How Wikileaks may alter U.S. development strategy

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

As you may have heard, Wikileaks has made life uncomfortable for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Part of this is due to leaked diplomatic documents in which it appears Clinton ordered U.S. diplomats to spy on their colleagues and United Nations officials.

Clinton has denied the charges, but Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange has specifically focused on these documents saying if they are borne out Clinton should resign. A number of media outlets have gone to great pains to examine the allegations, sometimes doing hair-splitting semantic defenses of Clinton and others noting the diplomats ignored Clinton anyway.

But what’s more important here is the question Madeleine Bunting of the Guardian asks: “Will Wikileaks mean Hillary Clinton turns her back on development?” The Obama Administration has been engaged in serious efforts aimed at improving and beefing up U.S. efforts in foreign development — an initiative largely welcomed by many humanitarian and development organizations. Bunting says:

“Not only is (Clinton’s) political career on the line, but the State Department faces an uncertain future in the turf battles over budget and influence in Washington. The collateral damage is the grand centrepiece of Clinton’s recasting of how the US asserts its influence in the world…. Clinton’s bold new strategy for what she called “civilian power, in which diplomacy and development were closely co-ordinated to achieve US interests and global security.

The bold new strategy is known, in the inimitably awful lingo of political speak, as the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (or QDDR for those in the know). A copy of Clinton’s strategy was leaked a few weaks ago (not by Wikileaks) to the media. Foreign Policy gives a nice summary here.

While many welcomed the QDDR’s plan to boost funding and staff at USAID and the general goal of achieving better coordination of U.S. development goals with foreign policy matters, there were some critics like Todd Shelton of Interaction quoted in the Washington Post:

“We agree that diplomacy and development should be coordinated and complement one another, but the two should not be confused as the same thing…. (QDDR) talks about building USAID’s capacity in a variety of ways. For example, it formally recognizes the new budget office at USAID, but then makes clear its recommendations will be subject to review and final approval by the Deputy Secretary of State.”

Bunting in the Guardian noted that some of the Wikileaks documents were about Clinton’s desire to beef up USAID’s role in this new mixture of diplomacy and development into something she dubs “smart power”:

Early drafts were leaked two weeks ago and argued that diplomacy and development should be elevated alongside defence in a new “smart power” approach. The review – the State Department’s answer to the four-yearly Defense Review – marks a shift of emphasis away from military force. The review was a year in the making, and the ground has been carefully prepared by both Clinton and President Obama in major speeches.

I’ve written before about this “smart power” idea and noted the potential pitfalls of mixing primarily political agendas together with efforts that are (supposed to be) about helping those in need. There are some clear benefits, obviously, to beefing up development programs and coordinating policy. But there are risks, too.

Bunting concludes that the damage done to Clinton by Wikileaks may be irreparable, and seems likely to derail her bold strategy of reinventing the U.S. government’s approach to development and foreign aid.

All of these plans are now thrown into doubt. Does Clinton have the political muscle to push this radical plan through? Does the State Department have the authority to take a lead role in this reshaping of the US role in the world? The answers to both questions look very shaky.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.