The Drum Unleashed (ABC online)

By Harry Melkonian

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has brought wonderful and woefully-needed leadership administrative competence to the US State Department.

The same skills that she employs in managing her bureaucracy served her well in her Asian excursion. Her ability to use diplomatic tools, as opposed to the US navy, as a mechanism to further American policy is easy to recognise but difficult to describe.

Her techniques represent a welcome departure from the style employed in the previous administration. With the exception of the rather eccentric though effective Nixon/Kissinger duet, American foreign policy has invariably been that of a solo player – sometimes looked at as a bully. Hillary Clinton, who has been given a broad charter by US president Obama, clearly recognises the limits of unilateralism and is working to build American foreign policy built on cooperation and consultation. From an Australian perspective, as a regional power, the secretary's efforts are to be commended.

While the secretary's current visit was planned long before the mid-term election results, the success and smoothness of her visit cannot be entirely separated from the mauling the Obama administration took at the polls last week. Not only did the Democrats lose 60 House Seats and come perilously close to losing control of the Senate where only 33 per cent of the seats were in contention, the Democrats in many cases struggled to retain otherwise safe seats.

In other words, under Obama, safe Democratic seats became marginals. In contrast to such a dismal domestic political environment, the style and effectiveness of Hillary Clinton is a very distinct bright spot for the administration. This is not to say that her visit to Asia was all style without substance designed to play well on the US nightly news. The style was coupled with incredible diplomatic effectiveness.

Without the ideological fetters of some of her predecessors, Dr Rice immediately comes to mind, secretary Clinton is approaching foreign policy with a very honest and sincere American view that despite the rise of other nations, the US still has a critical role to play in maintaining world stability. However, based on the debacles of the preceding Bush administration, secretary Clinton knows that American influence must be based on engagement and discussion rather than impossibly costly military exercises. In a word, she brings both idealism and political realism to foreign policy that has for too long been the domain of academic ideologues.

Hillary Clinton has a secret weapon that she is not afraid to use: despite the rise of China, Brazil, India and Russia as economic powers, none of those nations is very effective on the world stage and, with all its faults, the US is far more pleasant as an international partner than any of the world's rising economic stars. Because of cultural and linguistic factors, there is simply no real competition for the US, and Clinton has shown herself to be quite adept at using the comfort factor of US culture as a foreign policy tool.

Witness how at ease and nonchalant she is at discussing enhancement of the US military presence in Australia. She raises the point with complete familiarity and matter-of-factness with the knowledge that the US is not viewed as an occupying power and, with some exceptions, is generally viewed as a benign guest. Such conversations would be far more difficult for her predecessors who insisted on putting matters into ideological terms.

To make my point, I will go out on limb and say that secretary Clinton would enjoy the same relationship and effectiveness regardless of who occupies the Lodge. She was here not as a partisan member of the Democratic Party, though she is indeed a very partisan politician, but rather she was here as probably the pre-eminent foreign policy figure in the world.

Viewed in this light, it is really quite wonderful to see how she operates. She has all the ease of a politician working a crowd and is not cowed by academics or experts because she knows that she is every bit as bright as anyone else. In short, she understands people and power even in the elevated world of foreign ministers.

As for results, this trip has already had successes. The secretary is making Americanism an essential aspect or component of foreign policy in every nation she visits. She is capitalising on the familiarity of America and using that familiarity to fill the gaps in other countries' policies with American policies. She knows that no other nation is in a position to do this and none will be able to for the foreseeable future. Make no mistake about it, she is pushing an American agenda but she achieves it by making American policy Japanese policy or Filipino policy or even Australian policy.

Even at the height of their influence the Soviets could never master this craft and for so many reasons, I believe that the Chinese simply cannot. Watch her closely – it is like watching a grand master playing bridge or chess. The technique is as exciting as the results.

Harry Melkonian is a senior lecturer, specialising in the US Constitution, at the US Studies Centre of the University of Sydney.