If you were following Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearings in the United States Senate, by now you know what anybody who’s followed her career, much less the Presidential primaries, knows: she’s a phenomenon. She’s smart, she’s on the ball and she knows her stuff inside out and backwards forwards.
So this little exchange with Senator Barbara Boxer (D. Calif.) was interesting to say the least (note: condensed version, you can read the full exchange here):
BOXER: I wanted to pick off a few of the issues that I care about. I’m going to do it very quickly because there are so many — just to make my voice heard on those — and then ask you a question on a topic you raised, and we’ve discussed it before, the status of women in the world — in particular, violence against women in the world…
So I’m introducing some legislation. One is a companion piece of Representative Carolyn Maloney. Another one is the Afghan Women Empowerment Act, which many on this committee have worked with us on. And that’s just the beginning. No woman or girl should ever have to live in fear or face persecution for being born female.
And, senator, I know how deeply you feel about this. And so I wanted you to take a little more time to talk about your commitment to this particular issue. And, obviously, I would be so pleased if you would commit to help us work on a legislation to fight this immorality.
CLINTON: [And] I want to pledge to you that as secretary of state I view these issues as central to our foreign policy, not as adjunct or auxiliary or in any way lesser than all of the other issues that we have to confront.
I, too, have followed the stories that are exemplified by the pictures that you held up. I mean, it is heartbreaking beyond works that, you know, young girls are attacked on their way to school by Taliban sympathizers and members who do not want young women to be educated. It’s not complicated: They want to maintain an attitude that keeps women, as I said in my testimony, unhealthy, unfed, uneducated.
And this is something that results all too often in violence against these young women, both within their families and from the outside. This is not culture. This is not custom. This is criminal. And it will be my hope to persuade more governments, as I have attempted to do since I spoke at Beijing on these issues, you know, 13 and some years ago, that we cannot have a free, prosperous, peaceful, progressive world if women are treated in such a discriminatory and violent way.
KERRY: Senator Boxer, thank you.
Thanks for that important line of inquiry. And let me just say that Senator Boxer has talked to me personally about how the committee might focus on this. And I’m determined that the committee will… I think that all of the other members of the committee share a concern and passion about this. So we will find a way to appropriately work with the secretary and see if we can’t augment our international efforts on this.
In a way, this is a dog-bites-man sort of story: superpower sets moral agenda. Big deal. Also unsurprising: rhetoric focusing on the lot of women. It’s almost mandatory in international relations – Thou Shalt Judge the Morality of Other Nations Through the Behavior of Their Women.
But what struck me was the definite way she answered that question, no equivocations. There is no way she didn’t understand the implications of what she was saying, especially with regard to Saudi Arabia. When a former First Lady turned Secretary of State says she sees women’r rights as “central” to the foreign policy of the United States… it means something surely?
While the “Imperial America” faction will no doubt see this as further proof of America meddling in what is none of their business, I can’t help but be intrigued by the thought of America under Obama actually making an effort to instill an universal morality.
That is, of course, a loaded term: universal morality. It can so easily smack of ethnocentricism and with America involved in two costly and largely disastrous wars in countries with cultures that have little in common with its own, the Obama administration might want to think twice before it starts talking morality. And God knows President Bush with his talk of Good and Evil has pretty much put everybody else on the defensive.
Which is where Obama himself might perhaps be a symbolic help in this direction: to have somebody of his ancestry and intellectual curiosity, especially with his demonstrated willingness to engage with all sides, even if it is to his political cost (and even if it might not make any difference in the long run) pushes this line of thinking those necessary few inches away from universal morality and all its painful baggage and towards cosmopolitanism. Clinton’s answer to Boxer, viz. that you can’t use culture as a defense, for instance, could easily have been voiced by a modern day cosmopolitanist.
However, as (the amazing) Kwame Anthony Appiah, one of the leading proponents of cosmopolitanism today [fun trivia: he’s also the grandson of Sir Stafford Cripps] points out, there is just one problem: there isn’t any consensus even within these societies as to what is morally correct.
Take the Taliban, for example. Over the past several years, I’ve seen people, including Clinton in her exchange above, talking about the Taliban in Afghanistan as though they were a bunch of foreigners who’d somehow taken over the country. This is simply not true. The Taliban might be supported by fighters brought in from elsewhere in the jihad against the United States and the Soviets before them, and the al Qaeda is definitely a global organization drawing members from all over the world, but as and of itself, the Taliban is a homegrown affair feeding off Afghans themselves.
If the Obama administration is actually serious about this facet of their foreign policy, then they’re going to have to find a local solution to these problems. And they’ll have to adapt and replicate that in each nation. So while they might all come under the grand plan of “Women: Improve Lot of”, there is no one universal solution that I can think of.
Education, perhaps, is the one that we’re all hoping will be the magic bullet. But as the Taliban have amply demonstrated, they’ve got the memo too and are working bombs and acid to stop that particular idea from taking off.
I guess it all does comes down to the individual in the end. And her courage and strength of resolve.