The Hillary Doctrine

By Matthew Kaminski

Hillary Clinton had quite the African odyssey. On the day she started her ambitious 11-day, seven country tour, husband Bill jetted off to Pyongyang and wrested two American journalists from Kim Jong-Il. Then, after dancing in Kenya, sitting down with Nelson Mandela, and upbraiding various African pols, her rumble in the jungle with a Congolese student was what dominated the headlines back home.

Hillary Clinton had quite the African odyssey. On the day she started her ambitious 11-day, seven country tour, husband Bill jetted off to Pyongyang and wrested two American journalists from Kim Jong-Il. Then, after dancing in Kenya, sitting down with Nelson Mandela, and upbraiding various African pols, her rumble in the jungle with a Congolese student was what dominated the headlines back home.

"My husband is not the secretary of state, I am. I'm not going to be channeling my husband," she bristled in Kinshasa Monday, when a young man in a coat and tie had asked what "Mr. Clinton" thought about some foreign policy matter.

Madam Secretary (as well her husband) had heretofore kept an uncharacteristically low profile. By design, people close to her say. A broken elbow sidelined her as well, leading Clinton biographer and supporter Tina Brown to snipe last month, "It's time for Barack Obama to let Hillary Clinton take off her burqa."

Hearing this line again, Mrs. Clinton breaks out one of her famous laughs. "I thought that was very funny." Again the cackle as immortalized by Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live. "I did."

The Secretary of State sits on the couch in her fourth floor suite at the Cape Grace Hotel here. The open balcony doors let in a fresh ocean breeze and the cawing of seagulls. She wears a turquoise jacket and black pants. Her good cheer comes off as sincere. Of her new job, she says that "I really love it," and at various stops on the continent makes light of her past rivalry with Mr. Obama and—she insists—the end of her own presidential ambitions.

The Africa trip caps a series of recent rollout events: A major policy address at the Council on Foreign Relations, a return to the Sunday interview shows, and an Asian tour. Her elbow better, Mrs. Clinton is trying to define her own voice on the international stage, in her role as chief diplomat for the Obama foreign policy.

Probably no word better describes the administration's own view of its agenda than "engagement" with friends and foes alike. Mrs. Clinton sometimes tacks on the adjective "principled." Of course, on the 2008 campaign trail, she called aspects of the Obama approach "naïve," but that's all in the past. Along with her repeated use of the phrase "smart power," engagement carries the added benefit of suggesting the previous regime in Washington was disengaged, and for that matter stupid. She and her boss will be judged by the dividends the new outreach pays.

The nature of engagement differs from place to place. Here in Africa, Mrs. Clinton brings tough love, lecturing Kenyans and Nigerians on corruption and pushing democracy for Zimbabwe.

"What we're doing first and foremost is reasserting America's interests and our commitment to Africa and our belief that there are best practices," she says, adding the U.S. didn't want to "sugarcoat our concerns." Kenya's prime minister complained of "neocolonialism," but the message went over well with the local media and population, who welcomed the pressure on their corrupt political classes.

Elsewhere, the confident assertion of values gets muted in favor of what Mrs. Clinton called in her Council speech "a more flexible and pragmatic posture." Neorealism is the new hot word in Washington. On her first trip abroad, to Asia, when asked why the U.S. isn't pressing China harder on human rights, she said, "We already know what they are going to say." The administration puts non-proliferation ahead of democratization in Russia and Iran.

Why push human rights and democracy so hard in Africa, I venture, and not in Russia or China? Some see a double standard. "First I think it is important to stress that human rights remain a central driving force of our foreign policy," she says. "But I also think that it's important to look at human rights more broadly than it has been defined. Human rights are also the right to a good job and shelter over your head and a chance to send your kids to school and get health care when your wife is pregnant. It's a much broader agenda. Too often it has gotten narrowed to our detriment."

Mrs. Clinton adds, "we have very strong differences with the Chinese. We have stood up and talked about that and pointed it out and they will continue to disagree with us. We know that." But the administration sees an opening to get closer with Beijing on the global economy, climate change and North Korea—and touts results already.

China for decades shielded their clients in Pyongyang, but Mrs. Clinton credits the administration's "efforts to really expand our engagement" and North Korea's recent missile and bomb tests for a shift in Beijing. "I think that long-time China watchers are quite surprised at the unanimity of support that we have obtained for these very strong sanctions against the regime in Pyongyang. Both in private and in public we know that the Chinese government is putting greater and greater pressure on North Korea," she says. "They've worked closely with us."

She takes the same approach to Russia. Engagement—in this case, "a restart"—is supposed to win a significant power's "cooperation" on non-proliferation in Iran. De-emphasized are the reasons the relationship turned bad, such as last year's war in Georgia and NATO's plans to take in new members from the ex-U.S.S.R., though Mrs. Clinton says "I want to reassure our friends and allies that there are absolutely no tradeoffs" to improved relations ties with Russia.

Unclear is whether the policy is bearing fruit. Mrs. Clinton hesitates to say if the Kremlin is on board to help the U.S. stop Iran from acquiring a bomb, before noting "a very positive framework for our discussions." Can we be sure Russia isn't helping Iran with nuclear and missile technology? She answers in a single sentence: "We know that Russia has shown restraint during the six months we have been discussing this with them." Iran will likely be the acid test of the administration's outreach to Moscow.

In efforts to engage, without preconditions, the world's rogue regimes, the early trial run looks to be Syria. The U.S. is sending an ambassador and high-level delegations to Damascus to try to turn the Syrians. Administrations of both stripes have tried and mostly failed, but Mrs. Clinton isn't discouraged.

"I always start from the conviction that countries act from their own self-interest as they define them. Part of diplomacy is to open different definitions of self-interest," she says. The U.S. wants Syria to help secure the Iraqi border, cease meddling in Lebanon, make peace with Israel, and break with Iran—a not unambitious wish list. "Given what's been going on in Iran and the instability that appears to be present there, it may not be in Syria's interest to put their eggs into that basket," she says. "So we're testing the waters, and I think they're testing the waters. They obviously want to know what's in it for them," such as the lifting of sanctions.

Speaking at a televised town hall in Nairobi, Mrs. Clinton recalled that the U.S. earlier this spring hesitated to engage Zimbabwe, lest it be seen to "legitimize" the regime of Robert Mugabe. But in Iran, the administration kept open and repeated the invitation to sit down with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even as huge post-election protests roiled the country. Mrs. Clinton says she doesn't think the U.S. legitimized the regime or undermined the demonstrators, "because the impetus for change is coming from inside Iran." Addressing the criticism from the left as well as right that the administration should have put efforts to aid the democracy movement ahead of its long-signalled plans to reach out to the regime on the bomb, she says that, "A nuclear-weapons armed Iran is not in anyone's human-rights interests. That is a direct threat to the lives and the livelihoods and the stability not only of the region but beyond."

The September deadline for Iran set by the administration to enter into talks is "not an open window for just delay and kind of rope-a-dope, you have to get somewhere," she says. Mrs. Clinton adds the U.S. is drawing up a list of tougher sanctions against Iran with other countries in case Tehran doesn't bite.

"I think it's important for Iran to know that we're not talking about anything other than change in behavior, a change in actions, that could bring benefits to them." But not a change in regime, at least not with an overt U.S. push. Mrs. Clinton doesn't go beyond offering "vocal support" for democrats, saying "It would not be useful."

So can you trust Mahmoud Ahmadinejad...


...and the mullahs to negotiate in good faith...


…and implement any deal if you do get one?

"No, we don't trust any of them. We would not reach any agreement with the Iranian government that we did not think could be verified by external means."

The experience with North Korea since the Clinton administration struck a deal in 1994 would seem to be a cautionary one for Iran. Mrs. Clinton disagrees. "I think we made progress, then we backslid, then we made some more progress" in North Korea, she says. "I guess I would question the wisdom of the Bush administration reacting to the discovery that there had been cheating on the framework agreement and withdrawing everyone. I think countries test limits, especially countries with the world view like the ones we're discussing. I think it's better to discover their efforts to circumvent the agreements and the limits and then"—she hits an open palm against the arm of the couch—"come down harder. Don't withdraw, don't leave the field. Look at the result of that. They began reprocessing plutonium. That was not in anyone's interest."

The Clinton road show these days is a steady mix of retail politics and foreign policy wonkery. At a low-income housing project outside Cape Town, Mrs. Clinton sang and danced with the Simon Estes Alumni Choir. As she shook the enthusiastic hands of young people lined up to see her, a senior aide remarked, "Back on the campaign..." Except that white wine has replaced Crown Royal and a beer chaser as the drink of choice on this trail.

The speculation about Mrs. Clinton diminished role in the Obama administration is natural and possibly overwrought. To the extent she has been overshadowed by anyone, it is by Barack Obama. Neither Jim Jones at the National Security Council nor Secretary of Defense Robert Gates can rival her celebrity. State seems her preserve. Mrs. Clinton brought so much of her Senate staff with her to the seventh floor suite at Foggy Bottom that auxiliary offices there were commandeered to make space for this expanding HillaryLand. Now she must try to claim ownership over some big-ticket items. China and India, development and possibly Russia are clear interests.

Speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations last month, Mrs. Clinton said, "With more states facing common challenges, we have the chance and a profound responsibility to exercise American leadership to solve problems in concert with others." An aide says the speech sums up her view that the major and emerging powers broadly share America's view of global threats. Washington merely needs to better use "our power to convene" to get everyone to address them.

This emerging Hillary Doctrine, I suggest to her, appears to take an optimistic view of human nature, not to mention Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Communist Party. "I am someone who hopes for the best and prepares for the worst," she says. "I am a realist about the world in which we find ourselves. But I also believe that it's quite remarkable that every country has recognized climate change as a problem." She adds the consensus on nonproliferation, "a few outliers" notwithstanding, and the need to work together to tackle the global economic crisis and on swine flu to her list of shared challenges.

"There are some days when we're dealing with very difficult security issues when you kind of wish, 'Oh man, I wish I didn't know that.' But most days it's about problem solving . . . how do we take the necessary actions to maximize the outcomes that United States is seeking in concert, but obviously first and foremost my responsibility is to my country and the people of my country."

With that, our engagement ends.
Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Journal's editorial board.
The Wall Street Journal