This past summer I had a week-long vacation to dive deep into Hillary Clinton’s book, Hard Choices. It paints a broad picture of foreign policy and covers a lot of ground — literally, the whole world — which sometimes diluted the subject matter, I think. But I read on anyway. In light of all that’s written about her, I was just curious to hear Hillary Clinton tell her own story. I know that some people must be rolling their eyes at what seems a strategic start to the Democratic nomination for president, but Hillary Clinton is a politician — this is what she does — and I admire both her passion and skill. Here are a few of my general impressions:
- Clinton’s writing exudes a sincere respect for Obama. It seems that the two were genuine collaborators. When she’s not openly expressing admiration for the president, Clinton points out their differences diplomatically — it doesn’t come across as a thinly veiled, aggressive attempt to separate herself in lieu of coming elections. It’s a decidedly non-cynical window into the way American politics works, the matter-of-factness with which Clinton transitioned into a collaborative relationship with her former rival.
- There are instances where Clinton points out traveling to a country, or meeting a leader, or having an encounter in a particular White House Room as first lady, senator, and then secretary of state. You get a sense of the incredible layers to her life in politics, and what it must feel like to suddenly recall a moment, ten years prior, of making history, only to be making new history.
- Clinton writes about how much she enjoyed the non-partisan nature of being secretary of state. You can feel her enthusiasm for the art of international relations as she repeatedly invokes terms like “creative diplomacy,” and tracks the huge number of miles she logged. You get the sense that she enjoyed the adventure of her position, her prerogative to meet leaders face-to-face, fronting her team abroad.
- In general, the book exuded a positive, hopeful attitude. It’s noticeable and significant that Clinton, who is among the most informed people in the world about international affairs and global politics, takes such a practical, affirming point of view on so many topics that are widely impugned by the general public. Obviously Clinton has a vested interested in representing her own accomplishments, but then again, public servants can speak to progress that those of us on the outside wouldn’t even think to appreciate. It reminds of me something I recently read in another non-fiction work, this one about American educational policy, The Teacher Wars. Author Dana Goldstein writes that the status quo in American education, while much maligned, is in reality “concerning,” but not in dire straits. As for Clinton, some folks might criticize her optimism on some fronts — for example, she put a positive spin on the climate change conference in Copenhagen that some poorer, island nations considered a dismal failure.
- Clinton’s humanness also shines through — in this book, she comes across as more the hardworking civil servant versus ambitious first lady or opportunistic senator. She writes about making myriad wedding planning decisions as mother of the bride to Chelsea alongside legitimately “hard choices” in the political arena, of being deeply humbled by her interactions with Burma’s female opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and of the sense of personal obligation she felt to the thousands of employees at the state department. Most importantly, she writes about the outsize effect of building and sustaining personal rapport with world leaders, citing Hamid Karzai as an example of a strong personality who could be appealed to on the basis of personal gestures. The extent of her travels and her push to Obama for face-to-face diplomacy indicates that she took a very personalized approach to the job, placing a high value on conversations between world leaders.
- Hillary Clinton’s decisiveness, the surety and clarity of her opinions, is definitely something that comes across in her book, and it’s a noticeable contrast to Obama’s hedging since becoming president (say I as an Obama supporter). This is demonstrated in her sharp criticisms of Vladimir Putin — she’s not a fan, and there’s no sugar coating, her directness almost makes me laugh. It reminds me of those “who you gonna call” ads from the 2008 race — or at least, that’s how I vaguely remember them. As much as I love me some Barack Obama, Hillary has a swift way of sizing up a situation and articulating a precise course of action, even as she talks about “smart power” or “smart diplomacy,” aka working countries from multiple angles, for example engaging in talks on some issues while placing sanctions or playing tough on others.
- I’m afraid this post is starting to sound like a go Hillary! ad. If you’re not keen on Hilary for President, or you find yourself more dubious than curious about her account of hard choices, I have to say, there is one other reason to shell out the bucks for the discounted hardback and get reading: each chapter is laid out according to the state of world affairs in a different region, and so it provides a sweeping overview of the balance of global powers. It’s certainly not a biography — the “hard choices” paradigm really is a refrain throughout the book, and you really get a sense of how Clinton, among others, engineers the wielding of “smart power” in a global realm of shifting alliances and competing challenges.