With a new administration taking office this week, it is natural to assess the inheritance it will receive from the old.
There are some who see nightmares wherever they look and insist that the entire global system is unraveling and that America’s position as world leader is in precipitous decline.
As the departing secretary of state, I cannot claim objectivity. But I will leave office convinced that most global trends remain in our favor and that America’s leadership and engagement are as essential and effective today as ever.
A major reason is that President Obama has restored assertive diplomacy as our foreign policy tool of first resort and deployed it time and again to advance our security and prosperity.
This is evident, first of all, in our campaign to defeat ISIS. Two and a half years ago, these murderers were on the march across Iraq and Syria. Instead of rushing into a unilateral war, we responded by quietly helping Iraq form a new and more inclusive government, and then assembling a 68-member coalition to support a rehabilitated Iraqi military, the Kurdish Peshmerga and other local partners to liberate territory once occupied by Daesh.
We are engaged in a climactic effort to free the largest remaining strongholds in Iraq (Mosul) and Syria (Raqqa). These military steps depended on the diplomatic cooperation we brokered to cut off Daesh’s finances, slow its recruiting and rebut its poisonous propaganda on social media and within the region.
President Obama took office with Iran’s nuclear program racing ahead and our nation under mounting pressure to take military action. While making clear we would do whatever it took to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, we started with diplomacy, building the strongest international sanctions regime the world has ever seen, and testing whether Iran would negotiate a deal that could ensure its nuclear program was exclusively peaceful. As a result, without firing a shot or putting troops in harm’s way, the United States and our partners reached the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which blocked Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon and made our nation, our allies and the world safer.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, the United States could have responded as we had six years earlier, when Russian intervention in Georgia was largely met with rhetoric alone. But having repaired diplomatic ties badly damaged by the Iraq war, the Obama administration was able to defy skeptics by working with our European Union partners to impose sanctions that have isolated Russia and badly damaged its economy. We also bolstered NATO with a major expansion of our security assistance to allies in the Baltics and Central Europe.
Throughout, we continued to work with Russia when it was in our interest to do so. But because we have stood firm, Russia is now — despite the boasts of its leaders — plagued by dwindling financial reserves, a historically weak ruble and poor international relations.
President Obama has made clear to our allies and potential adversaries in Asia that the United States will remain a major force for stability and prosperity in their region. We have rallied the world behind unprecedented sanctions against a menacing North Korea, increased our naval presence in the Pacific, worked with regional actors to support the rule of law in the South China Sea and forged a strategic partnership with India. We also united key partners behind a landmark, high-standard trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that we still believe should be ratified by Congress — all while maintaining an often mutually beneficial relationship with Beijing.
When President Obama took office, efforts to protect our planet from the catastrophic impacts of climate change were going nowhere, stymied by decades of division between developed and developing countries. But our outreach to China led to a series of breakthroughs that made last year the most consequential in the history of climate diplomacy. Building on, rather than backing away from, that progress would allow a historic shift toward clean energy and a chance of saving the planet from the worst ravages of climate change.
The fruits of this administration’s diplomacy can also been seen in our own hemisphere, where we strengthened our position by normalizing relations with Cuba and helped end Colombia’s decades-long civil war. In Africa, we gained friends by training young leaders and led a successful global effort to contain Ebola.
Obviously, we haven’t solved every problem, particularly in the chronically combustible Middle East. But the United States was absolutely justified in stressing the need for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.
I also remain convinced that the formula we pursued to end the agonizing conflict in Syria was, and remains, the only one with a realistic chance to end the war — using diplomacy to align key countries behind establishing a nationwide cease-fire, providing humanitarian access, marginalizing terrorists and promoting Syrian-led talks on creating a constitution and democratic government.
The response of the international community to the tragedy in Syria will long be debated. For years, United States officials had those same debates in the Situation Room. Some options, such as an enormous deployment of ground troops, were rightly dismissed. Others, including deploying additional special forces in limited operations, were closer calls. Month after month, we weighed the deteriorating conditions and uncertain benefits of intervention against the very real risks, including deeper involvement in a widening war. While I did not win every argument — no policy maker does — I can testify that all viable ideas received a fair hearing.
I am not a pacifist. But I learned as a young man who fought in Vietnam that before resorting to war, those in positions of responsibility should do everything in their power to achieve their objectives by other means.
I just returned from Vietnam, where smart and sustained diplomacy has accomplished what a decade of war never could: developing a dynamic capitalist society, opening an American-style university with the promise of academic freedom and, perhaps most improbably, strengthening ties not just between our people, but also between militaries that once saw each other as enemies.
Looking ahead, my hope is that the turbulence still evident in the world does not obscure the extraordinary gains that diplomacy has made on President Obama’s watch or lead to the abandonment of approaches that have served our nation well.
Diplomacy requires creativity, patience and commitment to a steady grind, often away from the spotlight. Results are rarely immediate or reducible to 140-character bites. But it has helped build a world our ancestors would envy — a world in which children in most places are more likely than ever before to be born healthy, to receive an education and to live free from extreme poverty.
The new administration will face many challenges, like every administration before it. But it will take office this week armed with enormous advantages in addressing them. America’s economy and military are the strongest in the world, and diplomacy has helped put the wind at our back, our adversaries on notice about our resolve and our friends by our side.
The New York Times