Hillary Clinton's Bizarre Critique of U.S. Foreign Policy

Is patriotic storytelling really the solution to America's international relations problem?

Frank Polich/Reuters

Tuesday night on The Daily Show, Hillary Clinton showed why she gives a great interview. When Stewart mocked the pretense that she’s not yet decided to run for president, Hillary didn’t stiffen or get flustered. She impishly played along with the gag, displaying a relaxed self-awareness rarely evident during her 2008 presidential run.

On style, she was terrific. It was when the conversation turned substantive that the problems began.

Near the end of the interview, Stewart asked a broad question that ended, “What is our foreign policy anymore?” Here’s the key chunk of Hillary’s reply.

What I found when I became secretary of state is that so many people in the world—especially young people—they had no memory of the United States liberating Europe and Asia, beating the Nazis, fighting the Cold War and winning, that was just ancient history. They didn’t know the sacrifices that we had made and the values that motivated us to do it. We have not been telling our story very well. We do have a great story. We are not perfect by any means, but we have a great story about human freedom, human rights, human opportunity, and let’s get back to telling it, to ourselves first and foremost, and believing it about ourselves and then taking that around the world. That’s what we should be standing for.

As a vision for America’s relations with the world, this isn’t just unconvincing. It’s downright disturbing. It’s true that young people overseas don’t remember the Cold War. But even if they did, they still wouldn’t be inspired by America’s “great story about [promoting] human freedom, human rights, human opportunity.” That’s because in the developing world—where most of humanity lives—barely anyone believes that American foreign policy during the Cold War actually promoted those things. What they mostly remember is that in anticommunism’s name, from Pakistan to Guatemala to Iran to Congo, America funded dictators and fueled civil wars.

Barack Obama has acknowledged as much. He begins the foreign policy chapter of The Audacity of Hope by discussing his boyhood home of Indonesia, a country that for much of the Cold War was ruled by a “harshly repressive” military regime under which “arrests and torture of dissidents were common, a free press nonexistent, elections a mere formality.” All this, Obama notes, “was done with the knowledge, if not outright approval, of the U.S. administrations.” Hillary Clinton, by contrast, in her interview with Stewart, painted the Cold War as a glorious freedom struggle through which America inspired the globe.

For Hillary, America’s current problem is that once the Cold War ended, we “withdrew from the information arena.” As a result, across the world, a new generation no longer remembers the great things we supposedly did in the past, and America has stopped telling them about the great things we are still doing today. Her answer: “get back to telling” the story of America’s greatness, not only to the rest of the world but “to ourselves first and foremost.”

Really? Is America’s biggest post-Cold War foreign policy problem really that we’ve failed to adequately remind others, and ourselves, how good we are? After all, George W. Bush told Americans endlessly that the “war on terror” was another grand American crusade for freedom, in the tradition of World War II and the Cold War. In his second inaugural address and other thundering rhetorical displays, he announced to the world that America would champion liberty far and wide, as in days of old.

The problem isn’t that Bush didn’t tell foreigners about all the good America was doing. It’s that in their eyes, Bush’s behavior massively contradicted his rhetoric. In Iraq, most foreign observers saw America spreading not democracy and freedom, but violence and chaos. In many developing countries, people noticed that their dictatorships were using “antiterrorism” as an excuse to repress domestic opposition, in the same way they had used “anticommunism” during the Cold War. In the Bush years, in other words, America’s problem wasn’t insufficient self-confidence. It was a president whose blind faith in American virtue kept him from seeing what his own government was doing to besmirch it. In 2005, when Amnesty International said American detention policies violated human rights, Bush replied, “It’s an absurd allegation. The United States is a country that promotes freedom around the world.”

If Hillary’s charge that America doesn’t believe sufficiently in its own virtue—and doesn’t sufficiently preach it to the world—was aimed at the Obama administration, then the critique becomes even stranger. First of all, because Obama is the best public spokesperson in American history. Never before has an American president been better positioned—by virtue of his biography, cultural sensitivity, and eloquence—to plead America’s case overseas. The problem is that however much non-Americans admire Obama personally, many don’t see his actual policies—from drones to Guantanamo to spying to Israel-Palestine—as much different from Bush’s.

But the really weird part of Hillary Clinton’s claim that America must “get back to telling” the story of how great we are “to ourselves” is how much it echoes the right’s attack on Obama. Since Obama took office, a parade of conservative politicians and pundits have accused him of insufficient faith in America’s greatness. Mitt Romney entitled his campaign book No Apology: Believe in America. In 2013, Dick Cheney declared, “I don’t think that Barack Obama believes in the U.S. as an exceptional nation.”

For more than five years, the right has claimed the major problem with American foreign policy is that it’s not sufficiently grounded in the belief that America is an exceptional nation fated to lift up humanity by spreading its power, as it did in generations past.

Now, bizarrely, Hillary Clinton is leveling the same critique. Which still doesn’t make it right.