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Obama, Clinton and the Diplomacy of Change

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Is diplomacy important and can diplomats make a difference? This article examines these questions in the context of American foreign policy during the first two years of the Obama administration. The policy of George W. Bush’s administration in Iraq and Iraq, unilateral in form and controversial in substance, ensured that foreign policy was a major issue in the election campaign, with all of the major candidates agreeing that American diplomacy needed to be restored. Candidate Obama went beyond the consensus about restoring the status and influence of the State Department, however, to argue that the United States should talk without preconditions, even with regimes of which it did not approve. In office, Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, rhetorically elevated diplomacy to an equal standing with defence and development, provided resources for greatly expanding the Foreign Service, and stressed the importance of taking advantage of developments in information technology to strengthen public and ‘digital’ diplomacy in the service of civilian power. They also ‘reset’ certain key bilateral relationships and ‘re-engaged’ multilateralism. However, American diplomacy under Obama remains framed by the increasingly questionable assumption that its renewed openness to talking, its continued military superiority and its claim to embody universal values will continue to confer upon it the mantle of global leadership. If US administrations continue to assume that this is so, then American diplomacy will face the challenge of trying to bridge the increasingly widening gap between their aspirations and the means available to sustain them.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota Duluth 302b Cina Hall, Duluth, MN 55812 United States, Email:


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