Fiona Hill's speech about global perceptions of the US was spot on

A former high-ranking White House staffer calling the the US’s standing abroad bleak deserves to be heard

US President Joe Biden and US Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House on May 25, in DC. AFP
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While the 100th birthday of Henry Kissinger has been marked around the world this week, another prominent former White House official recently gave a speech which was more incisive and perspicacious about America’s place in the world than anything the gravelly voiced former secretary of state has said for years.

The passing of pax Americana is now “apparent to everyone”, said Fiona Hill, who became well known as senior director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council during Donald Trump’s presidency. The war in Ukraine is not the US and the world against Russia, she said; instead it has now become “a proxy for a rebellion by Russia and the ‘Rest’ against the United States.” Delivering the keynote lecture at a conference held by the International Centre for Defence and Security in Estonia last month, Ms Hill claimed that far from there being an international rules-based order – the term so beloved of US diplomats – the current reality did not even constitute an “order” at all. “In short, in 2023, we hear a resounding no to US domination and see a marked appetite for a world without a hegemon.”

I wouldn’t disagree. But what makes this so remarkable is that Ms Hill has hitherto been regarded as an aggressively interventionist neo-conservative. It is frankly astonishing to hear someone who has been part of the foreign policy “blob” in Washington, where the consensus has long been that western-style liberal democracy is the only acceptable long-term outcome around the globe, not only concede that much of the world does not want to be led by the US but, as she went on to explain, she also understands why.

Former White House national security aide Fiona Hill, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, on November 21, 2019. AP

“America fatigue” is widespread, she said. “For some, the US is a flawed international actor with its own domestic problems to attend to. For others, the US is a new form of imperial state that ignores the concerns of others and throws its military weight around.”

Ms Hill cited a number of factors that have led to those conclusions. She started with US foreign policy inconsistency, with the War on Terror, which “alienated the vast swathe of the Muslim world”, followed by inaction in Yemen and selective interventions in Libya and Syria. “Unfortunately, just as the former leader of Al Qaeda Osama bin Laden intended, the US’s own reactions and actions have eroded its position since the devastating terrorist attacks of 9/11.”

And so today, she said, when it comes to Ukraine, the hard line advocated by the Biden White House is seen by many as hypocritical. “Yes, Russia overturned the fundamental post-1945 principle of the prohibition against war and the use of force enshrined in Article 2 of the UN Charter. But, the US already damaged this principle when it invaded Iraq 20 years ago. ‘What aboutism’ is not just a feature of Russian rhetoric. The US invasion of Iraq universally undercut US credibility and continues to do so.”

Her assessment of the US’s standing abroad is bleak. “In the so-called ‘Global South,’ and what I am loosely referring to as the ‘Rest’ (of the world),” she said, “there is no sense of the US as a virtuous state.” Even if elites and populations may have benefitted from the pax Americana enabled by the post-War international system set up by the US, the UK and others, they often believe “that the system was imposed on them at a time of weakness when they were only just securing their own independence.”

Echoing a point I have made several times in these pages, she said “the Cold War era non-aligned movement has re-emerged, if it ever went away. At present, this is less a cohesive movement than a desire for distance, to be left out of the European mess around Ukraine. But it is also a very clear negative reaction to the American propensity for defining the global order and forcing countries to take sides.”

Noting that “In contrast to the US, as well as others like Japan, South Korea and India, most countries do not see China as a direct military or security threat,” she also observed that “outside Europe and the Transatlantic arena, Nato has an image problem.”

Very sensibly, given the near-impossibility of reforming the UN Security Council, but acknowledging that many countries are irked at the privileges granted to the permanent five members, she also suggested finding a way to boost the power of the UN General Assembly as a more effective counter-balance to the inequitable influence given to those five.

There was much more in this speech, which so stripped away the pieties and assumptions dearly cherished in Washington that it would have been a bombshell if it had been delivered by a serving US official. What was entirely absent, however, was anything remotely resembling any grand narrative, let alone the “democracy versus autocracy” line we have heard from President Biden so much.

Ms Hill urged a “diplomatic surge” in terms of Ukraine as well as what she called “the vital military track” – she is still a hawk – but emphasised the need for US and European engagement with the rest of the world. Again, there was no starry-eyed idealism in her words: “Given the disparate views and agendas, we will have to take a piecemeal and more transactional approach to identify areas where we can make common cause with other states as well as international and private sector actors.”

Fiona Hill’s lecture was stark, but it must be the most clear-eyed speech about global perceptions of the US delivered by a former high-ranking White House staffer for a very long time indeed. Her former colleagues and her successors in the Biden administration should read it, as should many in Europe.

Ms Hill, a British American, has served her adopted country under three presidents so far. If Mr Trump returns to the White House – a prospect that fills many with dread, I know – one positive sign would be if he persuaded her to take another senior role. The doctrine of “principled realism” that Mr Trump’s officials began to lay out, and which could reset US foreign policy fundamentally in a way that would be welcomed around the world, may have found its foremost advocate. I say bravo.

Published: June 01, 2023, 4:00 AM