When former Secretary of State — and potential 2016 presidential pack leader — Hillary Clinton describes you as one of the best-connected power players in Washington, it's safe to say you know a few things about forging alliances and getting things done.
Clinton lavished that compliment on longtime Washington insider Kris Balderston in February 2011 as she swore him in to a brand new position as the State Department's special representative for global partnerships. The high-flying post took Balderston's previously domestic career global as he served as chief liaison between corporate America, the State Department and governments all over the world.
"There isn't anyone I can imagine who is as well connected," Clinton said at an official department ceremony.
Clinton would certainly know. After all, Balderston — recently named Washington general manager of FleishmanHillard, one of the world's largest public relations and communications firms — has worked for either Clinton or her husband (that would be former President Bill) for nearly two decades. Balderston served as President Clinton's special assistant for Cabinet affairs and then deputy assistant to the president from 1995 until the end of Clinton's term in 2001. Then, with her eye on New York's soon-to-be open U.S. Senate seat, Hillary put Balderston to work for her. Clinton tapped the Upstate New York native to teach her key political details, such as how to pronounce the names of obscure Empire State towns and more importantly, which local kingmakers to schmooze.
The plan worked perfectly — at least for Clinton. She got elected and offered Balderston a job in her Senate office. But at the time, he wasn't so sure he wanted it. He had already served a stint on Capitol Hill, as senior policy advisor for Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) in the early 1990s, and he wasn't convinced he wanted to return.
"I was really more of an executive branch kind of person," Balderston recalled thinking during an expansive, late-afternoon interview with The Diplomat in his new office overlooking midtown.
However, the former first lady is nothing if not persuasive, and despite his reservations, Balderston signed on for the Senate job. He ended up staying for Clinton's entire eight-year tenure in the upper chamber of Congress, serving as both legislative director and deputy chief of staff. And though he had virtually zero international experience, Clinton turned to Balderston once again in 2009, when President Barack Obama asked her to be his secretary of state.
This time, Clinton named Balderston as managing director of the newly created Office of Global Partnerships, which put him in charge of State Department initiatives such as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, Accelerating Market-Driven Partnerships, and the International Diaspora Engagement Alliance, also known as IdEA. The primary task at the root of each of these programs was finding ways for private companies to collaborate with government — especially in developing countries — to create jobs, make profits and improve people's lives. (Current Secretary of State John Kerry recently brought on board Andrew O'Brien, the state director in his Massachusetts office when Kerry was a senator, as Balderston's successor.)
For Balderston, who is constantly seeking ways to convene seemingly disparate powers in the pursuit of common goals, the job was a natural fit.
"I think people are very frustrated by the lack of government's ability to find solutions, and there has to be a new paradigm to bring people in to take ownership of these problems and work together to solve them," Balderston told The Diplomat. "The world is changing. It sounds corny, but when you get the honor of traveling around the world 15 days a month as I did — in villages and huts and capitals and parliaments — you realize there is a sense of urgency and we need to fix these problems. Everybody needs to get into the fray and get over their hang-ups."
The initiative might sound small bore, but the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is perhaps the program Balderston oversaw that has the greatest potential to improve and save lives, as well as empower women and protect the environment. Naturally cheerful and effusive, Balderston practically gushed when he talked about the alliance, which seeks to put clean-burning cookstoves in 100 million households worldwide by 2020. He said carcinogenic emissions from traditional wood-burning stoves kill more than 2 million women and children each year. In the Congo, women are routinely raped as they forage for wood to cook their meals, according to the program's website.
"It [primitive cooking methods] is the fourth-largest killer in the world. It kills more people than tuberculosis, HIV and malaria put together and no one knows it," Balderston said, incredulously.
That's starting to change. So far, the public-private initiative, launched in 2009, has secured more than $130 million and nearly 40 partner countries to implement its goals. Academy Award-winning actress Julia Roberts signed on as the program's spokeswoman, and celebrity chef José Andrés, who owns some of Washington's glitziest restaurants, became a public face of the program, as well. (The Diplomat profiled the initiative in its December 2010 issue in "Common, Deadly, Preventable: Three Humanitarian Efforts With Huge Impact.")
"He [Andrés] said 'cooking should not kill,'" Balderston recalled, smiling at the powerful simplicity of the statement. "We attracted 39 countries to join, including China. We had Shell and Morgan Stanley and Dow Corning [Silicones] involved ... but there were a lot of skeptics."
Balderston said securing the involvement of respected corporate leaders, who knew about developing and distributing products and technology, was critical.
"We didn't have the government run it as we have in the past," he said. "We sent it out and we put it on the conveyer belt."
Although he's in the private sector now, Balderston said he's remained on the board of directors of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.
"You can't enter that world without being affected," he explained. "I've been in villages and seen clean cookstoves and it works. People start paying attention to their kitchens. They don't have soot on their ceilings — it is life changing."
Balderston also said he was encouraged by the State Department's work on the International Diaspora Engagement Alliance, launched at the inaugural Global Diaspora Forum in 2011 as a new pillar of foreign policy. The initiative aims to tap into the vast networks of first- and second-generation Americans who can help solve problems festering in their homelands. Balderston said Washington's foreign embassies can reach out to their diasporas, which are ideally situated to assist their countries.
He advised embassies to organize their diasporas to push back against negative media stereotypes of their cultures, organize for better political representation, and improve economic opportunities in their homelands.
"There are so many things these embassies can be doing," he said. "If the embassy has a sincere relationship with their diaspora community in this country, they can send messages back to them. They can say, 'Hey, we're getting beat up [in the media] so we've got to organize, so the U.S. government knows what's going on in our country.'
"Then when they're together culturally, and they've solved problems politically, they can solve problems economically," Balderston continued. "We've got to give loans and grants to our brothers and sisters back home to create an entrepreneurial spirit or say, 'I want to invest.' There are a lot of companies now, Dow Corning being one, that actually send their employees back to their home countries because they want to know about new markets. Embassies could be centers of this activity to get companies to take a look at what's going on back there."
Balderston said 60 million people living in America send $90 billion dollars in on-the-books remittances to their home countries — and noted that the State Department estimates the actual number is likely double or even triple that amount.
"Embassies should be getting into this realm and really working with their communities," he said.
Part of what attracted Balderston to FleishmanHillard when the company approached him upon Clinton's resignation from the State Department was its global network of offices and contacts. Balderston, the first outsider to come in as the company's Washington general manager, told us he imagines the communications giant as a sort of "corporate State Department."
"I was approached by people at FleishmanHillard to look at things a little differently and take the partnerships that we grew at the State Department and try to bring that idea over here — the idea of public-private collaboration," he explained.
He said his job isn't simply corporate communications. It's helping to leverage FleishmanHillard's vast networks connecting Capitol Hill to foreign governments, corporate and nonprofit leaders, innovators, educators, celebrities and trendsetters — and get results for clients.
The PR company, founded in 1946, is trying to revamp its image and be the "the most complete communications agency in the world," as it puts it, offering integrated strategies for social media and other 21st-century content.
"The public affairs business is changing," Balderston said. "There will always be a market for helping people with communication but you want to build these trusted networks that solve problems. We have over 80 offices around the world, but we have the ability to be a boutique Washington firm yet have global reach to solve a lot of these problems and do things a little bit differently."
Balderston said the fuzzy, feel-good notion of corporate social responsibility is outdated.
"Nobody really does anything altruistically — it's what's in it for me," Balderston asserted flatly. "We want to say, 'Look, this is good for you, too ... this is shared value."
He used Coke, PepsiCo and Procter and Gamble — large users of water around the globe — as examples of companies that are going to great lengths to protect water supplies, not only because it's good for civilization, but for their bottom lines.
"We're going to have a water shortage if we don't start conserving our water," he said. "Pepsi has a whole program on conserving water in India. Unilever is one of the best corporations on sustainability ... and it's because we can't keep going down the road of destroying our resources if you want to keep selling our products. It's not feel-good at all. It's doing well and doing good. Walmart gives free health screenings and it brings other people into the store to buy their products.
"We've gone beyond corporate social responsibility," he added. "It is now impact investing and shared value and doing well and doing good. That's a trend that is occurring in the country right now and in the world."
Balderston pointed to a 2011 speech Hillary Clinton gave in Busan, South Korea, in which she declared that the U.S. government was done simply handing out aid to foreign countries without expecting invested partners to pitch in, as well.
"The days of pure aid are over — we can't afford it," Balderston said. "You need investment. It is about investment now. No one sector, no one foundation, no one country can solve these problems anymore. That's where I think bringing in different investments is important, so people have ownership into the problem."
Reflecting on his days at the State Department, which he conceded he had never visited in 32 years in Washington before Clinton offered him a job, Balderston said the agency is underfunded and could do vastly more with a few additional resources. But he also said taxpayers are getting a terrific bang for their buck at the diplomatic shop.
"I didn't know much about the Foreign Service, but they're very resourceful," Balderston said. "They stepped up to the plate when the secretary said, 'I want change in 21st-century diplomacy.' Their reach is amazing."
Speaking of the secretary, contemplating Hillary Clinton's next move has become one of Washington's favorite parlor games. Who better to ask than Balderston: Will she run for president?
"I don't really know and honestly, I don't think she knows yet — I can sincerely say that," he replied. "She said this in an open meeting with staff: She was given the advice that you shouldn't make big decisions when you're transitioning, and she's transitioning out of public service for the first time in 30 years. Now is not the time to say, 'Oh, I'm going to the next thing.'
"I really sincerely — and people roll their eyes when I say this — think she just needs a period of time to think about and reflect on what she's accomplished, think about how she wants to use the Clinton Foundation," he added.
But without missing a beat, the man who knows Hillary Clinton as well as just about anyone sounded a note of optimism.
"I think she'd be spectacular and I'd get in line to help her in any way I could," he said.
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.