Hard Choices is something of a paradox. On the one hand it shores up the view that Clinton would make a good president – she is a tough, hard-working and very experienced figure. On the other, it is a dull affair. From the point of view of the reader it is an easy decision. Reviewers read Hard Choices so that you don’t have to.So why would anyone persist? It might be firstly to discover any insights Hillary Clinton, having been responsible for US foreign policy for four years as Secretary of State, might offer the rest of us about the prospects for a complex and riven world and, secondly, would the book’s contents reveal anything about her fitness to be 45th POTUS? It soon becomes apparent that Clinton is not aiming to rival Henry Kissinger when it comes to providing a strategic view of geopolitics and that there is some guff to be waded through on the way. Perhaps a bit of folksiness is to be expected of a presidential candidate, but it makes for hard going even on page one:
Why on earth was I lying on the backseat of a blue minivan with tinted windows? Good question.Not really, because obviously:
I was trying to leave my home in Washington, D.C., without being seen by the reporters staked out front. It was the evening of June 5, 2008, and I was heading to a secret meeting with Barack Obama.then on page 2:
By the time of our meeting I had known Barack for four years, two of which we spent debating each other.but on page 3:
We stared at each other like two teenagers on an awkward first date, taking a few sips of Chardonnay.Oh come on! But leaving that sort of thing on one side (and there is more, for example Chelsea’s wedding), the problem a reader of Hard Choices often meets is revealed in this early paragraph, the only one about New Zealand:
[Australia’s] neighbor New Zealand presented more of a challenge. For twentyfive years, since New Zealand prohibited all nuclear vessels from visiting their home ports, the United States and New Zealand had had a limited relationship. However, I thought our long friendship and mutual interests created a diplomatic opening for bridging the divide and shaping a new relationship between Wellington and Washington. On my visit in 20L0, I signed the Wellington Declaration with Prime Minister John Key, which committed our nations to work more closely together in Asia, the Pacific, and multilateral organizations. In 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta would rescind the twenty-six-year ban on New Zealand's ships docking at American bases. In global politics, sometimes reaching out to an old friend can be as rewarding as making a new one. (page 44)Taken individually, none of these six sentences can be faulted – not surprisingly given the high-quality help (an awful lot of it) listed in the Acknowledgements. However, while the element of self-aggrandisement in the second sentence is forgivable in a memoir, up to a point, there is no mention of her predecessor as SecState, Condoleeza Rice, having visited New Zealand in 2008, nor of the Free Trade Agreement the two countries had been pursuing for some time.
At which point it should be dawning on even the most naive of souls that Hard Choices is a sort of grown-up’s LinkedIn entry - all about making the most of what you have done with an eye to what job you want to do next. This model makes some sense of the book’s content but has three inherent weaknesses. Firstly, as in other countries, US foreign policy is based on enduring national self-interest:
America will always do what it takes to keep our people safe and advance our core interests. (page 361)So much of the time, successive Secretaries of State will have to pursue similar and unoriginal objectives. Secondly, Clinton visited many countries as FLOTUS (some as First Lady of Arkansas, between 1979 and 1992) so her account frequently leaps back to long before 2009, leading to daft remarks like:
Since my 1995 visit, Mongolian democracy had endured. (page 63).Thirdly, in certain areas of the world, there have been significant developments since 2013 and she has felt it necessary to add appropriate material. This is the case with the chapter on Russia (see below) which has been supplemented to cover the Crimea/Ukraine developments this year. On the other hand, the latest complexities of Iraq, the self-proclaimed Caliphate and Iran have arisen since printing.
Hard Choices consists of 25 chapters and an Epilogue, grouped into six Parts. Part One, A Fresh Start, is the shortest and covers Clinton’s getting the job and her introduction to the State Department. Part Two of the book, Across the Pacific, addresses Asia and the Pacific following the adoption by the US of the strategic pivot. Clinton shows little hesitation at claiming credit for this concept:
Over four years, I delivered a series of speeches explaining our strategy and making the case for why the Asia-Pacific deserved greater attention from the U.S. government. In the summer of 2011, I began working on a long essay that would situate our work in the region in the broader sweep of American foreign policy. The war in Iraq was winding down, and a transition was under way in Afghanistan. After a decade of focusing on the areas of greatest threat, we had come to a "pivot point." Of course, we had to stay focused on the threats that remained, but it was also time to do more in the areas of greatest opportunity.
Foreign Policy magazine published my essay in the fall under the title "America's Pacific Century" but it was the word pivot that gained prominence. Journalists latched on to it as an evocative description of the administration's renewed emphasis on Asia, although many in our own government preferred the more anodyne rebalance to Asia. Some friends and allies in other parts of the world were understandably concerned that the phrase implied turning our back on them, but we worked to make clear that America had the reach and resolve to pivot to Asia without pivoting away from other obligations and opportunities. (pages 45/46)So it's presumably no accident that the map of the world at the start of Hard Choices has the Pacific at its centre and the Atlantic bisected to left and right. But at the time of reading, with the crisis in Georgia unresolved and Iraq’s existence in doubt, the concept looks a little simplistic. However, these current problems do not lessen the ever-increasing importance of China, and I hoped Clinton’s two chapters within Part Two relating to China to be of value. Unfortunately there is little of real interest. One chapter turns out to be a lengthy, but promptly forgettable, description of the way a Chinese dissident, Chen Guangchen, could have derailed important talks and how this was avoided. I was hoping for some insight into the relationship between the Chinese military, with its rapidly expanding capabilities, and the rest of the Party – is the Chinese hierarchy a monolith, or are there internal tensions? All that is on offer is a reference to:
… more hardline elements in the security apparatus. (page 89)As to another fascinating uncertainty about China – will it be able to break through the $10,000 GDP/head barrier which seems to be an insuperable developmental barrier for some other countries – doubtless Clinton is aware of the issue but she doesn’t address it.
Another chapter in this Part, Burma: The Lady and the Generals, reports Clinton’s visits to Burma (she does not use Myanmar) in 2011 and 2012, with much feel-good stuff about Aung San Suu Kyi. Clinton describes Suu Kyi’s visit to the US in 2012 to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, but somehow forgets to mention that it was awarded during George W Bush’s administration in 2008.
Part Three is devoted to Af-Pak and portentously titled War and Peace as if those possibilities don’t arise elsewhere. There’s plenty about Zero Dark Thirty as it was seen from the White House Situation Room end of the telescope, but nothing about two particular elephants (Elephas maximus indicus, of course) in the Af-Pak room: India’s interest, selfish but no less real for that, in any Afghanistan outcome (for Kissinger’s views, see here) and Pakistan’s custodianship of nuclear weapons.
Part Five being given over to the Middle East, Part Four, Between Hope and History, might just as well have been called Best of the Rest, ie Europe, Russia, Latin America and Africa who get a chapter each, Europe’s subtitle being Ties that Bind. British readers should find pages 207-208 interesting. On David Miliband the adjectives pile up:
David proved to be an invaluable partner. He was young, energetic, smart, creative and attractive with a ready smile. We found our views on how the world was changing remarkably similar.And quite keen on William Hague, too:
We both started off a bit cautiously with each other, but, much to my delight, I found him a thoughtful statesman with good sense and good humour.On David Cameron:
President Obama and Cameron took to each other right off, starting with a private meeting before Cameron’s electoral victory [sic]. They had an easy rapport and enjoyed each other’s company. Cameron and I met together a number of times over the years, both with and without President Obama. He was intellectually curious and eager to exchange ideas about world events, …which does little to dispel Cameron’s reputation as not being able to cope with intelligent women of ability (Hague and Miliband not so, indeed having married them). The French get only a few lines less than the British, Clinton observing of Sarkozy that:
Most leaders are quieter in person than they appear to be on the stage. Not Sarkozy. He was more dramatic – and fun – in person. Sitting in a meeting with him was always an adventure. [etc] (page 209)Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux in SW France and Sarkozy’s foreign minister, is described as a consummate professional. Sarkozy reappears during the Libyan crisis, when Clinton, the Illinois Methodist, encounters “the French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy:
Finally, around 10 p.m., Jibril [Libyan rebel leadership] arrived at the Westin in Paris accompanied by Bernard-Henri Lévy, who had helped arrange the meeting. They made quite a pair, the rebel and the philosopher. Hard to tell who was who. Jibril appeared more like a technocrat than a firebrand. He was small and bespectacled, with thinning hair and a stern demeanor. Lévy, by contrast, cut a dramatic and stylish figure, with long wavy hair and his shirt open practically down to his navel. He has been quoted as saying, "God is dead but my hair is perfect." (To that I'd say, I think God is alive, but I'd love to have perfect hair!) (page 368)Pivoting or not, Clinton, reassuringly for us Europeans, gives pages 211 to 213 over to NATO (remembering Canada is also a member). This leads her on to the EU and then Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, which the US envisages as a European state:
None of our relationships in Europe needed more tending than Turkey, a country of more than 70 million people, overwhelmingly Muslim, with one foot in Europe and one in Southwest Asia. (page 214)Though this section ends:
Erdoğan’s support in more conservative areas of Turkey remains strong. Turkey’s future direction is uncertain. But what is certain is that Turkey will continue to play a significant role in both the Middle East and Europe. And our relationship will remain of vital importance to the United States. (page 218)Later, in the context of Libya, Clinton does not omit:
There were already tensions between Sarkozy and Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan because of France’s objections to Turkey joining the EU. (page 373)I found the chapter on Russia, Reset and Regression, one of the most interesting, ignoring the reset button malarkey. It gives some of the background, “a modern-day version of the “Great Game”, to the Northern Distribution Network used to support the US military in Afghanistan (pages 237-8).
Part Five, Upheaval, is the longest Part and, to my mind, mostly better written than the others. It is worth noting that the first and last of its seven chapters are about Israel and Palestine and could have been combined for an audience focussed on foreign policy. But Clinton, as one might expect of a possible US presidential candidate, has no intention of joining the ranks of Israel’s critics. Related considerations probably led to one of the longest chapters in the book, Benghazi: under Attack, which deals with the death of the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, on September 11, 2012. This is a forensically-written account of events, presumably intended to block off attempts to make Clinton’s responsibilities at the time an issue in a future presidential election campaign. Otherwise, so great are the upheavals in the Middle East that much of what Clinton tells readers about relations between the US and Iran or Syria is being overtaken by events.
The final Part, The Future We Want, rounds up what might be called supra-national, or supra-regional, issues that don’t fit in elsewhere, like human rights and the internet. It seems odd to have put Climate Change and Energy in separate chapters, Energy being addressed alongside Jobs – American ones, primarily. It’s in this chapter, rather than Part Two, that the tensions between the US and China over “state capitalism” are exposed. One of the shortest chapters gets the longest title: 21st-Century Statecraft: Digital Diplomacy in a Networked World. The unsurprising conclusion is that Twitter, Facebook etc are fine and help support “smart power”, a concept which Clinton had “embraced” back on page 23 and “had been kicking around Washington for a few years”, but Wikileaks and Snowden are not.
Then, in the Epilogue on page 595, we come to the crunch: “Will I run for President in 2016? The answer is, I haven’t decided yet”. Not even having a vote in a US presidential election, my views are less than worthless, but I feel after 600 pages entitled to express a view! Firstly, just how effective was Secretary Clinton in terms of gaining domestic political support? Days after her book’s publication, this chart appeared on the FiveThirtyEight website. I’ve added the details of the administrations and Clinton’s term:
However, there is a general pattern here of trust being acquired when in opposition and lost when facing global realities in office.
Secondly, having been born in the same year as Clinton, I feel I can comment on her age. The chart below shows the ages of the US presidents in office since 1913 (notes below):
If Clinton were sworn in as POTUS in January 2017, she would be only a few months younger than Ronald Reagan was when he entered office in 1981. Four presidents in the last 100 years, all male, have lived into their nineties (all being well, Jimmy Carter will be 90 on 1 October this year). So, if her health is good, why not? But some stories in the press, like this one, will need to be countered, and, if I were a US voter, I would be looking for assurance from any candidate, given the demands of the Presidency, that their health was well above the average for their age, sex and class, and rather more than:
Over many years of travel I’ve developed the ability to sleep almost anywhere at any time – on planes, in cars, a quick power nap in a hotel room before a meeting. … (page 47)The same press source quotes Bill Clinton as saying:
[Obama]’s convinced himself he’s been a brilliant president, and wants to clone himself — to find his Mini-Me. He’s hunting for someone to succeed him, and he believes the American people don’t want to vote for someone who’s been around for a long time. He thinks that [Hilary] and I are what he calls ‘so 20th century.’ He’s looking for ¬another Barack Obama.And it’s certainly the case that US presidents often appear as if by magic from some nowhere far beyond the Beltway – as did Bill himself. In the case of the Clintons, will it be this desire for “clean skins” or a feeling that one bite of the cherry is enough, given their current wealth, that will be Hillary’s undoing? Hillary Clinton told ABC News on 9 June:
We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt. We had no money when we got there, and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages, for houses, for Chelsea's education. You know, it was not easy. Bill has worked really hard — and it's been amazing to me — he's worked very hard. First of all, we had to pay off all our debts, which was, you know, he had to make double the money because of obviously taxes and then pay off the debts and get us houses and take care of family members.Well we’d all like to do that, of course, but most of us can’t – except people like “our old friend Tony Blair” (page 30)!
Summing up, I found Hard Choices had its good elements but the omissions that a potential presidential candidate has to make detract from the book’s interest. To have added more on China and Af-Pak would almost inevitably have risked offering future hostages to fortune in the Oval Office, but a discussion of Turkey without any reference to the Kurds seems hollow, particularly by June 2014.
It is, however, salutary for someone who lives in a country which merits four paragraphs in one chapter in one Part of this book to be reminded just how totally global a power the USA continues to be, as the UK once was. The responsibilities of POTUS, even without the domestic burden, are almost supra-human and one has to admire the unusual people prepared to take them on. Nothing in Hilary Rodham Clinton’s book made me think she was unfit for the job, if she wants it, and she’s probably more able than many men have been.
Notes on the Ages chart above
1. The black circles indicate the deaths of former Presidents over the age of 90 (Hoover, Ford, Reagan) and of deaths in office (Harding, Roosevelt, Kennedy).
2. Harding’s successor, Coolidge died in 1933 at the age of 60, four years after leaving office. When they told Dorothy Parker, she is supposed to have asked “How could they tell?”
3. All dates of birth, death and office have been taken from Wikipedia. For dates of birth before 1900 in Excel I used a “quick and dirty” method as before here. As always, please advise any errors.