BEIJING, Feb. 22 -- Hillary Rodham Clinton's blunt and unadorned style of diplomacy has been evident throughout her first trip as secretary of state the past week in Asia. She questioned the efficacy of sanctions against the repressive junta in Burma, spoke openly about a possible succession crisis in North Korea and admitted that she expected to make little progress on human rights in China.
To a certain extent, these comments crossed taboo lines in international diplomacy. U.S. officials generally do not say their sanctions have failed, or speculate about the future government of another country, or suggest that a carefully watched human rights dialogue is largely a farce.
Clinton's willingness to speak frankly -- combined with an extensive effort to get beyond ministerial meetings in order to hold town hall meetings and conduct local television interviews in the countries she visits -- suggests she will put a distinctive personal stamp on the Obama administration's foreign policy. What is emerging is something less rigid, less cautious and more open.
Before her meetings in Beijing, for instance, Clinton said she would raise human rights issues with Chinese officials, "but we pretty much know what they're going to say."
Readers will recall that I've been guardely sanguine about Hillary as SecState. This story does nothing to disabuse me of my initial optimism. In her statements about the human rights record in China, she is either being very savvy or very foolhardy. Not surprisingly, the situation is more-than-ably summarized by John Bolton:
Former U.N. ambassador John R. Bolton, who was known for his bluntness, said he thinks "our diplomacy should be more candid, with less doublespeak, so if she really meant to say what she said, I don't mind at all. When the Democrats endorse candor in diplomacy, I'll be a happy man."And that, really, is the heart of the matter. If Hillary is publicly setting up shamefully low expectations for the Chinese, while gearing up to privately develop face-saving alternatives in the area of human rights, all the while preserving the critical economic and political interconnections which are so fundamental to globalization, then she is showing herself to be a formidable and subtle operator in line with her greatest strengths, for the service of American interests (to say nothing of long-suffering Chinese). If she is just blowing smoke, which she will trap in a cynical ionizing filter of nuance over the days to come, then she is acting on the worst expectations of geopolitical fecklessness which Obama's campaign threatened.
But he added: "The issue with whatever she says, candid or not, is whether it has an objective in mind, or whether she is just running at the mouth. This is the difference between an executive branch official and a senator, academic, think-tanker, reporter, whatever. Executive branch officials, by definition, are not just bloviating, but executing policies."
For the moment, though, allow me to register one qualified "attagirl!"