Q&A: Hillary Clinton on Libya, China, the Middle East and Barack Obama

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Diana Walker for TIME

TIME Managing Editor Richard Stengel speaks with United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

TIME Managing Editor Richard Stengel accompanied Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her recent trip to Libya, Oman, Afghanistan and Pakistan. On Oct. 19, in the course of reporting for TIME’s cover story, which is now available online to subscribers, he conducted a wide-ranging interview with her, discussing among other things, the Middle East, China and American exceptionalism. A transcript of most of that conversation follows.

Well, thank you so much for this. Let’s start with the trip.


So I thought your remarks in Libya were very upbeat, very optimistic. Is what we did in Libya, is that a model for U.S. engagement going into the future?

Well, let me just take a step back and put Libya into a context that I think answers the question. Part of my mission has been to make it clear that American leadership was back. What I found when I became Secretary of State was a lot of doubts and a lot of concerns and fears from friends, allies, around the world. And so part of what I have tried to do as Secretary of State is to reassert American leadership, but to recognize that in 21st century terms we have to lead differently than the way we historically have done.

(COVER STORY: Hillary Clinton and the Rise of Smart Power)

And it might seem a little bit unusual at first to understand that my goal is to assert our leadership in the most values-centered way, using the new tools and techniques available for diplomacy and development, so-called smart power, to build more durable coalitions and networks of which we are — into which we are imbedded. And it is one of my goals that we will have, to a significant extent, changed the way we do business and more smartly align our leadership needs today with the way that we assert our power.

So that means going to Asia first because that’s the land of opportunity, not just the land of threats. And obviously, the previous nearly a decade was focused on threats and dangers, understandably so, and we can’t let our attention deviate too far. But we have to be looking at opportunities in areas, particularly for leadership, economic development, et cetera, and we have to be thinking differently about how we lead.

So that takes me to the Arab Spring, the Arab Awakening. Libya gave us a chance to demonstrate what it means to really put together a strong commitment led by the United States, make no doubt about that, but fully participated in by not just our usual allies, but new allies as well. And taking the time to construct that, which we did, I think strengthened our position. But as you saw yesterday, there’s no doubt in Libya’s mind that we were there for them and we provided the leadership that they needed in their fight for freedom.

So as we look at how we manage the Arab Spring, we are trying to influence the direction, with the full recognition that we don’t have ownership and we don’t have control. And there’s a lot that’s going to happen that is unpredictable, but we want to lead by our values and our interests in ways that, regardless of the trajectory over the next decade, people will know the United States was on the side of democracy, on the side of the rule of law, on the side of economic opportunity, on the side of rights for all, in particular women. And that will, I hope, be a strong antidote to the voices of either fatalism or extremism…

And we did a lot in our response, starting in Egypt and Tunisia and certainly in Libya, that was tailored to each individual situation, but which I believe set a good template for how we want to be of assistance, recognizing the limitations of what we can achieve.

Do we need a new language for American leadership? Because after the intervention in Libya, the President was criticized by some people, Republicans, of leading from behind, using that phrase. We’re so used to the U.S. is the number one kind of language. Do we need some other way to talk about this?

I think that’s an interesting question. I reject the premise, obviously, because I think we are quite out front in leading. If not for us, there would have been no Security Council resolutions. If not for us, there wouldn’t have been the kind of muscular military intervention that got the job done. If not for us, I don’t think it would have turned out the way it did. But I also believe we are the stronger for demonstrating unequivocally that we’re not only still leading, but we’ve got people who are going with us.

(PHOTOS: Inside the TIME Cover Photo Shoot with Hillary Clinton)


I think one of the big questions that I certainly faced becoming Secretary of State is: okay, we’re ready to lead, are there others ready to be there on whatever agenda we are seeking? There was a lot of broken pottery, so to speak, in our relationships and a sense of turning inward or assuming that we were not going to be fully engaged, let alone fighting for leadership. The economic crisis got a lot of people wondering whether we would ever come back.

So I think that’s maybe a clever turn of phrase, but I think this is the point: that we’re living in now today, a much more networked, multipolar world. Now, there are those who may wish to reject it and deny the reality, but I’m not one of them. My feeling is if you’re going to be a leader, you have to carefully assess where people are and where people want to go. And if that is in line with what you believe, then great; you can move in that direction and bring people along. If you’ve got people who are moving away from you, if you’ve got people who are choosing a different path, then you have to use all the tools of your suasion to try to convince them that the path that you wish to follow is also the one that is in their interest as well. We’ve done a lot of that in the last two and a half years.

You may reject the premise of this question, too. But ever since — even since your speech at Wellesley … about limits to American power, that has been something you continue to talk about as Secretary of State. How — in what ways is American power more limited now than it was when you were a senator, when you were a first lady, even going to back to when you were at Wellesley?

Well, I think, by definition, all power has limits. I don’t think there is such a thing on this earth as absolute power; and those who try to exercise it, like Gaddafi, find out eventually that that is a Potemkin village when it comes to the exercise of power and leadership. So our country — we have always had budgetary limits. Now they’re perhaps more constraining than they were before, so we have to be smarter. We can’t do the Marshall Plan, so how do we zero in on what’s important to people? As I heard over and over again in Libya yesterday: help us take care of our wounded; that’s a way of helping us heal our nation. Why don’t we zero in on that and deploy resources in ways that get results?

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We are limited in the geostrategic context because other countries are rising. That’s a historical fact. It’s happened at different points in history. But I don’t view that as in any way a limit on our power. I view it as a challenge to how we can better exercise our power for the advancement of American security, interests, and values.

So we can’t wave a magic wand and say to China or Brazil or India, “Quit growing, quit using your economies to assert power now in the global economic realm.” That’s ridiculous. And I don’t know that any country ever just did American bidding. We always led with our values, and the idea that, unlike most other leading nations in history in the world, we weren’t out to build an empire, we were not out to impose an ideology on the unwilling. We happen to believe that we best represent the full flowering of the human potential, and therefore, we want to exemplify it, we want to stand for it, and we want to lead toward it.

So have we always had constraints? Yes. Of course, we’ve always had constraints. The constraints change as the times change, and that requires leadership on our part that keeps thinking about tomorrows. How do we throw our interests and our needs into the future? The future preference has to be who we are, and the greatest threat to us as a nation is that we start looking both inward and backward, and that we begin to doubt ourselves, and that we don’t even believe as much in ourselves as others still believe in us. And I think that since I am so completely imbued with that sense of American exceptionalism and the conviction that we are called upon to lead, then it’s up to us to figure out how we position ourselves to be as effective as possible at different times in the face of different threats and opportunities.

You’ve talked about that we’re entering this participation age, and in terms — and move beyond the notion of limits to American power, but there is a new — because of social media, because of technology, there seems to be a new relationship between citizens — I think governments, citizens, and each other. Is that a net positive for the U.S.? And if so, why? And how do we exploit that?

I think it is a huge net positive for us. One of my goals upon becoming Secretary of State was to take diplomacy out of capitals, out of government offices, into the media, into the streets of countries. So from the very beginning in February of 2009, I have tried to combine the necessary diplomacy of government meetings, of creating structures in which we enhance our participation government-to-government with people-to-people diplomacy. Because given social media, given the pervasion now of communications technologies everywhere, no leader is any longer able to ignore his people.


What was possible for autocrats and dictators in the past, no longer is. You have to have to be conscious of what is bubbling below. And so for me, it’s this top- down, bottom-up combination, because if people have a good feeling about or understanding of who we are as Americans, that influences what a leader who is inclined to work with us is able to do, and it also sends a message to those who are not.

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So for example, when we began doing this, and we did town halls and we did these interviews in front of audiences and we did a lot of outreach to people and gave them a chance to question me, I did it against the backdrop of polling data that showed the younger generation in the world in many regions, Asia for example, was really not that familiar with what we had done in the time I was growing up, that we were not messaging to huge parts of the world during the previous eight years.

And again, I’m not making a judgment or a critique. It’s just a fact that there was not the kind of who’s America, what is America. And Barack Obama and my election really captured people, and then President Obama’s election was a very big signal to young people. And so when I started traveling, there was a real curiosity because we were, frankly, quite concerned about global polling data that showed not that people were negative toward us, but kind of indifferent toward us.

After 9/11, we shut down our visa system, we made it much more difficult for students from everywhere to come to school in the United States. And other countries began filling that void. They began going to Australia or China or Europe or somewhere else. And so the familiarity, the exchanges that had been a hallmark of who we had been for so long in our foreign relations, had really fallen to the wayside.

So yes, the idea that we have to communicate directly to people is now, I think, a given. And when I commissioned the first ever review of our diplomacy and our development, called the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, the so-called QDDR, there was a heavy emphasis on how we do our work differently, how do we use social media.

When I got to the State Department, I mean, we weren’t even using Blackberrys to any great extent. We were just not using 21st century communication tools. Some of it was because people weren’t sure how they could be secure and all of that. But the fact is, we began to push our message out on Twitter feeds and Facebook and all kinds of outreach. And we also began to say to especially our young Foreign Service officers, “You know what, get out there and talk.” Because of 9/11, we began pulling inward. Our embassies were fortresses. We don’t have the American Corners and centers that we used to have in the abundance that people could walk in and learn about America.

So we said we’ve got to do this differently. Where do people go? So we put an American Center in the biggest mall in Jakarta. And at first people said, “Oh, my gosh. What does that mean?” Well, it means that we’re going to take America’s message to where people actually live and work.

You mentioned yourself being an American exceptionalist. Is the President an American exceptionalist in that same way? And how does that — does it manifest itself differently, and how does it show abroad?

Well, I think that the President is an American exceptionalist almost by definition. He exemplifies American exceptionalism. But I think he also governs with that belief as well. He has a deep respect for other people’s opinions and their own values of their culture and their history, which I think makes sense, because if you’re going to work with people, you need to know where they’re coming from and not just assume you can assert your own position. And I think that what captured people about his election was that they knew nowhere else in the world could that have happened than the United States of America.

(PHOTOS: Behind the Scenes with Hillary Clinton)

So you don’t have to go around wearing a big sign, which says, “I am an American exceptionalist.” You just merely show up, and it is — the medium is the message, so to speak. And I think I was struck by my early travels, where one of the most common questions I kept being asked, especially in the audience of young people at universities and elsewhere, is: How could you work with President Obama? You ran against him. Because still in democracies, even ones that we think of as fairly mature, that was just a totally bizarre idea that two people who were political foes could ever end up working together. So that also was a subtle but significant message of American exceptionalism.

And my answer always was: Yes, I mean, we ran hard against each other. He tried to beat me, I tried to beat him. But he won, then he asked me to work for him. And I said yes because we both love our country. So I think that that message resonated with a lot of people and, again, I would stress particularly young people.

If you look at what’s happening in Egypt now, regular people saw this as sort of a sweetness and light revolution. Now [people] look at Egypt and say, well, they’re transferring from one military government to another. If you had to play out the Arab Spring, not just in Egypt but elsewhere, how do you see it going? Do you see it as a world historical shift?

I do see the latter. I think it is a potential historical shift. I’m kind of a — or at least certainly I can’t say I predicted it, but having worked in the area for many years, it was unsustainable. And I gave a speech in Doha in early January in which I said that the sands were shifting, that, in fact, the institutions were going to be falling. And people said, oh, that was so prescient of you. It wasn’t prescient. It was after the Tunisian vegetable vendor. But it was reflective of the recognition that in this new age of participation, in this new age of accountability and instant communication, it is going to be harder and harder for leaders to be autocrats in the way they used to be.

Now, there’s going to be a lot of them left in the world, and it’s going to take a long time for this to evolve, so I don’t think that we should get really excited and expect some miraculous transformation overnight. That’s not the way historical trends, in my opinion, unfold.

So I don’t know exactly how this is going to play out. And much of it will depend upon whether the forces that were at work initially in Tunisia, in Egypt, are able to organize themselves and figure out how to translate their aspirations into actions.

That’s true in any revolution or any great movement. Because often what happens is that the revolutionaries, so to speak, the people of the Tahrir Squares of the world, they open the door, but they’re not the ones who really have the expertise or the know-how, has to organize to take advantage of what comes next. Organized forces — forces, whether it be militaries or Islamic groups that are already institutionalized in a society, are much better poised to take advantage.

So I think there will be a lot of give and take over the next several years as to how this unfolds. But I believe that, at root, the forces of freedom, the forces of openness, are very powerful. How they get channeled is what I’m very anxiously watching. And therefore, the more we can support not only political reform but economic reform — because I’m a huge believer that the middle class is the pillar of democracy. People have to feel they’re on an upward mobility in order to accept the rules of the game, so to speak, to be governed effectively by their leaders. And we’ve been blessed with that for a long time, and we can’t afford to lose it.

In other places, the economic disparities, the wealth in the hands of the few, all of that has to be altered, not just because you’re having elections and forming political parties, but how you open up economies and spread the prosperity more broadly.

So there’s an enormous amount of work to be done all at once. And I think that many of the people that I’ve met with over the last year in Tunisia and Egypt in particular understand where they want to end up, but they don’t really know yet how they’re going to follow the path that gets them there. And many May revolutions begin in great hope. It then gets crushed by the reality of politics, which is practiced everywhere in one form or another. And we have worked very hard to convey to people in places like Egypt that politics is not a dirty word, that you don’t go from spontaneous demonstrations to governance, that a democracy requires the building of these democratic institutions. And that’s not something the people yet really feel comfortable with.

So we’re doing everything we can to try to provide examples and provide non-partisan support. We’re not betting on anybody or against anybody. We’re just trying to make sure that people have a grasp of what it takes to get to where they think they’re trying to go.

I think some of the main Occupy Wall Street protestors estimate (inaudible) now seems to be spreading internationally, would find some solace in what you’re saying. Have police abused their authority…? Have you been following that at all?

Just on the news. But no, I mean, I can’t pretend to know everything that they’re advocating because they don’t really have an agenda. But I think that before that was ironically the same motivation of the Tea Party. And I know the Tea Party hates to hear that, but a lot of the Tea Party was really upset about bailouts. They thought, why on earth would you bail out those huge banks and let them keep foreclosing on my neighbor? I mean, it made no sense to people. And I think it’s a fair question.

So a lot of the so-called Occupy Wall Street people were coming from the same place, like, this doesn’t add up. My father was a Republican, small business man. I mean, really small. It was, again, one or two other guys from time to time; mostly it was my mother, my brothers, and me. And he was of the view, it’s kind of Jeffersonian in a way, that bigness of any kind is what we have to look out for, because if you get a big bureaucracy, or you get big money, they lose touch with what it is that makes America so special.

And I always think about that, because it’s been a long time, but he would relate to both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street. Wait a minute, you’ve gotta be responsive, don’t get so big. You gotta be effective, don’t waste our money, and don’t let the big guys get away with it. That was his mentality.

Speaking of big, let’s talk about China for a second.


I know you’ve been talking a lot lately about Asia, just in the way that you’ve put American diplomacy towards smart power and our soft power, it seems like China is using good old-fashioned hard power in ways that we once did but can no longer do. Do you see that — and that — this is something that we could talk about all the time. Obviously, they are competitive with us, but what is the — what do you see the future of Chinese power in terms of their statecraft and [becoming the] hegemon like we once were?

Well, I think that it’s important that we’ve made this pivot toward Asia. And again, I would emphasize not that we are ignoring the continuing risks and dangers from South Asia, from the Middle East, North Africa, et cetera, but that we now have to get back into the opportunity business. We have to be looking for ways that America can expand our economic presence, exercise our influence, and work with China. Part of my goal has been to imbed the United States into the preexisting regional architecture in Asia.


And many Americans really dismiss it. When I went to Indonesia in February of ’09 and said we were going to sign something called the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and join ASEAN, a big yawn. Huge excitement in Asia, because for those who value their institutions, it was showing respect. And for those who want to be sure the United States is a resident Pacific power for now into the far future in order to help balance China, it was a huge relief. And then [the] East Asia Summit. We wanted to do an ASEAN-U.S. summit. All — showing up is a lot of what we had to do in Asia, and both the President and I have made that a real priority.

When you look at China, what they have been doing for the last decade or so, is very effectively using their soft power.


If you think of soft power as being diplomatic power and economic power, they have been very effective in spreading throughout the region, making investments, building things that countries wanted, working to create relationships to displace some of the historic animosity or suspicion. And it’s not only in Asia. I mean, they have moved into Africa, moved into Latin America, doing the very same thing.

Now, they have every right to do that. I believe in a global economic market, so if they want to get in there and compete with the mining industry or anything else, they have every right to do so. But I did not and do not believe we should cede that to them, that we need to be also competing for soft power influence. So whether it’s joining more organizations or making investments that are important to people, responding to natural disasters that have been plentiful in the world and that region, we have our story to tell and we will be missing a great opportunity if we are not on the ground telling it.

At the same time, we know — it’s no classified secret — that China is increasing its military assets. Yeah, as a country used to do if they’ve got the resources, which China has. And it’s our obligation to make sure that we are present where we have treaty allies, like the Philippines, Japan, Thailand, for example, where we have close working relationships, as we do in Australia, and where we have very important partnerships all across Asia.

And so when China began to show some muscle, and in part I think it was motivated by their assessment that, given our economic position, we couldn’t really be as involved as we once had been. [The] future, I think, demands us to be. There was a lot of activity in the South China Sea, about China asserting itself, China moving to block oil exploration to countries, and more along that line. So I felt strongly that we had to say freedom of navigation is an international right. There are methods for resolving disputed claims over territories, so we’re going to be not choosing sides. I’m not going to say this island belongs to Indonesia, that one belongs to China. That’s not the role of the United States. But we’re going to strongly assert the rule of law and a rules-based approach to solving these issues.

And that leads me to a larger point that part of what we have to do for the 21st century is to create a new rules-based framework. What worked in the 20th century, which certainly benefited us but I think benefited the rest of the world as well, is showing some signs of wear and not fully reflective of new developments. So we need a rules-based approach that deals with economic issues and political disputes. I call it rules-based reciprocity; we’ve got to have a set of rules that people will abide by and may get something for it because the other side is abiding as well.

And it is a long-term project. But as — I’ve said this to the Chinese. Take the South China Sea. If we don’t have a rules-based approach in the South China Sea that looks at international law and custom, and resolves disputes through these mechanisms that either are already established or need to be created, then what are you going to say when you decide you want to go through the Arctic because now there’s less ice, and the Russians say no, it’s ours, or anywhere else that people are going to start claiming by force as opposed to international norms?

And so this is not just about any one nation. This is about how we’re going to have a global set of rules that people are going to follow in order to maximize the positive results for everyone.