The First Full Day

This is it, the first full day of a new administration in the United States. The country today wakes up to the leadership of the 44th president, for the first time an African- American, and for the first time in eight years a Democrat. We will finally find out what President Barack Obama's many eloquent calls to national service, to sacrifice and to national unity will mean in practice here at home and in his foreign policy.

As far as foreign policy is concerned, Secretary of State designate Hillary Clinton's confirmation testimony last week gave us some indication where the new administration is planning to go. (In foreign affairs, you always need a caveat, as events have a way of interfering with the best laid plans. George Bush's foreign policy changed about 180 degrees after September 11).

In some ways, its direction has a familiar Clintonesque ring to it, in some ways not. The contrast with Bush policy as articulated by Mrs. Clinton is clear in principle. It remains to be seen how far this will translate into practice. One of the familiar themes struck repeatedly by Mrs. Clinton was the need for a multilateral approach to global affairs.

"We should ... use the United Nations and other international institutions whenever appropriate and possible. Both Democratic and Republican presidents have understood for decades that these institutions, when they work well, enhance our influence. And when they don't work well - as in the cases of Darfur and the farce of Sudan's election to the former U.N. Commission on Human Rights, for example - we should work with likeminded friends to make sure that these institutions reflect the values that motivated their creation in the first place."

It will be interesting to see by what means the Obama administration plans to hold the U.N.'s feet to the fire to reflect its founding principles. This is no small task and was tried repeatedly with modest success by the Bush administration.

International treaties will be back on the front burner. There is the START Treaty with Russia that expires in December 2009; the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has been faltering under the pressure from aspiring new nuclear powers like Iran and North Korea; and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would eliminate the potential for the United States to test the effectiveness of its nuclear arsenal. Mrs. Clinton also spoke of reviving negotiations on a verifiable Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.

Another theme struck repeatedly by Mrs. Clinton was the use of 'smart power.' The idea is reportedly to integrate all the tools of power at the disposal of the U.S. government. As Mrs. Clinton put it, "We must use what has been called "smart power," the full range of tools at our disposal - diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural - picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be in the vanguard of foreign policy."

Somehow one has the feeling, though, that military power is the one tool that will be missing from this package. Mrs. Clinton called it "a last resort," which is something that terrorists and antagonists of the United States will be encouraged to hear.

The one cause that Mrs. Clinton did not discuss much, which was central to President Clinton's foreign policy and to that of President Bush as well, was the promotion of democracy and human rights. As Bill Clinton put it in his 1994 State of the Union address, "Ultimately the best strategy to ensure our security and to build durable peace is to support the advance of democracy elsewhere." For many Democrats since then, spreading democracy became a dirty word as they opposed the Bush foreign policy.

As noted by Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt on Monday, Mrs. Clinton spoke about every other cause under the sun, from women's rights to healthcare to building alliances. In an answer to The Post, when quizzed on his view of democracy, Mr. Obama expanded on Mrs. Clinton's comments, explaining that promoting democracy "has to be a central part of our foreign policy. It is who we are. It is one of our best exports." But he also stressed that elections do not democracy make, that building institutions has to come first.

This is actually a reasonable approach to democracy building, if only some will make sure that the cause itself does not get lost in the details as Democrats try to distance themselves as far as possible from the legacy of George W. Bush.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times