Clinton voted for military action in Iraq but now admits she got it wrong. Photo: Bloomberg via Getty
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The new stateswoman: Hillary Clinton’s steely idealism

Will Hillary run for president in 2016? Her memoir is more interested in the fine art of diplomacy.

Hard Choices: a Memoir
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 635pp, £20

I last met Hillary just a few weeks ago in Arizona. That day she spoke alongside another former US presidential candidate, John McCain, and addressed a private gathering including almost a dozen of her former colleagues in the Senate. Yet even in such august company she stood out, not so much for her past achievements as for the palpable sense of expectation that surrounded her future choices.

That afternoon she excused herself by explaining that she had just received her editors’ final comments on Hard Choices and she needed to meet their exacting deadlines. Now the product of her labours – all 635 pages – is arriving on bookstands around the world. A promotional tour across the US is being planned with, as the New York Times described it, “all the subtlety of a military operation ramping up to full speed”.

Given the book is widely seen as a prelude to a possible 2016 run for the White House, what intrigues the reader is the extent to which it is intimately informed by the nuance of governance rather than the primary colours of politics. Indeed, in its best passages it is elevated by an acknowledgment of the gravity of the challenges leadership entails. It is more focused on insight than intrigue, and is a better read because of this.

For four years Hillary Clinton did what many believe is one of the most difficult jobs in government – a role that demands calm, considered and careful diplomacy in the context of unpredictable, unprecedented and often unknown challenges. Her tenure as secretary of state came towards the end of what President Obama later described as a “decade of war”. With typical diligence, Clinton set about putting her global superstardom in the service of rebuilding America’s standing abroad. From town-hall meetings to TV studios to presidential palaces, Hillary worked to engage both the public and the politicians in 112 countries.

The book, like its author, is characteristically disciplined and organised. Chapters are country- or issue-specific, and are divided into sections defined by themes – ranging from the personal “A Fresh Start”, to the policy-orientated “War and Peace”, and ending with the overtly political “The Future We Want”. As an account of US foreign policy during her tenure, it is thoughtful and reflective. She engages with some of the most challenging questions asked about the US’s place in the world, even if the answers she gives are not always wholly satisfactory.

She does not shy away from difficult topics such as the rise of China, the declining significance of hard power, the challenge of terrorism and the legacy of past conflicts, but there are strikingly fewer pages devoted to answering questions (which she herself raises) about the impact of the Edward Snowden leaks on the work of the National Security Agency or the perceived legitimacy of US drone strikes abroad.

Despite this, knowing what I do of the author, I felt Hard Choices gives a pretty authentic insight into the way she views the world. Good friends of mine who have worked closely with Hillary often characterise her – in her life and in her work – as an “idealistic realist”. Reading this book helped me understand better what they mean.

One much-publicised section that exemplifies this point is her description of the events surrounding the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. She reveals her optimism at the start of the uprising, which is then abruptly tempered by the reality on the ground. Her idealism informed her instinctive response but her realism stopped her from being swept up in much of the euphoria that greeted the protest movements in the Middle East. While many around her saw them as analogous to eastern Europe in 1988 and 1989, clearly she did not.

Nevertheless, the crisis in Libya in 2011 was a critical moment in her term and she openly concedes that the American public’s reaction to it was undoubtedly blurred by the previous ten years of conflict, when US forces had been “bogged down in long and difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”. Indeed, the calculation of whether to use force against the increasingly violent Gaddafi regime was dependent, in the views of her trusted advisers, on a number of conditions: a clearly stated objective, legal authority, international support and adequate on-the-ground military capabilities.

That debate taking place in Washington, which Hillary recounts in the book, was also under way in parallel here in the UK. On 21 March 2011, following a six-hour Commons debate, we in Labour gave our support to the UK government’s decision to use British forces to support a co-ordinated effort to stop Gaddafi killing more of his own people. I said in my speech to parliament that night that the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan had taught us that military action, even in support of humanitarian ends, brings with it unforeseen and uncertain consequences. Tragically, those unforeseen consequences unfolded in Benghazi just over a year later with the bloody storming of the US diplomatic compound when two diplomats and two CIA officers lost their lives. This event proved to be one of Hillary Clinton’s harshest challenges and she reflects on it deeply in the book, describing her frustration at being able to offer the American people “incomplete answers” only in the aftermath of the attack.

One of the hallmarks of that time was the partnership between the US and Europe. It is clear that Hillary saw her role as healing some of the damage done to America’s relations, and in the book she refers to her duty to “pick up the baton and do everything to renew old ties”. When she was first appoin­ted secretary of state, Europe was warm to that renewal. Barack Obama’s popularity across the continent meant that Europe’s door was wide open to better relations with the US under a new presidency. But Hillary notes that, if anything, expectations ran too high in 2008 and her time was all too often spent managing those expectations rather than fulfilling them.

In interviews to promote her book in recent days, she has continued to tread a careful diplomatic line when asked about US-Europe relations. She has also been quizzed specifically about Britain’s place in the EU and the possibility that David Cameron’s referendum policy could lead to the UK exiting Europe altogether. When asked by Jeremy Paxman on 12 June whether ties between America and Britain would suffer if we left the EU, Hillary smiled diplomatically and simply said “Europe needs Britain”. In a 21st century defined by interdependence, isolation in the Atlantic would be anything but splendid for Britain and a British exit from the EU would fundamentally damage our partnership with the US, just as it would isolate us from Europe.

Hillary was finely attuned to that need for a conscious commitment to multilateralism. As secretary of state she took a judgement that – in her own words – Asia would be the place where much of the “history of the 21st century would be written” and her first overseas visit was designed to show Asia that “America was back”. The pivot to Asia prompted broad US re-engagement in the multilateral organisations of the Pacific, such as the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean). No previous US secretary of state had visited the headquarters of Asean in Jakarta but she purposefully did so on that first trip.

This “Asia awareness” is unsurprising. In the Senate she had called the rise of China “one of the most consequential strategic developments of our time” and was an early advocate of a “careful and disciplined” response to the relationship.

Yet even after finishing the book I am left wondering whether the pivot to Asia that Hillary oversaw, with a new emphasis on regional security alliances, will prove sufficient to acknowledge the global rebalancing of power and wealth now under way. Her successor, John Kerry, chose Europe and the Middle East – a much more conventional destination – for his first overseas visit, and the Middle East continues to absorb US time, energy and bandwidth.

As a secretary of state, milestone agreements are harder to come by than air miles. During her time in the job, Hillary Clinton travelled over 956,733 miles. Yet this book is less a travelogue and more of a dialogue between Hillary the diplomat and Hillary the candidate.

She gives a detailed account of her time in office, but also reflects on the decisions she took with the benefit of hindsight. This allows her to do what is still all too rare in politics: admit her mistakes. Hillary’s major error, as she sees it, was the 2002 vote on the authorisation of US force in Iraq. In this book she says plainly, “I got it wrong” – and she expresses real regret at not having come out sooner to say she thought it was a “mistake”.

This is the kind of insight you get into how her thinking has changed over the years. It sits alongside personal anecdotes that help paint a picture of what kind of woman Hillary is today, compared to the crude depictions that she so often suffered in her early years in public life.

She is a politician worried about the embarrassment of falling asleep in meetings who digs her nails into her palms to keep herself awake. She is a mother, so excited by the prospect of the wedding in 2010 of her daughter, Chelsea, that she nicknames herself “MOTB” (mother of the bride) in the months leading up to it. And she is also a wife, willing to confess that there were sometimes occasions when she may have wished she wasn’t.

And, today, she is indeed a Democrat facing a hard choice. She has the humility to accept that ultimately the choice is for the American people, but in reality their choices will depend on hers – and that is why they, and the rest of the world, will await with anticipation the next chapter of this story.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and the MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge