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I Like My Coffee Like I Like My Major Policy Addresses to the Council on Foreign Relations: Well Blended

October 14, 2010

Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, is no amateur.  When she addressed the Council on Foreign Relations in early September, she knew she was selling the Obama Administration’s agenda.  And selling American-brand foreign policy is like selling prime rib to rabbits and lettuce to hawks.   Everyone wants, just not what you’ve got.  And one group bolts while the other bites partly because to deal with foreign policy is to deal with values.  Conflicting ones.

The thing is, people are fine with values—by themselves.  People will give you, say, justice. Sure. Justice. We’ll value justice, when it stands alone.  Conflicts arise when we try to rank justice against some other value.  Like mercy.  Or security.  Or the bottom line.  I say, “Justice is X, and, not coincidentally, it’s more important than Y,” and out come the claws.  Or the warheads.

Or the congressional campaign ads.  But, like I said, the Secretary’s a pro.  She knows foreign policy means negotiating different sets of values, both home and abroad.  And so she justifies the Administration’s foreign policy by blending two constellations of values.  She even names this blend:  smart power.

“It’s a blend of principle and pragmatism” she tells the council.  Blend is such a nicely ambiguous word.  It could be a 90/10 mix or more 50-50.  The audience decides how to combine principles and pragmatics; each person comes up with her own potent brew.  One in accord with her own political philosophy and policy goals.  It’s the rhetorical equivalent of casting with a wide net—Clinton’s language catches up a lot of different people.

This widely appealing blend justifies not only the Administration’s general approach global politics, but also issue-specific arguments; Clinton regularly combines practical and moral rationales for foreign policy.  Take how she discusses the problem of international relations:

We need a new mindset about how America will use its power to safeguard our nation, expand shared prosperity, and help more people in more places live up to their God-given potential.

Safeguarding is a pragmatic goal, but helping others, especially with their “God-given potential” takes a principled tone.  The middle goal “expand shared prosperity” seems a real blend, since “expanding prosperity” is the language of economics (and quite pragmatic), but sharing it is the language of morality. Is this an equal split between politics of ideals and realpolitik?  Pragmatic to the last drop, where one just dusts the top with principles, because (like cinnamon) it might help you out?  It’s your order—have it your way.

And then there’s the urgency to act.  Clinton describes the situation thusly:  “And with more states facing common challenges, we have the chance and a profound responsibility to exercise American leadership”.

We hear a pragmatic understanding of chance—if we want to make hay out of “common problems” then we should do so while the sun shines.  And we hear a call to remember our principles: “profound responsibility” has a moral flavor, on the theme of “to whom much is given” etc and so.

So, what can we do, given a chance and driven by duty?  In a list of policy actions, Clinton ends by saying “we will leverage key sources of American power, including our economic strength and the power of our example”.

Economic strength is a pragmatic assessment whereas the power of our example speaks to principled behavior.  Pick one or the other or what the heck, have two—Clinton justifies the use of American power in terms with which a wide audience can agree.

Clinton finishes the speech with the Administration’s To-Fix List.  Check them off with me.  Violent extremism (pragmatic); nuclear weapons (pragmatic);  global warming (pragmatic—in the sense I don’t want to fry or drown) but (principled—in the sense that we are “stewards of the earth” [the Bible] and generally should leave things nicer than we found them [the Girl Scouts]); poverty (principled); abuses (principled) and, lastly, repeating her earlier, principled-to-the-point of being religious mandate: “a world in which more people in more places can live up to their God-given potential.”

Not a bad blend, right?  I’ll take a cup.

Just leave room for cream.

If you want to know more:

  • A classic treatment of values and value hierarchies is found in Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s “The New Rhetoric”.
  • For more on audience interpretation and persuasion, the slightly off-subject but entirely beguiling “A Rhetoric of Irony” by Wayne Booth is one place to start.
  • Transcript, audio and video of the speech can be found here
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