Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review: Hard Choices (Audio Book)

Hard Choices is Hilary Clinton's memoir of her time as the Secretary of State for the USA. It's a long book --- I started listening to it on the train during the Tour of the Alps, and it took the better part of several months of listening before I finished.

Rather than being a strict chronological account of her time as Secretary of State (SoS), the book's divided into sections geographically first, and then at the end based on themes regarding the future of human rights. The choice of geographical partition allowed Clinton to highlight what she thought were important themes during her tenure (e.g., the pivot to Asia), but also served to reduce what seemed to be a particularly hectic time into much more than a frenetic series of activities.

International diplomacy is a strange affair for those of us not particularly interested. In particular, the US has an outsized influence mostly because of its wealth and military prowess. Yet under certain administrations, the State Department tries very much not to appear as though it's twisting arms. I was amused by Clinton's account of how the State Department maneuvered around China's claims of sections of the South China seas: while China would rather do one-on-one negotiations with each of the smaller countries, the US would try to organize negotiations as a group at regional meetings like at ASEAN so that the smaller countries (with US backing) could feel like they could all stand up together against China.

If you enjoy the back-story of various such diplomatic shenanigans, you'll enjoy the book, as there were many descriptions of such back-room arm twisting (such as during the Israeli-Palestinian rocket assaults, as well as sections of the Arab Spring). What comes through is that Clinton tries to sell really hard that (1) diplomacy is much cheaper than military action, and the State Department is massively under-funded and under-staffed, and (2) the US (at least, under Obama) did try to promote human rights throughout the world, even when it has to deal with foreign leaders who aren't as enthusiastic about such rights.

(1) is a slam dunk. It's very clear that when the State department succeeds in achieving US goals without force, it's a huge cost savings. The times when they failed and the U.S. military gets pulled in, it's almost always going to cost more in both lives and money. (2) however gets subject to cynicism. However, Clinton does do a decent  job of explaining that whenever the US comes in to help save lives or perform emergency rescue operations, its image in the target country improves significantly (at one point, Japan had an 80% approval rating of the US after the Tsunami aid efforts, up from 60%, which is huge). So the 1% of the federal budget that goes into foreign aid is very good value.

There's also a good explanation for both Clinton's and Obama's support for the TPP, which has been much maligned during the recent election: fundamentally, US diplomacy holds out access to US markets in exchange for nudging other countries towards US policy. Once countries have a taste for the wealth access to US markets can bring, they're much more likely to toe the line when Washington comes calling. It makes sense, but of course, the US is unique in having next to no safety nets for workers displaced by such strategic considerations --- it seems to me that if something like the TPP is an important part of international diplomacy (and the US really does need to pay attention to such diplomacy --- imagine a world in which China dominated South East Asia!), then spending more on social safety nets makes more sense in tandem with something like the TPP than just shoving it down the public's throat, which has not gone over well and probably will never go over well, as recent events illustrate.

Finally, as someone who's an engineer, it was a bit jarring for me to hear Clinton praise someone as being a "great Politician." It's funny since engineers view politicians as people who're great at promoting themselves without actually doing any work, but of course, when you're a career politician, being a good politician would be high praise. Judging by the results of the election earlier this month, most Americans agree with my attitude than with Clinton's.

The book's a bit of a long slog, but I learned quite a bit. It's not my book of the year by any means, but it's still worth your time.

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