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Not her finest hour: Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, at a memorial ceremony for victims of Benghazi (©US Government)


The eight years of the Obama presidency have fundamentally changed the international system and America’s place within it. In the final months of his presidency the Obama doctrine has again become hotly contested because Hillary Clinton’s reputation is fundamentally intertwined with it. Mark Landler’s Alter Egos is an engaging rather than revelatory insight into the relationship between a President obsessed with his place in history and a Secretary of State obsessed with being President. The book is most interesting not in terms of what it says but what it is trying to do; an ambitious attempt to repackage Clinton’s foreign policy position. Landler casts her as Dean Acheson to Obama’s Harry Truman: united in preserving a lawful world order, differing in how to do so.

This will undoubtedly be recalled as one of the ugliest presidential elections in living memory but it will also be memorable for more important reasons. As the international system becomes worryingly anarchic on the back of Obama’s retrenchment, the next President’s choice between continuing isolationism or engagement might be the last time that America proactively makes such a choice.

Both Clinton and Trump are more strongly disliked than any nominee at this point in the past ten presidential cycles. This isn’t just polarisation of politics, as Democrats opine. If so, both candidates would also have strong approval ratings; they do not. The election will be decided by voters consciously choosing the lesser of two evils.

Fortunately for Clinton it is sometimes easy to forget her tenure as Obama’s first Secretary of State. She left office in 2013, her record obscured by what Landler reveals as endless campaigning for the presidency since her 2008 nomination defeat. Landler notes: “Never before had the nation’s seat of diplomacy been so unabashedly political.” So while Clinton consistently took a harder line than Obama on Russia, would have retained troops in Iraq and opposed the decision to ignore the Red Line in Syria, in practice these differences became simply a matter of bureaucratic infighting. Even worse, in some matters, such as support for a no-fly zone and arming rebels in Syria, her position lacked thought about repercussions, increasing the sense that she was prioritising political expediency. Indeed, the detail of the book closely examines their enduring political competitiveness, reducing Obama’s central policy, the “Pivot to Asia”, to a race to publish first in Foreign Policy.

Despite the manoeuvring, Landler is forced to overplay the differences between his characters. Clinton was too savvy to let real differences emerge while in office. This leaves the spiritless non-conclusion that they “agreed more than they disagreed. Both preferred diplomacy to brute force. Both shunned the unilateralism of the Bush years . . . preserving the rules-based order that the United States put in place after 1945.” This wasn’t realism versus liberal internationalism as Landler suggests. In reality, Clinton’s fear of hindering her presidential ambition was more opportunistic than realistic. Obama thinks of himself as a realist intervening only where he sees vital interests at stake; the problem is that he didn’t see US interests at stake anywhere. He is better characterised as an isolationist with a penchant for special forces and drones.

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