Hillary Clinton plays it safe with 'smart power' speech

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks on "Smart Power: Security Through Inclusive Leadership" at Georgetown University in Washington on Dec. 3, 2014.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks on "Smart Power: Security Through Inclusive Leadership" at Georgetown University in Washington on Dec. 3, 2014.

It was the right topic at the right venue for Hillary Clinton Wednesday morning at Georgetown University, but the timing was off. Poor weather and impending finals kept students from filling up the ornate Gaston Hall, and her wonky foreign policy remarks left many disappointed who are hungry for something more from the likely presidential candidate.

It was just over a month ago when Clinton last visited Georgetown’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, which was founded by a close friend and former aide of Clinton’s, and where Clinton herself serves as honorary chair.

“When I told my husband this morning that I was going to Georgetown, he said, you’ve been to Georgetown more in the past two years than I have,” the former secretary of state joked as she took the stage. Bill Clinton is a Georgetown alum.

On October 30, when she last appeared at Gaston Hall, decorated with elaborate wood-carved beams and religious frescos, it was to talk about women's role in the economy.

It was also in this room that she, in her first year as secretary of state, launched the the country’s first “action plan on women, peace, and security.” Melanne Verveer, who now runs the Georgetown institute and who moderated the discussion Wednesday, served as Clinton’s Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues.

This time, when Clinton came to Georgetown to partake in a conference on “smart power," the topic was as close to her heart as any. It was her guiding philosophy at State.

Clinton defined the term Wednesday as "using every possible tool and partner to advance peace and security,” while “showing respect” for other countries and actors on the world stage – “even for one’s enemies.”

She also spoke about women, noting they often “bear the humanitarian load" of conflicts more than men. But she added, "Women are not just victims of conflict, they are agents of peace and agents of change." She referenced the Northern Ireland Peace process, where women took a lead.

After Clinton concluded her remarks, Norway’s 38-year-old female Defense Minister, Ine Eriksen Soreide took the stage. She told a story about how the then-secretary of state inspired Soreide to have the confidence to take on the chairmanship of the foreign policy committee in her Parliament.

Soreide also said Russia “violated fundamental ... international law” in Ukraine. Clinton nodded in agreement. Later, the former secretary of state called the comments “very strong.”

Related: Can anyone stop Hillary Clinton?

The themes are all well-known to those familiar with Clinton’s work, but felt somewhat vintage for a former secretary of state who has been increasingly moving away from her foreign policy safe zone into economic and other domestic issues, like immigration.

And there was little room for spontaneity or commenting on news of the day.

Questions from students were submitted ahead of time and reviewed by a committee of faculty and students before being read by Verveer. At the start of the program, an announcer declared that interruptions to the program “will not be permitted."

The questions Clinton was asked focused on women's roles in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, something Clinton spoke about another time she visited Georgetown.

Meanwhile, as she speaking, an entirely different theme was being pushed by Republicans operatives, who filled reporters’ inboxes and Twitter feeds with pictures showing empty rows of seats in the hall.

The university said the hall seats over 700 people, but that only 400 turned out. The entire balcony was empty, save reporters, while there were several empty seats downstairs.

"Secretary Clinton's visits to Georgetown are always met with great enthusiasm here. She was here four weeks ago and students lined up overnight for that visit and we had to turn people away due to the interest. This is the last week of classes for the semester and many students are preparing for finals," university spokesperson Stacy Kerr said in an email. "Secretary Clinton is not being paid (and has never been paid) to speak at Georgetown."

Clinton regularly gives speeches where she’s paid up to $300,000 by groups to hear her remarks. Tickets were offered free to every student.

The university and students sympathetic to Clinton pointed out that many students were busy studying for upcoming finals. The rainy weather also may have kept some students indoors, and made Clinton run about 30 minutes late for her speech, which Verveer blamed on “weather delays.”