In the run-up to her official 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton spoke at the Women in the World Summit in New York City in April. Some interpreted Clinton’s remarks as evidence of her commitment to feminism. “The choice of the location in itself sends a strong signal,” wrote Slate’s Amanda Marcotte; “If there was any doubt that Clinton intends to run a woman-centric campaign, her speech erased it.” Others viewed the speech as just another calculated exercise. “Hillary Unveils Her Plan to Advance Women’s Rights (and Her Own Campaign)” read the headline of an article on New York magazine’s website.  

Such is the ambiguous nature of Clinton’s image: Even more than most politicians, she inspires contrasting views about her authenticity. Does she really mean what she says?  

Columbia University Press

Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl, the authors of The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy, have no doubts about the subject. “While perhaps others in the Obama administration might feel that the Hillary Doctrine is some type of rhetorical flourish, it is impossible to believe that is the case for Clinton herself,” they write. The idea of a “Hillary Doctrine” was first propagated in a 2011 Newsweek cover story that defined it as the belief that “the subjugation of women is a direct threat to the security of the United States.” Hillary first espoused this idea in a speech to the United Nations delivered as Secretary of State, and she reinforced it with policies, ordering all components of the State Department to undertake gender analyses of their areas of responsibility, for example.

Well, that’s the Hillary Doctrine they discuss. Different "Hillary Doctrines" have been proclaimed by others. David Rohde (or his headline writers) defined it as belief that a bipartisan, long-term commitment to stabilizing far-off nations is essential to American security. Last August, John Cassidy argued that the Hillary Doctrine could be found in the Clinton’s idea of “a sustained global campaign targeting radical Islam (some, doubtless, will call it a ‘crusade’) that encompasses all of the options at the disposal of the United States and its allies: military, diplomatic, economic, political, and rhetorical.” Most recently, James Goldgeier, a State Department official during Bill Clinton’s presidency, outlined the Hillary Doctrine as a worldview that “appreciates the limitations of U.S. power and yet still maintains the resolve to identify opportunities to lead the world.” Clinton certainly highlighted issues facing girls and women as Secretary of State. But did she devote most of the considerable resources of her office toward implementing her rhetoric surrounding this issue?

Professors at Texas A&M and Michigan State, respectively, Hudson and Leidl make significant efforts to suggest that she did. After a brief history of the evolution of gender’s place in American foreign-policymaking, they present research demonstrating the relationship between a nation’s stability and its gender equality. Some of this pioneering research was conducted by Hudson herself; she examined 141 nations and found that the best predictor of a state’s internal and external peacefulness was its level of violence against women. The Hillary Doctrine presents Guatemala as a case study in the argument that there is a “link between gendercide and genocide,” and Saudi Arabia as a case for the argument that there is a link between a nation’s attitudes toward its women and the risk that the country poses to the international community. 

They note “a conspicuous silence” from Clinton about Saudi Arabia’s brutal gender abuses, however, which underlines a wrinkle in their thesis. The Hillary Doctrine generously suggests that “perhaps Clinton believes that issues of women’s status are best left to private conversations are the highest level of diplomacy.” Perhaps. Or perhaps Clinton prioritizes the preservation of good relations with a major oil-producing country in the Gulf favorable to America over issues of human rights, like every other Secretary of State since Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency.

It would be an overstatement to say that the book is a glowing endorsement of the likely 2016 Democratic nominee. Hudson and Leidl freely admit that “the scorecard for the Hillary Doctrine is mixed.” In areas such as the number of female ambassadors, the increased scrutiny the State Department gave to other nations’ records on gender, and the inclusion of women in peace talks in Sudan and Afghanistan, Clinton’s record shines. But Afghanistan can be seen as something of a failure failure, one where “the rights of women and girls continue to be cynically disregarded even as the [Western] coalition mumbles about the necessity of gender equality.”

What The Hillary Doctrine fails to do is to justify the premise behind “The Hillary Doctrine:” that achieving gender equality is essential to the direct security of the United States. Achieving equality for girls and women around the world is a worthy aim, and America should pursue it for that reason alone. But arguing that America cannot be secure unless women are on par with men in every country in the world is an exercise in threat inflation. It also establishes a bar for American security that is both unrealizable and unnecessary.

No nation is perfectly secure, but America is as secure as any major power in world history. As Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko put it in a brilliant 2012 Foreign Affairs essay, “The United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon.” And yet, analysts continue to act as though America is beset by dangers. Yes, it is in America’s “national security interests” to operate in a less sexist world. But it is not clear that it is in America’s vital interests to operate in such a world. At least not if one defines “vital interest” as something that is necessary for a country to function with secure territory and sovereignty.

The Hillary Doctrine admirably forefronts the idea that the safety of women worldwide is a pressing moral issue. But it would have been more effective if it had better explained why this moral issue merits policymakers’ finite attention and money. Instead, it endorses the idea that the country cannot be safe unless one of the world’s most universal, long-standing, and intractable inequities is rectified. If Hillary Clinton is elected president next year, let’s hope she knows the difference.