During her term as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton traveled nearly a million miles to more than 100 different countries. And BBC Correspondent Kim Ghattas was right there with her, documenting Secretary Clinton’s attempts to implement policy and improve America’s image around the world.
Ghattas, who grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, brings a unique background to the world of American foreign policy. Her first book, “The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power,” shows that many people around the world view the U.S. as omnipotent, desperately hoping that the Americans will help them out. They become frustrated when the U.S. does not.
Ghattas, who lives in Washington, D.C., was previously a Middle East correspondent for the BBC and the Financial Times and has been published in several other major publications. In a book that is part-memoir, part-foreign policy analysis, Ghattas uses her spot on Secretary Clinton’s plane to describe how Clinton walked a narrow diplomatic tightrope all around the world while battling political pressures back home.
POGO: You’ve talked a lot about growing up in Lebanon during wartime. How do you think that affects your perspective on American foreign policy?
Ghattas: There are a lot fantastic writers about American foreign policy in Washington and some excellent books on the subjects by American writers. What sets my book apart is that I write about the subject from the perspective of someone who has experienced first hand the real impact that decisions made in Washington can have on real people, or in some cases the consequences of American inaction. So I'm not writing about American foreign policy just from an intellectual perspective but from that of someone who has lived all her life in one of those countries that keeps American officials busy at the State Department or the White House. It drives a lot of my questions to American officials for example, and it can take them by surprise sometimes. My background has always been key in my reporting and my writing because I do my best to stay in tune with the questions my audience and readers around the world have about American foreign policy and how American power works. Similarly, the Western influence in my upbringing, through my mother and my education, help me explain the world I grew up in, the Middle East, to a Western audience, with a lot of nuance—nuance that is often missing in the discussion about the Middle East and foreign policy in general.
POGO: Do you feel the United States is a “power in decline”? What exactly does that mean?
Ghattas: Sometimes it feels like the whole world is in decline... so I don't like to use the word decline when talking about American power; I prefer to talk about the changing nature of power and how it's becoming more diffuse. The U.S. is no longer the only superpower as it was in the 1990's but it's still the biggest one; and it's also not the Cold War anymore when the world appeared to be neatly divided into two camps. Now, there's the US and China, but also Brazil, Turkey, even Qatar and many others, so the U.S. has to adapt to the 21st century way of doing things, accommodate new and rising powers, and figure out how to remain a world leader in a changing global landscape. The Obama administration has been reasonably successful in some ways and not in others. Mostly, it's important to remember that American decline is a cyclical conversation. It's been around for decades, and peaks every now and then. True, the US seems to be a lesser power now because of a mountain of domestic issues, from debt to unemployment to crumbling infrastructure but the idea that the US could at one point just will things to happen on the international stage because it was the superpower, is a myth.
POGO: Polls show that Americans are generally more concerned about domestic policy than foreign policy, particularly when voting. Do you think this is a defensible perspective? What are the potential pitfalls that come from Americans’ lack of regard to foreign policy?
Ghattas: Americans are not unique in that regard. Around the world people vote primarily based on a candidate's promises about taxes, wages, pension, jobs, with foreign policy being one of the lesser factors. Occasionally, foreign policy will be key in determining how people cast their votes, whether in the U.S. or around the world. In some countries, people vote for candidates who have drummed up support by appealing to nationalist feelings and whipping up antagonism towards a neighboring country or against the U.S., with little or no other details about their platform. That's not necessarily the best way to pick a candidate either. What Americans forget sometimes is that what happens an ocean away can have a direct impact on jobs at home, not just national security. It's just not possible to ignore the rest of the world and retrench at home with no consequences, or think of the world only in security or counter terrorism terms. It is a policy option of course but I'm not sure people here always weigh the pros and cons when they react to world events by saying "Let's just retreat home.''
POGO: What do you think is the most critical foreign country for Americans to learn more about?
Ghattas: Lebanon, because it's the center of the world of course! On a more serious note, I think that it's key to understand how the world is connected and why what happens in Syria, China or Mali can have an impact on you here in the US. I wrote “The Secretary” for a wide audience, well beyond the foreign policy establishment and a lot of my readers got in touch to say that's exactly what my book did for them, enable them to connect the dots, understand a bit better how world events are related or why they matter to people in the US. I think that also helps understand the shades of grey out there, the world is not black and white, it's not "us versus them." And there is a lot to learn from how others do things too.
POGO: What is something about Hillary Clinton that the public would be surprised by?
Ghattas: She's got a great sense of humor and she can be quite motherly.