09/09/2010 04:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hillary Rebuts the Declinists

Among foreign policy mandarins here and abroad, it's become axiomatic that America must radically downsize its global ambitions to avoid hubris and to match our straitened economic circumstances. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is having none of it.

In a speech this week to the Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton vigorously affirmed the world's need for, and America's capacity to provide, strong global leadership. Even in a multipolar world, she argued, no other nation has the unique combination of strengths necessary to organize collective action against common global problems.

And, at a time when moral relativism has crept into U.S. foreign policy discourse in the guise of realism, Clinton was refreshingly unapologetic in pledging U.S. support for the "universal" values of liberal democracy. As she had done in an important speech to the Community of Democracies in Krakow July 3, she noted that authoritarian governments are cracking down on independent civil society organizations, and she pledged U.S. assistance to embattled NGOs.

Clinton's confident assertion of a "new American moment" is in striking contrast to narrative of U.S. decline now fashionable among global elites. The story goes something like this:

As the Cold War ended, the U.S. found itself the last superpower standing, its system of democratic capitalism triumphant -- and quickly succumbed to hubris. It intervened in conflicts all over the globe, rashly plunged into unnecessary wars, drank the elixir of free market ideology, and in general overestimated its ability to shape events and impose its will on others. Now we are overextended and facing a global backlash against U.S. imperialist pretensions.

What's more, we're broke and can no longer afford to maintain our old position as global hegemon. Meanwhile, economic dynamism has shifted eastward, and the rapid growth of China, India and others is fundamentally altering the world's balance of power.

All this Spenglerian gloom points to an inescapable conclusion: America must retrench strategically. This entails defining our interests more narrowly, shrinking our military, ceasing to lecture others about democracy, and shedding the too-costly burdens of global leadership.

Clinton instead argued essentially for updating the liberal internationalist vision for today's interconnected world. She stressed the need for America to once again be the chief "architect" of cooperative institutions, at both the regional and global level, for providing mutual security and prosperity, tackling underdevelopment and climate change, and defending human rights (with her customary special emphasis on women's equality). Through such interlacing institutions, she said, the burden of providing "public goods" could be spread more broadly.

She also widened the definition of the Obama administration's policy of "engagement." In addition to engaging adversaries and rivals diplomatically, she stressed her determination to engage directly with the people and foreign publics in general.

Less convincing was her account of U.S. efforts to contain Iran's nuclear program. Our engagement with China and Russia, she said, paid real political dividends when the U.S. Security Council last spring passed, "the strongest and most comprehensive set of sanctions ever on Iran. "

True, but Iran's continued intransigence suggests the limits of multilateral diplomacy more than its effectiveness. The underlying assumption that Tehran is eager to be welcomed back into the world community overlooks the regime's self-conception as a revolutionary Islamist theocracy and challenger of the international status quo.

In a curious omission, Clinton had little to say about terrorism amid all the architectural metaphors. While al Qaeda may be holed up in Pakistan, its ideology has spread to affiliates in Iraq and, more recently, in Somalia and Yemen, where the gruesome pattern of suicide attacks and mass murder of civilians is more and more evident.

Containing this ideological contagion is of critical importance to the United States and to its vision of a world order upheld by a growing network of liberal democratic institutions. Let's hope we hear more from the Administration on this subject soon.

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.