In her first official trip overseas, Hillary Rodham Clinton showed herself to be a different kind of secretary of state for a different time. She broke with almost half a century of tradition in choosing Asia rather than Europe or the Middle East for her initial voyage, going to countries not only where American prestige is largely intact, but whose help with the global economic crisis is, as she put it, "indispensable." Throughout her tour of Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China, it might be said that Clinton aggressively projected a nonconfrontational foreign policy - and rightly so.
Human rights activists were understandably worried when Clinton decided to soft-pedal concerns with the government of China over Tibet, the jailing of dissidents and other violations of civil liberties. She went too far in saying that human rights "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis." There is real cause for concern about China's human rights record, and who will press the Asian giant if not the United States? Unfortunately, the decision reflects political and economic realities of the moment. It is difficult for the United States to deliver lectures on human rights in the wake of waterboarding. What was Clinton to say: Release your prisoners next year, just as soon as we close Guantanamo and figure out what to do with ours?
Furthermore, the United States isn't in a position right now to extol the virtues of American capitalism. Clinton could hardly urge less state intervention in the economy and currency exchange liberalization when the U.S. financial system has seized up and the government is practically nationalizing banks; and especially not when asking China to keep buying U.S. debt on top of the more than $600 billion it already owns.
So what did she do? Clinton used President Obama's popularity and the force of her personality to try to restore America's standing abroad. She opted for direct talk over the usual diplomatic caution in highlighting international concern about leadership changes in North Korea. She spoke with women in Japan about balancing career and family, and working with men. She honored a democratic transfer of power in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country.
Rather than lecturing China about greenhouse gas emissions, Clinton urged the government not to make the mistakes the United States and Europe had made, effectively taking partial responsibility for the problem. She said that lecturing China has never been productive and that it was time to give the country some of the respect due the world's third-largest economy. It was a successful first foray by the secretary of state. She'll have other opportunities to use the moral and political force of a superpower - once this country has regained its standing - to address human rights abuses in China.