Anna Quindlen: The End of Swagger

As Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton begin to use their uncommon authority and intelligence to implement a new American international agenda, it might behoove them to read a speech given some years ago in Beijing. It read in part: "If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are human rights for one and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely—and the right to be heard. Women must enjoy the rights to participate fully in the social and political lives of their countries if we want freedom and democracy to thrive and endure."

Secretary Clinton was first lady when she spoke those words at a United Nations conference on women in 1995. Some of the participants wept to hear an influential American commit to a view of the world so many of them shared: that the way for nations to prosper was to pay attention to women's rights, women's welfare and women's concerns.

President Obama has chosen a secretary of state who can make that course of action an integral part of the American strategy around the world. Their partnership promises a new paradigm. Obama is the first post-macho president, a man raised by the kind of struggling single mother who is the canary in the mine of health and welfare everywhere. Clinton is a female leader with proven mettle; there is not a country on earth that does not know of her power and her ability. Together they can free the United States to finally pursue policies that emphasize collaboration and connection instead of confrontation.

A simple primer on the state of the world: women do most of the good stuff and get most of the bad. No whine, just fact. They harvest food and raise children, tend to the aged and the ill. Yet according to the Global Fund for Women, two thirds of the world's uneducated children are girls, and, naturally, two thirds of the world's poorest people are female. Not coincidentally, women make up only about 16 percent of parliament members worldwide. Simple mathematics dictates that if we are interested in promoting prosperity, education and good government, the United States must focus on the welfare of women. One study shows that the key to reducing childhood malnutrition is maternal education. Another shows a connection between more women in political leadership and less corruption and incompetence.

For those who prefer stories to statistics, there is the moving new documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell." It follows a group of Liberian women weary of the murders, maiming and rapes that accompanied civil war in the African nation. They put on white T shirts and parked themselves conspicuously, day after day, on the road leading to the president's house, embarrassing and infuriating him in the process. When male power brokers gathered for peace talks in Ghana, posturing and dithering for days, then weeks, the women blockaded the meeting hall with their bodies, making it impossible for the men to leave.

A woman is now the president of Liberia.

Those are the kinds of conclusions that put people's backs up, particularly if those people happen to be male. Isn't it just another form of sexism, they argue, to suggest that women are better, or different? Hasn't Secretary Clinton shown herself to possess a killer instinct as finally honed as that of any male counterpart? Yes, she has, and perhaps now that everyone knows she can be the toughest person in the room, she is uniquely positioned to go the other way. "Soft diplomacy could be her greatest strength," says Kavita Ramdas, president of the Global Fund for Women. "This is the time to get rid of militarism as a dominant theme, not only because it's wrong, but because it doesn't work."

That was another theme in the president's inaugural speech, that effectiveness, not ideology, is key. That should be the ethos that guides foreign policy as well. The notion of winning, illusory in our age, should be replaced with what works to cement alliances and raise the standard of living worldwide. The best rear-guard action in the war on terror, for example, is a war on poverty and ignorance. You could argue that the clearest suggestion that our values will prevail in Afghanistan are the girls who returned to school even after acid was thrown in their faces to keep them in the old condition of subjugation. Their scars are a flag of freedom.

To reread the Clinton speech in Beijing is to see a woman preparing to cast aside the schisms created by overweening American exceptionalism. She spoke from her heart when she told women from around the world that the universal experience of being female overrides the bright lines of division created by religion, class, place. "When families flourish, communities and nations do as well," she said.

It's worth noting that there were some in her husband's administration who didn't want her to make that speech. If she led a department that saw engaging and enriching women as a linchpin of its work, she might well be accused of feminizing foreign policy. Both she and the president could respond: so what? An American foreign policy informed by swagger and arrogance has been a conspicuous failure, making the United States not respected but reviled. It is no wonder that President Obama ended his inaugural remarks about international friendship with the promise "We are ready to lead once more." The world's women are ready for that, too.