The Best Defense

In speech, Clinton delivers pep talk about America's continued leadership

Beyond all its talk about a new "global architecture," Secretary Clinton's speech Wednesday morning at the Council on Foreign Relations amounted very much to a pep talk to Americans nervous about their country's relative decline as they watch the so-called "rise of the rest."

Americans are by no means living in a post-American world, and they never will be, according to Clinton. Rather, the world's people look to America to lead:

[T]he world is counting on us today as it has in the past. When old adversaries need an honest broker or fundamental freedoms need a champion, people turn to us. When the Earth shakes or rivers overflow their banks, when pandemics rage or simmering tensions burst into violence, the world looks to us.… And they do look to America not just to engage, but to lead.

For those Americans who might be second-guessing whether the United States has what it takes to thrive and meet the challenges of the 21st century head-on, Clinton proclaimed reassuringly:

I have the most profound faith in our people. It has never been stronger.

I know that these are difficult days for many Americans, but difficulties and adversities have never defeated or deflated this country.… Americans have always risen to the challenges we have faced. That is who we are. It is in our DNA.

And if you still don't get it, Clinton couldn't put it any clearer:

The United States can, must, and will lead in this new century.

In fact, this moment is crucial: Today's "complexities and connections" have brought forth a "new American Moment" that the people of the United States must seize in order to establish "the foundations for lasting American leadership for decades to come." (Hence, the need for the new "global architecture.")

As Clinton brought her speech to a close, she said:

We are a nation that has always believed we have the power to shape our own destiny and to cut a new and better path.

True, the idea that America is the agent of its own destiny is a core element of the American character, but as U.S. debt skyrockets and as large emerging countries, such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the "BRIC" countries), make their weight felt on the world stage, the United States is becoming more constrained in its ability to do what it wants and shape its own destiny. Already, much of the United States' national debt is owed to China, and whoever holds the purse strings holds the power. In fact, in the question-and-answer session after her speech, Clinton admitted that U.S. debt is a "national security threat" and said she found it "very troubling" that "we are losing the ability … to chart our own destiny."

Eventually, in the long run, China and India, with their billion-plus populations, will surpass the United States economically (China's GDP could be $123 trillion in 2040), and with that comes more weight in international relations. Sure, that won't happen for a long while, but Clinton made clear she's working with a long time horizon when she mentioned "lasting American leadership for decades to come."

Perhaps that trepidation about "emerging centers of influence" is what motivated Clinton to call on these rapidly growing countries -- the BRICs, Turkey, Mexico, Indonesia, and South Africa -- to step up to the plate and take greater responsibility:

[B]eing a 21st-century power means having to accept a share of the burden of solving common problems .… [W]e do expect these countries to begin to assume greater responsibility.

And for those emerging countries that don't behave responsibly -- whether it's China with its weak human rights record or Russia with its occupation of Georgia (and though not mentioned, India on carbon emissions) -- Clinton had these stern words:

When these nations do not accept the responsibility that accrues with expanding influence, we will do all that we can to encourage them to change course while we will press ahead with other partners.

Bottom line: Aside from all the talk about "architecture" (which FP's Dan Drezner labels "BS"), Clinton gave her country a pep talk, assuring her compatriots that America would both remain the world's leader despite the rise of the rest and ensure that emerging powers behave responsibly in line with U.S. interests.

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