02/01/2013 03:55 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Hillary Clinton's Message: Lead With Values

Hillary Rodham Clinton bids farewell today to the State Department, where she has served with a stunning mix of skill and will. Yesterday, at a valedictory speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, she painted a panorama of a world that is complex, shifting, dangerous, and difficult. But the conclusion was upbeat and optimistic. The United States, she said, is the indispensable but not the perfect nation. Those who see America in decline are simply dead wrong: the best lies ahead. We make mistakes but we learn (though sometimes it takes time). Above all, the essential qualities of our nation, our core values, are what we need to lead in these demanding times.

Listening with an overflow crowd, I left with three forceful messages and a lingering question.

Perhaps most of all this was a speech about values. Hillary Clinton returned time and again to the ways in which America's power and responsibilities must be tied inextricably to America's core values, in every domain: economics, military power, human rights, climate change, and so forth. She anchored America's values in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our core values are universal values, she said, and we need to be forthright in presenting our power and our interests in that light. These values lie behind the goal of a global, rules based order. As the levers of power change, with technology and a multitude of new actors, it is values that must be our compass for action. And America must be far more forthright in presenting, defending, and promoting our values. We need, from all sectors of society, to be "in there" every day with our story, stories that reflect our interests but above all our values.

Clinton did not present the values in religious terms. Religion came in only twice. In advancing universal rights she coupled the importance of pushing the new frontiers -- and specifically LGBT rights -- with the importance of defending the rights of religious minorities, "everywhere." The second mention was to stress freedom of belief and conscience, this time coupled closely with freedom of expression. Yet her undercurrent was more spiritual than material, and a deep faith in the deep meaning of values was interwoven in every line of the speech.

In her vision of a devilishly complex world, Clinton did not shy from complexity: it's a false choice to hold that either hard or soft power must dominate. It's about both. The world has changed. After World War II, Acheson and Truman faced a world that was rather like the Parthenon. The lines were clear and clean. There were just a few, visible pillars that supported the system. Today, the architecture is "more Gehry than Greek," seemingly chaotic and scrambled but with a new, richer logic. And the complex world puts more focus on the values that define America, among them valuing diversity, listening to different voices, constantly seeking new opportunities, and creativity. During the Cold War, the gulf in values (between Communism and freedom) seemed stark and clear. Today's gulfs are still there, but they are more complex. The end of the Cold War made us lazy in presenting what we stand for. That needs to change.

Women's rights are the "unfinished business for the 21st century." Hillary Clinton has never hesitated to make clear that women's rights are a priority, but in this speech she seemed determined to be sure that her legacy here sticks. The evidence, she stressed, is irrefutable that engaging women fully is what makes a society and a nation strong. Women need to be part of every domain, including peacebuilding and economics, everywhere. She noted with pride that President Obama on Wednesday made the position of women's Ambassador in the State Department permanent.

Hillary Clinton's challenge here calls for real reflection. It's far easier to speak about women's vital roles than to make that a reality, where including women everywhere, on all issues, is seen as a necessity, not an option. Whatever Hillary Clinton does next, we can predict with certainty that women will be part of it. And it's exciting that Ambassador Melanne Verveer will lead a new institute at Georgetown University whose goal is precisely to provide the impetus and the rigorous knowledge needed to keep the topic right at the top of the international policy agenda.

Equality was a central theme of President Obama's inaugural speech last month, mostly in an American context. The word came rarely if ever into Hillary Clinton's speech, leaving me pondering why. Women's rights are indeed about equality and, given the raw power of numbers, arguably the most important issue, by a long shot. But the world's deep inequalities are a challenge for diplomacy, development, and defense. Inequalities are both about realities -- the yawning gap in what the likely future holds for a child born in poverty in Cambodia or Guinea and a child born in America -- and perceptions. Equality and fairness are part of the American arsenal of values. Clinton's silence on the issue suggests that we have work to do to articulate what equality means, internationally as well as nationally.

Clinton's achievements are monumental, and they include a sweeping new vision of American foreign policy, one that pushes the meaning of values, that puts women at the center, and one that accepts a Gehry complexity of architecture. She conveyed an unambiguous sense of responsibilities and confidence in our capacity to meet them. Can't wait for the next chapter in the still blank pages of the Book of Hillary.