There is no shortage of autobiographical works by leaders hoping to set the record straight, but they are seldom as thorough and credible as Hard Choices. In some 600 pages, Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69 offers a rare perspective on the seminal policy decisions taken during her term as secretary of state.
The book begins in the early days after her appointment by President-elect Obama when she embraces and refines the concept of “smart power” (the strategic implementation of military, economic, diplomatic, legal, and cultural tools). As an example, rather than relying solely on traditional mechanisms to exert geopolitical influence with China, Clinton broadened the level of engagement with China by increasing American student participation in “educational exchanges, cultural tours, and scientific collaboration.” Clinton goes on to describe the implementation of the pivot strategy from the Middle East to Asia, and regional challenges faced in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, Russia, and Latin America. Her final chapters focus on climate change, energy, development, digital diplomacy, and human rights.
Clinton emphasizes that she did not write this book for Washington insiders but for “Americans and people everywhere who are trying to make sense of this rapidly changing world”—and she fulfills this promise by focusing on policy rather than politics. She provides contextual history of regions, countries, and issues, firmly ensconcing the narrative in the perspective of American relationships and interests so that any reader, expert or novice, can understand the leadership she delivered and the actions she chose. Clinton provides an earnest and detailed analytic rationale for each move she made as secretary of state, allowing the reader to make independent judgments about the wisdom of her choices.
The book emphasizes Clinton’s commitment to gender-based initiatives, a position she has long championed. (In 1995, during the Beijing United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, she stated, “…women’s rights are human rights.”) She elucidates her broader policy perspectives with gendered examples, including the modern day scourge of human trafficking. She concludes that the advancement of women’s rights is not only the right thing to do; it is strategically the smart thing to do. She argues compellingly that advancing women’s economic, educational, and political opportunities will advance national and regional outcomes across multiple indicators. The data strongly support Clinton’s position.
The book also underscores Clinton’s stalwart support of human rights. She has engaged directly in the global struggles of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community, for example, proclaiming “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights” on the anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hard Choices captures the systematic inclusion of LGBT rights in Clinton’s diplomatic discussions.
Clinton addresses the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, directly, and poignantly walks the reader through the events surrounding it. She describes the rationale for critical decisions in detail and addresses the perspectives of her detractors. Her sense of responsibility for all who serve in the US diplomatic corps is palpable, and she shares her profound sense of loss over the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Clinton persuasively discusses the importance of her personal relationships with leaders around the world. She describes how US Coast Guard officers were America’s “first boots on the ground” in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a rapid response achieved because of President René Garcia Préval’s trust in Clinton’s leadership and judgment.
Her descriptions of intricate issues and negotiations are to be expected. However, her deeply personal reflections and occasional humor provide relief from the serious and tension-laden events the book surveys. Ambassador Richard Holbrook’s yellow pajamas, which he donned on overnight flights, is one such colorful recollection, as is her effort to balance the roles of secretary of state and MOB—mother of the bride.
Hard Choices lays plain the extraordinary analytic mind Clinton brings to policymaking and leadership on the world stage. It reveals her deep love of country, commitment to public service, and respect for her role and responsibility in the course of history. The final chapters have yet to be written.
Budson is the founding executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.