarks with this: "My bottom line is: What’s best for America? How do we try to influence behavior that is more in our interest than not? And that’s how we’re looking at it."

I would turn the question back on her. Apparently, her behavior and her bottom line are misaligned.

Let's hope the Chinese overlook this one... 


  1. Hey Kev, thanks for pointing this out, and I think you're definitely right that it's not common that a SecState would be so blunt with comments like this.

    First and foremost, I interpret it as a domestic political CYA move to help protect Obama from right wing criticism about cozying up to anti-American dictators. Even though it seems like most Americans are open to and supportive of a new stylistic approach towards Venezuela (and Iran), public opinion is fickle and his administration has to be careful not to let a storyline set in that Obama's being overly nice to dictators with nothing to show for it. In my view, this is a justifiable political concern, since if he gets painted that way (naive or weak) that will make him less effective in other policy areas where his personal appeal to voters is crucial to moving Congress. If it weren't for the big smile during the handshake with Chavez and the silly book Chavez gave and Obama accepted, I doubt Clinton would have made this statement.

    I think Chinese diplomats will view it as a statement mainly directed towards a US domestic audience. Also, they know that the US has traditionally been protective of foreign influence in L America and thus hopefully wouldn't interpret Clinton's comments as overly negative towards them but rather part of a typical American response to growing outside influence in the region from a country that's not a close ally of the US. I don't think generally including them in such a statement signals disrespect for China (although grouping them with Iran is problematic). Let me be clear here to say that I would heavily critique a lot of the assumptions behind and content of the Monroe Doctrine, so I'm not endorsing that at all, but rather just saying that the US has historically acted in a certain way so I think that China would consider this to be a part of that pattern rather than a sharp signal against them.

    In terms of the effect on the US of increased Chinese influence in L America, I think it's a mixed bag, similar to the effect of growing Chinese influence elsewhere. On the one hand, since many L American countries are major trading partners with the US, if they grow richer from trade with China (bc China has built them new infrastructure, invested there, etc - although it's not totally clear to me yet whether most countries there reap a net benefit from the relationship) then that will be good for the US. That will mean richer ppl in those countries will probably import more products from the US. If the resulting growth is evenly spread, that will lead to greater stability in those countries, which is good for other countries in the region, including the US.

    On the other hand, as one of the panelists at the Junior Fellows Conference - which was amazing!! Big congratulations on that!! - I believe Jose Ocampo said, many people in the West have not noticed that China has been building more political alliances in Africa, which enables it to swing more weight at the UN. If China were to gain substantial support from Latin America in forums like that this could come at the expense of US influence in areas where the US disagrees with China. Thus, I think the US should be mindful of potential negative outcomes like that. However, I think "disturbing" overstates the case somewhat and is not the word I'd use. I agree with you that it's inappropriate and unfair to put China in the same sentence as Iran in that context, given the differences you laid out. Not to mention that in my view Iran isn't really making inroads into Latin America except in limited ways in Venezuela and a couple other countries whose presidents are in some ways Chavez's cronies (Nicaragua and Bolivia).

    I think a statement like the one Clinton made was important for domestic political purposes, although it should have been done differently, esp. not with China and Iran in the same sentence or category. I don't think it will hurt our relations with China as long as Clinton doesn't keep repeating it (which I don't think she will since the domestic purpose has been accomplished). Maybe I'm wrong in how China will interpret it, and I'm curious to see if there's a response from them on this.


  2. Hey Andrew,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    domestic explanation re: I don't think Clinton or Obama are worried, at this point, about appeasing right-wing criticism. Only a small portion of the electorate is really against him staunchly, and they are far more focused on economic issues than US engagement with Chavez. Furthermore, staunch liberal idealists (i.e. people who strongly oppose working with undemocratic regimes at any cost) would be more concerned with cozying up to dictators, not "rightists".

    Relatedly, it is perfectly viable for Obama to avoid looking "weak" through a similar explanation by Clinton about the need to regain US influence. But again, I stress that -- if this is the goal -- countering other countries' influence is *implicit*. It does not need to be stated. By stating it, there are now public statements from which Chinese officials can draw if they see fit.

    traditional US influence in L.America re: Monroe Doctrine or no, this is precisely the problem. America is fighting tooth and nail to maintain its influence in the Asian Pacific amidst an increasingly powerful China, but at the same time, the US is "disturbed" when China spreads its influence into the US "sphere". Therefore, next time there is a spat (like the recent one in the South China Sea) between US/PRC naval vessels, Chinese officials now have the logical ammo to talk about the "disturbing" quality of US incursions in China's backyard (and in the case of the South China Sea, it really *is* China's backyard). So by using the language Clinton has utilized, there is the real potential of more fiery rhetoric in the future b/c Clinton had openly expressed a distrust of Chinese motives.

    Finally the actual effects of Chinese influence re: this is certainly a highly debated topic in the foreign policy community. The operative question being: what are China's intentions? My view: China's foreign policy is driven primarily by two mechanisms. 1) A need to sustain high economic growth for the Communist Party's domestic legitimacy. (This includes the need for increasing amounts of energy, which sends China to countries all over the world -- including L.America for oil and gas.) And 2) A desire to be viewed as a global power and wield the corresponding influence. China wants to be able to have more say -- like any country -- in representing its interests in international rules/norms. This is *not the same* as China wishing to overthrow the international order. In fact, the reason China wants more say in the *current* order is because it already has a stake in this order succeeding (for its own interests); at this point; China is too interconnected with so many other states economically and politically.

    Does this Chinese desire to have more influence the international community threaten US interests? Not if the US convinces China that its interests are similar to America's interests (i.e. a stable Africa and L.America, or sustainable business practices). Or not if the US positions itself to benefit from Chinese inroads (i.e. cooperating with Chinese Chinese businesses to get access for US businesses). This is where America's foreign policy matters *most*. And this leads me back to my original point: if benefiting from China's future growth is such an important priority, then Clinton's rhetoric is, at best, unneeded. At worse, it is counter-productive.

  3. Hey Kev,

    In terms of the domestic political aspect, I think Obama may be concerned with the right-wing criticism (weakness, naivete). Not so much that the critics themselves are unhappy but that their critiques might solidify into a storyline if a couple more events in the future feed into it. I think one of the general Democratic neuroses is to not be seen as a "Jimmy Carter"-like figure who (the argument goes) shows inconsistency and weakness. And you probably remember that Obama in particular on the campaign trail showed a much greater tendency than other politicians to address criticisms of him right when they came out rather than waiting (with a few exceptions). He'd often spend 10-15 minutes doing this at the beginning of rallies. Some say that this tendency has contributed substantially to his "teflon" Reganesque public opinion quality, and I would agree with that.

    You make a good point on the South China Sea spat. On the one hand, the US could argue that we've been going through there for decades ("it's 'always' been this way") and strong allies nearby want us in the region. However, this may be a flimsy argument and China can rightly point out that it's somewhat based on a double standard. As China gets stronger, I imagine US warships will have to show greater respect for the water immediately around China, while maintaining positions not too far from Taiwan. At the same time, the US can viably argue in my view and I'm sure will defend its privilege to keep warships near Japan, Korea, etc and near other parts of Asia. I don't think comments like this will affect that larger picture too much since China will want more military influence in its immediate area no matter what.

    I pretty much agree with what you wrote China's overarching int'l policy goals are. And I also agree it's a very good thing that China has a strong vested interest in the current int'l system, and that the US to some extent needs to let it continue to find a place in the system that's consistent with its economic heft. And that the US should make strong efforts to ensure that US-Chinese interests continue to converge, including in the economic ways you mentioned. However, at the same time we have to recognize that even in the case of Europe, the region with which the US shares the greatest convergence of interests, there are still important areas where we disagree. In the best case scenario in our dealings with China over the long-term maybe we can hope that our interests will converge with them to an extent approaching those with Europe. Even so we would want to maintain our influence where we can to protect our interests in areas where they diverge from other countries'. If Europe was one country we'd surely be a lot more concerned about its influence in L America, and so we should be with China. It's a fine balance between doing this and overly-hedging against or being overly threatening towards China. I don't think we necessarily crossed that line with Clinton's comments, although I do think she should be more careful about not lumping China with Iran in the future.


  4. Also, in terms of the "implicit" aspect of saying that the US needs to regain influence in L America I don't know if that's one that would really resonate with most Americans. I think a lot of people take our influence there for granted and may not realize that it's been sapped somewhat - not including Chavez and Castro, which many people would probably say "whatever" to. So it probably needs to be spelled out for some people why it's important to re-engage, especially with leaders who have traditionally been anti-American like Chavez. I think you're right that the argument of building US influence relative to that of other countries with growing influence in the region is implicit when ppl who closely follow foreign policy and foreign diplomats hear it - dog whistle style; and I'm calling myself a dog here to be clear lol - but average Americans might not get that part implicity. Many Americans may not be aware of the growing influence of other countries in the region. Spelling this out makes it perfectly clear that it's not just talk for talk's sake.

    As you know, foreign policy toughness has over the past decade often been an issue that Republicans used to batter Democrats. For now, the ball is in the Democrats' court, but I think Obama's smart to innoculate against the potential re-emergence of that argument.