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Nancy L. Cohen

Nancy L. Cohen

Posted: November 14, 2008 04:54 PM

Hillary Clinton: A 21st Century Choice for Secretary of State


If we shift the angle of vision from the habits we formed during the campaign, Hillary Clinton emerges into view as an inspired choice for secretary of state and a potential agent of transformational change -- exactly what President-elect Barack Obama is seeking.

Obama has a distinctly 21st century view of international relations. As explained by Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker last month:

The Obama campaign started with a big idea about foreign policy: that the great issues of the future, like climate change, terrorism, and pandemic disease, cannot be solved through traditional means of nation-to-nation military and diplomatic dealings.

In other words, a wholesale redefinition of America's national interest and what forces influence Americans' prosperity, health, safety, and security in the 21st century is in the works.

Obama will not choose Hillary to make party peace, nor to bring warmed-over Clintonism into the inner sanctums of the new administration. He will not choose her because she is a woman. If Hillary is the one, she will have been chosen because she has shown visionary leadership on two of the critical international (and moral) questions of our age: climate change and the human rights of women.

Anyone who followed the campaign and the policy debates realizes that Clinton was stellar on climate change and energy independence. (Barring the one foolish gas-tax holiday delusion.) Obama and Clinton share views on the subject, and if anything, Clinton has rightly shown more skepticism than Obama on nuclear power and "clean coal."

Less well known is the fact that Hillary Clinton was one of the pioneers of the principle that women's rights are human rights and that women's status in the world is one of the critical international issues. This feminist principle challenged the once prevailing notion that women's inequality was just women's issue, not something universal. Under that conception of the problem, particular local and national customs -- genital mutilation, the burning of widows, forced marriage of youth, etc. -- denying women's rights were allowed to stand unchallenged.

The change occurred at the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing China. The official Platform of Action enshrined the principle of women's rights as human rights. The victory was a large one, and thousands of women internationally contributed to making it happen. Nevertheless, Clinton's speech at the conference has been widely credited as being instrumental in the movement. (Text and audio here.)

I believe that now, on the eve of a new millennium, it is time to break the silence. It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and for the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights.


These abuses have continued because, for too long, the history of women has been a history of silence. Even today, there are those who are trying to silence our words. But the voices of this conference . . . must be heard loudly and clearly.

Reporting on the speech, the New York Times observed that Clinton spoke "more forcefully on human rights than any American dignitary has on Chinese soil."

There are many supremely qualified candidates for secretary of state who could carry out Obama's foreign policy vision. The Democratic party suffers from an embarrassment of riches. I do not mean to suggest that Clinton is the only acceptable choice. Others legitimately call attention to her record in the campaign (bad), her record and rhetoric on classic international issues (mixed), the experience and prestige she would bring to the position (mixed). We should recall, though, that just a week ago the rumored front-runners for secretary of state were two anti-abortion politicians, one of whom (Charles Hagel) was an influential opponent of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. To those worried about some of Hillary's tendencies I say, perhaps this compromise is less compromising than others Obama could make.

Coincidentally, this week the 2008 Global Gender Gap Report was released, reporting a widening health gap internationally between women and men, and warning of the danger the financial crisis poses to women in particular. What region of the world has the largest gender gap? The Middle East and North Africa. What region poses the biggest challenge to the new administration? As feminists know and have been insisting for over three decades, there is no coincidence here.

By offering Senator Clinton the position of secretary of state, the message President-elect Obama could send to the world about how he views the significance of women's rights would be powerful indeed. It would also -- as strictly icing on the cake -- be a giant step forward in negotiating the peace in the Democratic party's own gender wars.