Hillary Clinton argues in our cover story this week, now available online to subscribers, that America is not so much in decline as adjusting to a world of increasingly diffuse power, where like-minded networked individuals, non-governmental organizations and other non-traditional global actors may steer events as much as great power capitals. Clinton lays out “smart power” strategies for protecting and advancing U.S. interests in that new non-polar world.
We argue that Clinton is something of an expert at coming up with strategies for maximizing limited power given her life experiences, including being a First Lady with high visibility but little official swat, and a Secretary of State in the administration of her former rival, President Obama, who makes the final call on most major foreign policy and national security decisions with a small group of aides at the White House—and without Clinton.
The story is told largely through the lens of the very limited war in Libya, which is in many ways Clinton’s war, thanks to her efforts lining up the Arab and European coalitions that fought it. We have some good reporting on her trip there last week, as well as on the internal and external challenges she faced in advancing the cause of intervention. We also lay out the ways in which Libya remains dangerously unpredictable, and underscore areas where her new strategies are more talk than action.
Lastly, we polled her against Romney and Perry, and found that she does better, by far, than Obama, leading Romney by 17 points and Perry by 26*. Her closest aides strongly dismiss any 2012 ambitions and say 2016 is very unlikely: she’d be 69 the day of the vote that year. We don’t speculate on the source of her popularity.
One item that came up in research but didn’t fit with the piece. Clinton has been talking about the limits of power from her first moment on the public stage–her rambling, idealistic speech to the graduating class of 1969 at Wellesley. In it, she refers to her favorite passage from T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker” about trying again and again in the face of resistance. It’s not my favorite poem—I like my inter-war humanism without the religious overlay. But it gives a sense of just how long Clinton has been thinking about power and how to leverage it:
…What there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
*A national poll conducted for TIME on Oct. 9 and 10 found that if Clinton were the Democratic nominee for President in 2012, she would best Mitt Romney 55% to 38%, Rick Perry 58% to 32% and Herman Cain 56% to 34% among likely voters in a general election. The same poll found that President Obama would edge Romney by just 46% to 43%, Perry by 50% to 38% and Cain by 49% to 37% among likely voters.