It’s hard to name a world capital Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hasn’t visited.
Since being sworn in the day after President Barack Obama’s Jan. 20, 2009, inauguration, the former first lady and senator has set foot in a record 110 countries and logged more than 900,000 miles on the road and in the air — as of press time. That beat the previous record-holder Madeleine Albright, who served as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state from 1997 to 2001.
From Tripoli to Tbilisi, Hillary Clinton has become a widely admired global figure who enjoys soaring approval ratings back home — far higher than her boss, in fact, the man who bested her for the Democratic nomination four years ago.
She’s been dubbed a “rock-star” diplomat by the New York Times Magazine, though she remains controversial in some quarters. But whatever the political future holds for Clinton, who just turned 65 on Oct. 26, there’s no question that when her term ends in January, the D.C. diplomatic corps is sure going to miss her.
“The United States has been very fortunate to have such a competent, articulate, hard-working secretary of state,” Philippine Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia Jr. told The Washington Diplomat. Clinton visited the Philippines a year ago, though her otherwise enthusiastic welcome in Manila was marred by anti-American protesters who splattered her motorcade with red paint. The activists were reportedly protesting a bilateral military agreement that allows U.S. troops to remain under U.S. jurisdiction while in the Philippines.
Red paint aside, the Philippines is one of several South Asian nations whose ties with the United States have been fortified thanks to the administration’s Asian pivot of military resources to blunt Chinese regional dominance — a policy Clinton has been instrumental in shaping and promoting.
“I can’t claim to know her that well, but the times we’ve met with her, she’s made a very good impression on us,” Cuisia said. “And she’s a very warm person who obviously shows concern for our country.”
Temuri Yakobashvili, ambassador of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, calls the 67th secretary of state “one of the best friends Georgia has ever had in the United States,” also noting that she “was an exemplary leader for many Georgian women who saw her as a role model.”
Among other things, he says, Clinton has forcefully articulated Washington’s hope that Georgia will regain the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which it lost to Russia after a five-day war in 2008.
Georgia’s foreign minister, Grigol Vashadze, has met with Clinton 16 times, both in Washington and at home. “If this were France or Germany, that wouldn’t be surprising, but this shows the level of engagement Hillary Clinton had with a small country like Georgia,” said Yakobashvili.
During her most recent visit to Georgia in June, Clinton announced a $16.6 million military aid package and praised the economically struggling nation for being the largest non-NATO contributor to the international mission in Afghanistan.
Clinton has butted heads with Georgia’s arch-nemesis, Russia, on plenty of occasions, whether it’s over Russian intransigence on the U.N. Security Council to address the violence in Syria or its shoddy record on democracy. Yet her resolve to stand up to Moscow has never jeopardized America’s long-term strategic interests in the country (such as the New Start nuclear treaty), which fits in with her reputation as a pragmatic, straight-shooting diplomat.
She’s also been a highly effective manager of America’s own diplomats, introducing a slew of new programs to help the State Department lumber into the 21st century.
Clinton’s “21st-century statecraft” model, for instance, includes an Internet freedom agenda that uses technology such as censorship-blocking software to help democracy activists (also see “Innovating Public Diplomacy for a New Digital World” in the August 2011 issue of The Washington Diplomat). But it also means more basic advances at the State Department, which finally has a decent Flickr photo site, tweets, blogs, and holds live video chats and briefings over the Internet, including Facebook and Twitter.
She’s also pursued a vision of “economic statecraft” that seeks to use America’s diplomatic power abroad to reinforce its economic position at home, while the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review aims to streamline civilian power and better coordinate it with the Defense Department.
Beyond the direct line of access she maintains with the White House and Pentagon, Clinton’s State Department has not neglected the local diplomatic community, improving outreach with programs such as the Protocol-led Experience America tours to places like Alaska, New Orleans and, most recently, Arkansas, where ambassadors got a firsthand look at the Clinton Library in Little Rock — with Bill Clinton as their host (Hillary was traveling).
In fact, if there’s anything foreign diplomats in Washington don’t like about the Illinois native and Yale Law School graduate, they certainly aren’t making it public.
“During her time in office, the relationship between our two countries got stronger,” said Akramul Qader, the Bangladeshi ambassador in Washington, recalling with obvious fondness the secretary of state’s visit to Dhaka in May.
“She’s a very widely traveled person and she understands and grasps problems very quickly — and she can be very decisive when needed,” said Qader, noting that Clinton had toured Bangladesh with her daughter Chelsea back in 1995.
But it was during this second visit in May that she hit back at critics who derided her lack of makeup. “I haven’t got time to worry” about such things, the secretary of state told CNN following a joint press conference with the prime minister of Bangladesh, also a woman. (The fact that Clinton’s makeup or coif can generate headlines just shows the double standards she and other high-powered women still contend with. When was Henry Kissinger’s hairdo ever a topic of discussion?)
Qader, who was present for the trip, said Clinton’s May 2012 visit was significant because she didn’t limit herself to Dhaka, the capital, but also toured remote Bangladeshi villages where NGOs are working to alleviate poverty and teach young girls how to read and write. Along the dusty road from the airport to the secretary of state’s hotel in central Dhaka, noted Condé Nast Traveler, large signs had been posted with greetings such as “Heartiest Welcome to Our Genuine and Lifelong Friend.”
Clinton has certainly scored points throughout the developing world with her support of programs such as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership to eliminate traditional cookstoves, which emit toxic smoke and lead to nearly 2 million premature deaths each year, many of them women and children.
Indeed, when it comes to women, Clinton has shown herself to be a “Genuine and Lifelong Friend.” The grace with which she’s handled herself as first lady, unsuccessful presidential candidate, U.S. senator from New York and now secretary of state has helped to make her America’s most admired woman in the world for 16 consecutive years.
But beyond her mere stature, Clinton has fundamentally elevated the role of women in America’s foreign policy as part of her multipronged approach to “smart power.” She’s spoken at countless women’s empowerment conferences, instituted State’s first ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues (Melanne Verveer), and spearheaded small but life-changing initiatives such as sports exchanges. One of these, for instance, recently brought 18 young female soccer players from India and Pakistan to the U.S. for a series of intensive soccer clinics, conflict resolution workshops, and sessions on disability sports (also see “U.S. Plays Up Power of Sports in Win-Win Approach to Diplomacy” in the October 2011 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Mwanaidi Sinare Maajar, Tanzania’s ambassador to the United States and one of a growing number of female envoys in Washington, said Clinton has inspired women all over the world.
“What is striking for me — coming from a country like Tanzania — is that she’s given women a prominent position in her foreign policy agenda,” Maajar told The Diplomat. “She’s always had women in the forefront.”
Maajar said Clinton’s tireless efforts on behalf of women were clearly evident during the secretary’s July 2011 visit to Tanzania, when she traveled 230 kilometers from the capital, Dar es Salaam, to the rural village of Ruvu. There, she witnessed firsthand the fruits of a USAID project that helps women form vegetable-growing cooperatives that raise money to send their children to school.
“It was a long trip, but that didn’t deter her,” said the ambassador, who accompanied Clinton to Ruvu. “She wanted to see these women. She would not skip it.”
That determination for personal face time — whether it’s taking questions in a town hall with Arab students, meeting with the U.S. embassy staff of every nation she visits, or sitting through hours of tense negotiations with a high-level Chinese delegation — has led to a schedule that 20-year-old college kids on Red Bull could scarcely keep up with. But it’s also left a lasting impression around the world.
For instance, earlier this year Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state in a quarter of a century to visit Côte d’Ivoire — a once-prosperous West African state that was torn apart by civil war after former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede that he had lost the November 2010 presidential election to Alassane Ouattara.
“In January, right after I was transferred here from Brazil as ambassador to the United States, I was informed that Hillary Clinton would be paying a visit to my country,” recalled Côte d’Ivoire’s envoy in Washington, Daouda Diabaté. “That was a big deal not only for me, but for my country. We were personally impressed by her dedication following our post-electoral crisis.”
That crisis killed 3,000 people and shattered the economy of this French-speaking former colony that ranks as the world’s largest grower of cocoa. Yet during her two days in Abidjan, Clinton made no secret of her optimism, telling Ouattara “we have no doubt that Côte d’Ivoire can once again be the engine of growth not only for Ivorians, but also for the region.”
Said Diabaté: “She took a very strong position on the side of democracy and the right of the Ivorian people to choose who they want for president. That position was followed later on by the strong statement by President Obama, asking former president [Gbagbo] to surrender power to the winner.”
Gbagbo was eventually captured and sent to The Hague, where he faces war crimes charges. Ouattara, meanwhile, is trying to rebuild his country and has resumed exports of gold, rubber and oil to the United States and Western Europe.
The administration’s support for Côte d’Ivoire’s democratically elected government reflects a calculated approach to democracy promotion that furthers American interests without draining its resources. It’s an approach that’s been tested by the Arab Spring.
Despite soaring rhetoric pledging a new relationship with the Muslim world, Obama has eschewed the sweeping vision — and nation-building military interventions — of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Libya was held up as a model of this hard-nosed approach. In stark contrast to Iraq, the United States assembled an international coalition (not a coalition of the willing that included Palau and Micronesia) that dislodged the country’s longtime dictator, making Libya one of the more Western-friendly governments in the Arab Spring.
But the attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans has cast a pall over that success story — and Clinton’s own efforts to bring stability to that war-wracked North African country.
Ali Aujali, Libya’s ambassador to the U.S. — who once represented but eventually turned against Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, casting his lot with the rebels — praised Clinton as a “world-class diplomat” on both an official and an unofficial level.
“She has been a stalwart supporter of the Libyan people,” he told us. “We are grateful to her leadership, advancement of the cause of freedom and a democratic Libya during the early days of the revolution, as well as her continuing support for a democratic transition.”
It was Oct. 21, 2011, when Clinton learned of Qaddafi’s death. She was preparing for interviews in Kabul, Afghanistan, when her top aide, Huma Abedin, handed her a BlackBerry with the first news of Qaddafi’s capture. The secretary of state reacted with a “Wow!” — proving she still had the capacity to be shocked, even in a year that saw the killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy Seals in Pakistan.
“I knew her even before she became secretary of state, when she was a senator,” said Aujali. “Of course, my relationship [with Clinton] became very special after the revolution and I resigned. She supported me from the first day. This was really important for me and for the Libyan people. We will never forget that.”
Aujali defended the State Department against charges it was unprepared for the brazen Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi. The nighttime assault — which U.S. officials at first incorrectly attributed to anti-American protesters outside the gates of the consulate — left four Americans dead, including J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya (also see “U.S. Debates How to Keep Envoys Safe Without Smothering Diplomacy” in the November 20112 issue).
“This was nobody’s fault,” said Aujali. “It was a surprise attack and there was nothing we could really do to prevent that. Unfortunately, no one in Libya expected something to happen against a diplomatic mission, especially the U.S. mission. The State Department should not take the blame for that.”
Yet questions over the Benghazi attack have intensified, with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina going so far as to accuse Clinton and other Obama administration officials of knowing within 24 hours of the assault that it was a coordinated militia attack — and was not related to anti-U.S. protests across the Middle East.
But Aujali brushed off speculation that the incident would tarnish Clinton’s legacy, insisting that “Hillary Clinton is a great diplomat and this is not an issue that will damage her reputation or affect her career.”
Clinton laid uncharacteristically low after the controversy over Benghazi erupted, though by Oct. 16, she categorically took “responsibility” for the tragedy and gave a major speech on stability in the Maghreb.
Shortly afterward, she was off to Lima, Peru, attending a conference on women’s empowerment in Latin America.
And with only two months to go, the secretary of state shows no sign of slowing down. On Oct. 22, Clinton — as well as husband Bill — attended the opening of Caracol Industrial Park, a sprawling free zone along the northern coast of Haiti whose financing she helped negotiate. The 608-acre park will create 20,000 garment manufacturing jobs while giving companies that invest there tax exemptions, duty-free access to the U.S. market and abundant cheap labor (also see the cover profile “Haiti’s New Envoy Wants Investment Dollars, Not Pity” in the September 2012 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
“There’s a personal relationship between the Clintons and Haiti going back to when they honeymooned in Haiti many years ago,” said Haitian Ambassador Paul Altidor. Before landing his current job, Altidor was vice president of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, a Washington-based nonprofit that has raised $54 million in donations since the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake to help Haiti get back on its feet.
“As political figures, they’ve put their weight in the balance to help Haiti develop in recent years,” he said. “And as secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton played a key role in putting Haiti in the limelight. Her efforts and commitment to Haiti have not gone unnoticed, either by the government or by the Haitian people.”
Despite the secretary’s love of travel and seemingly boundless energy, there are in fact some countries Hillary Clinton has not set foot in. One of them is Niger, a drought-stricken, landlocked West African nation of 8 million inhabitants that ranks as the second-poorest nation on Earth.
“Of course, I would have loved to see her visit my country, given everything that’s going on in the region — poverty, narco-trafficking, Islamic extremism — but that doesn’t take away from the way she performed her job,” said Maman S. Sidikou, Niger’s ambassador in Washington.
“One would have thought that somebody who wanted to be president wouldn’t jump in and do this kind of job, but she did,” he said. “When it came to the issues that really matter, like malnutrition and education, she was very smart and knowledgeable. We felt her influence all over.”
Sidikou, noting the rise of fundamentalist Muslim groups that have overthrown the central government in neighboring Mali, lamented Niger’s exclusion from Clinton’s many trips to Africa. “A visit by someone of her caliber would have sent a very strong message. But she still has a few months left in office, so maybe she’ll stop by.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.