Home The Washington Diplomat February 2009 Hillary Goes to the Hill to BeginHer Quest as America’s Top Diplomat

Hillary Goes to the Hill to BeginHer Quest as America’s Top Diplomat


It is safe to assume that Hillary Rodham Clinton did not give up her comfy seat in the U.S. Senate to become a caretaker secretary of state or to stand on the periphery of debates about U.S. foreign policy.

By all accounts, Clinton accepted President Barack Obama’s offer to become the country’s top diplomat so that she could help overhaul America’s foreign policy, re-establish the nation’s reputation in the world, test her skills in one of the world’s most difficult jobs, and try to nudge history — and the world — in a positive direction.

And when Obama appointed Clinton to be his secretary of state, he said his former rival for the presidency would help forge “a new dawn of American leadership” in international affairs.

In all administrations, the secretary of state is the first-ranking Cabinet officer and a senior member of the National Security Council. But the power and influence of secretaries of state have differed sharply over the decades — and over administrations.

During her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 13, lawmakers from both parties praised Clinton and made it clear she would have a fairly easy road to confirmation. And indeed, she was confirmed one day after Obama was sworn in as president.

Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the committee, called Clinton “the epitome of a big leaguer.”

“Her qualifications for this post are remarkable. Her presence at the helm of the State Department could open up unique opportunities for U.S. diplomacy and could bolster efforts to improve foreign attitudes toward the United States,” Lugar said.

“She has long-standing relationships with many world leaders that could be put to great use in the service of our country. Her time in the Senate has given her a deep understanding between the Executive and Legislative branches. She is fully prepared to engage the world on a myriad of issues that urgently require attention,” he added.

During her testimony and nearly four hours of questioning, Clinton frequently deferred to President Obama and spoke approvingly of the “Obama agenda,” trying to reinforce the notion that she would dutifully carry out the president’s agenda instead of pursuing her own, as some critics have suggested.

But Clinton, the former first lady and senator from New York, made it clear that she wants to be a player in the transformation of U.S. foreign policy, citing the need to work closely with allies on a range of difficult issues.

“America cannot solve the most pressing problems on our own, and the world cannot solve them without America. The best way to advance America’s interests in reducing global threats and seizing global opportunities is to design and implement global solutions. This isn’t a philosophical point. This is our reality,” she told the senators.

Clinton said she and Obama both concur that foreign policy must “be based on a marriage of principles and pragmatism, not rigid ideology, on facts and evidence, not emotion or prejudice. Our security, our vitality and our ability to lead in today’s world oblige us to recognize the overwhelming fact of our interdependence.”

But she also declared that although the United States has lost the confidence of many nations over the past eight years, much of the world still yearns for assertive and competent U.S. leadership. “I believe that American leadership has been wanting, but is still wanted. We must use what has been called ‘smart power,’ the full range of tools at our disposal — diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural — picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation,” she explained. “With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy.”

Clinton added that she shares in Obama’s belief that far more robust American diplomacy is needed in the coming years. “One need only look to North Korea, Iran, the Middle East and the Balkans to appreciate the absolute necessity of tough-minded, intelligent diplomacy — and the failures that result when that kind of diplomatic effort is absent,” she said.

Clinton also made it clear that she intends to be an activist secretary of state, working to expand and deepen the capacity of the morale-sapped and resource-strapped State Department (see “Defense, Development and Diplomacy: Experts Want a Return to the Last Two.”)

“I assure you that, if I am confirmed, the State Department will be firing on all cylinders to provide forward-thinking, sustained diplomacy in every part of the world; applying pressure and exerting leverage; cooperating with our military partners and other agencies of government; partnering effectively with NGOs, the private sector and international organizations; using modern technologies for public outreach; empowering negotiators who can protect our interests while understanding those of our trading partners,” she said.

“There will be thousands of separate interactions, all strategically linked and coordinated to defend American security and prosperity. Diplomacy is hard work, but when we work hard, diplomacy can work, and not just defuse tensions, but to achieve results that advance our security, interests and values,” she concluded.

In interviews with The Washington Diplomat, political experts agreed that there is no simple formula a person must embrace to be a strong secretary of state.

Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former advisor to six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations, said the job of secretary of state requires a number of skills, not all of which are teachable. But successful secretaries of state generally have four qualities, according to Miller.

First, they have close, trusting professional relationships with the president — a potentially contentious point in the Obama-Clinton dynamic. “You simply can’t do serious diplomacy abroad, or in the sometimes even more perilous world of Washington, without knowing that the president has your back, will not allow domestic interest groups to undermine you or permit his other advisors to do so,” Miller said. “It takes America’s friends and adversaries about five minutes to figure out who really speaks for the White House and who doesn’t. To be effective, the secretary of state must speak for the White House on foreign policy.”

Second, Miller believes effective secretaries of state usually have strong personalities with a polished public presence. “The secretary of state needs to be an actor, a teacher, a tactician, an intimidator and a confidant. Most of these qualities are natural and instinctive rather than learned — as is the ability to project a strong physical and intellectual presence.”

Third, there usually has to be a toughness and tenacity that may edge into deviousness, Miller said, citing Henry Kissinger as the example. “Effective secretaries of state are often manipulators. Deception is sometimes required, and they maneuver constantly, trying to figure out what’s necessary to succeed and how to use incentives, pressures, arm twisting and, when necessary, untruthfulness to manage a crisis or close a deal. Nice secretaries of state are usually ineffective ones,” he argues.

Finally, successful secretaries of state should have what Miller calls a “negotiator’s mindset” — the intuitive capacity to see how an agreement can be reached and to put oneself in the middle of the mix to make it happen.

“Secretaries of state manage crises and solve problems. This means having a smart and tough view of the world, seeing how America’s ends and means can fit together, and then knowing how to make them do so,” Miller explained. “There is little room for ideology or for minds that lack the capacity to reconcile the complexity of international relations with all of the contradictions that impose themselves on diplomacy. This is critically important and it’s not learned.”

Miller said Clinton appears to have several of these qualities, but it is still unclear if she has the two most important: a close relationship with Obama and a negotiator’s savvy.

“She is coming to the office with real star power. But she is also going to inherit a host of problems that will be tough to resolve but must be managed,” he warned. “Even an all-star secretary of state cannot guarantee a successful foreign policy. The president’s persona, other policy priorities, sheer luck, and the uncontrollable and unanticipated flow of events matter more.”

James Lindsay, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, echoed some of that sentiment, listing the essential qualities as political savvy, intellectual toughness and a close relationship with the president.

Lindsay advises that Clinton study the tenure of former Secretary of State James A. Baker, who worked under President George H.W. Bush. Baker, he said, was tough, organized, purposeful, and had a strong team at the State Department that helped him tackle problems such as managing the end of the Cold War, working through the political complexity of German integration, and assembling a broad coalition for the first Gulf War.

“All modern secretaries of state have to delegate a great deal,” he said. “When you look at the foreign policy inbox that Clinton is inheriting, there is no way one or two people can do all that. She needs to develop a good team and delegate. She can’t micromanage the foreign policy of the United States.”

Moisés Naím, editor of Foreign Policy magazine, agrees that the demands of the job are complex and daunting. “But if I had to reduce it to a word, a successful secretary of state must be versatile,” he said. “The world is changing so quickly and the challenges facing American diplomacy are constantly shifting. A great secretary of state has to have a very agile mind, able to shift from subject to subject with incredible rapidity. It’s not easy to do, but it is essential.”

Allan J. Lichtman, a history professor at American University, says Clinton will also have to master a difficult balancing act — being tough and forceful but also deferential to the president’s agenda.

“To be a successful secretary of state you have to have guts. You have to be able to stand up for what you believe in. You have to walk a delicate line between being an independent thinker, a big thinker, and not trampling on the president’s agenda,” he said. “You have to have a lot of courage, be immune to criticism, be a bold and creative thinker, and don’t let your ego get in the way of the president’s or the nation’s interests.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.