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by David T. Jones

A retired Foreign Service Officer (FSO) takes a dispassionate look at the Department of State’s current incumbent Secretary and compares her strengths to others who have held the job. –Ed.

Modern politics has transmuted the once clearly defined position of the Secretary of State.

Historically, the Presidential Succession Act of 1886 placed the Secretary of State as first among Cabinet positions immediately after the vice president in the line of succession for the presidency. Indeed, that act simply endorsed the political strength of the position since the list of Secretaries of State who became president included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and James Buchanan. But that list of more or less distinguished personalities ended over 150 years ago. And, again reflecting that circumstance, the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 placed the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate ahead of the Secretary of State.

Indeed, post-World War II realities have denigrated the status of State. Presidents, more than occasionally frustrated by intractable domestic difficulties, have sought compensation by acting internationally. It is the rare president who has not, for better or worse, become “his own Secretary of State.” Or who has not at least stepped into the limelight at the penultimate moment to accept the accolades for a foreign policy triumph. And, as is equally well appreciated by observers of U.S. foreign policy, other Cabinet and non-Cabinet officials have pushed their interests and authorities into what once was State’s exclusive preserve. State has contended for primacy against the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce (each with their own “foreign service”), and virtually every other cabinet department or USG agency—civilian or military—with a scintilla of interest in foreign affairs.

Consequently, it has required an exceptionally strong personality—usually accompanied by a personal relationship with and direct backing from the president—to push back these interagency contenders. It is not that diplomacy has been bereft of such combinations: Truman-Acheson; Eisenhower-Dulles; Nixon-Kissinger; Reagan-Shultz; GHWBush-Baker; and GWBush-Powell/Rice come to mind. It is that equally frequently the position has been filled with nebbish equivalents: Rusk presiding over JFK’s “bowl of jelly” and then as LBJ’s afterthought and Vietnam fall guy. Rogers until Kissinger put him out of his misery. Haig, who couldn’t stop fighting even after he won. Christopher who apparently didn’t like to travel and Albright who once burst forth (when bypassed on a Middle-East issue) by declaring “I’m not chopped liver.” Of course, if she had to so proclaim, it begged the question.

Establishing Herself as First Among Foreign Policy Equals

Hillary Clinton
Hilary Clinton

Thus Secretary Clinton—who many thought should have been “President Hilary Clinton” — left a power base as senator from New York to take a position where tenure is dependent on the president’s sufferance. It was and remains a perilous, potentially highly politicized decision. Moreover, in this capacity, her strengths were her weaknesses. She was probably the best-known nominee domestically since five star General George C. Marshall and widely known internationally as “spouse of”—but little of her name recognition was a consequence of personal accomplishment. And her foreign policy background reflected FLOTUS touring and travel rather than systematic study or international relations experience.

At the beginning of the Obama administration, enough “secretaries of state” were in the wings to suggest daunting problems controlling foreign policy. The Vice-President (Joe Biden), the National Security Adviser (General James Jones), the Defense Secretary (Robert Gates), the UN Ambassador (Susan Rice), and assorted special envoys (Richard Holbrooke—South Asia and George Mitchell—Middle East) all had the credentials to be secretary of state. Indeed, the individual with the weakest pure foreign policy résumé was the one holding the position: Hillary Clinton.

But instead of a bloodbath over who would spin the foreign policy wheel at the helm of the USG Dreadnought, they have sorted themselves out reasonably well. The intelligence community, if still in flux, is at least quiet. Rice at the UN has been invisible; Mitchell might as well be and Holbrooke even before his death was not exercising Bosnia magic in Kabul. Jones at the National Security Council focused on coordinating rather than attempting to run foreign policy and then abandoned ship leaving Tom Donilon, an all-but-unknown, as National Security Advisor; Biden’s misadventures have had little consequence. Without the kind of public pushing and shoving that characterized earlier administrations, Secretary Clinton appears to have established sufficient primacy that media isn’t speculating over who will replace her and/or when. Sniping from predecessors of any political stripe has been nominal—a gracious and doubtless appreciated circumstance.

Moreover, the cooperative collegiality between Clinton and Gates, both personally and institutionally, has been breathtakingly positive. They have ignored media nattering of “militarization of foreign policy” and focused on advancing U.S. government foreign policy objectives. They testify jointly before Congress; Gates repeatedly urges Congress to fund the State Department more generously; they agree that State should have (and should take) a stronger role in managing the politico-military challenges that Third World failed or flailing states frequently epitomize. Money is the “mother’s milk” of everything, and the Clinton-Gates combine reflects Gates’ judgment for DOD’s best interests, but Clinton has adroitly leveraged SECDEF’s support into increased funding for State. Institutionally, State may be stronger interagency than at any point in the past generation—and this reality reflects the Secretary’s efforts. Whether such comity persists following the departure of either (or both) will be defining regarding U.S. approaches to post-Cold War foreign policy and threading the way through 21st century foreign policy challenges. Smartly, the President has left them alone to do their own things, and each has been vocally loyal to Obama—as well as publicly supporting each other.

Clinton has also appreciated and apparently internalized the high-powered studies, e.g., the 2008 American Academy of Diplomacy’s A Foreign Affairs Budget for the Future, viewing with alarm the then state of State. The essence of such studies was that State desperately needed significantly expanded personnel—and Clinton has supported doubling A-100 class size over the past two years. Such a program must be relentlessly pursued and will require the Secretary’s continued attention if State is to have the strength to operate effectively in a 21st century environment replete with challenges epitomized by 150 hardship posts and 900 unaccompanied assignments.

Clinton is putting her mark on the Foreign Service in supporting such an expansion—an expansion that will be bearing fruit for decades to come, if the funding/personnel hiring continues despite the imperatives to cut/cut/cut the budget. Such expansion can create bureaucratic structure that includes a “float” of FSOs, permitting some sabbaticals and/or intra-State think tank reviews that can examine foreign policy “highways” ahead as well as mountain trails less traveled. If part of the Secretary’s legacy is to create systems that can investigate “fire prevention” and not designed just to rush from the blaze of today to the blaze of tomorrow, it will be a significant accomplishment.

In passing, Clinton has also projected an unexpected level of personal warmth and concern for Foreign Service personnel. She was genuinely affected at her first Foreign Affairs Day when reading the dedication for an FSO killed in service to be inscribed on the C Street entrance memorial plaque. Such personalized concern has been the exception rather than the rule for the last 50 years of Secretaries.

But Secretaries of State don’t hire on to be bureaucracy builders or personnel managers. Nor are they hired to be “nice guys” to their staff. And, thus far in her tenure, Clinton has been an absent presence in the great foreign policy issues. She had no obvious role in New START or other arms control other than ritualistic “pass this treaty now” exhortation. During the intense debate over the 2009-10 Afghanistan “surge” and withdrawal timeline, she was not involved in the tense exchanges between the president and his military advisors. In contrast to President Clinton’s intimate engagement in the Middle East, Secretary Clinton has been well to the periphery.

On the other hand, such “absence” may be adroit, calculated design. New START passed, but generated a bitter aftertaste among both supporters and opponents (72 to 26 compares poorly with the 93-5 passage of the INF Treaty in 1988). Consequently, it does not appear to be a stimulus for further arms control; rather it has exhausted interest in the topic. Afghanistan is defining for the president, but not the Secretary (and most have forgotten her snarky comment to General Petraeus that his report of progress in Iraq required a willing suspension of disbelief). And the Middle East has defied heroic efforts by all that have thrown themselves into the tar pit seeking to emerge with that Nobel Peace Prize for resolving its complexities. If she wasn’t prescient in what is/was unfolding in Tunis/Cairo/everywhere, she is hardly alone. On the defining foreign policy issues of the past two years, Clinton appears to have learned not just when to “hold them and when to fold them” but also when not even to play the game beyond occasional kibitzing.

Thus finding a topic on which the Secretary is making a defining difference is not instantly obvious. And the November mid-term elections make sweeping international initiatives less likely (or at least initiatives that foreign observers will take seriously if they are posited on the president’s reelection in 2012). Nevertheless, the Secretary has worked seriously on two areas: human rights and China.

Regarding human rights, the Secretary opened with undiplomatic honesty. Given her FLOTUS background of pressing China on human/women’s rights during a 1995 speech to the UN Woman’s Conference in Beijing, advocates anticipated it would be primary in her talking points with the PRC. Instead, she made it clear that our relations with Beijing are multi-dimensional and that human rights, while of singular importance, would not be unique—or even primary. Coming out of the resulting firestorm somewhat singed, the Secretary stepped back from publicly emphasizing that reality while regularly striking the theme, e.g., in her December 2009 Georgetown address that minority rights and rights of expression and worship in China were continuing imperatives–and there was no conflict between pursuing “national interests” and promoting human rights. She has emphasized concern for women’s rights repeatedly, e.g., promoting women’s issues during an 11-day Africa trip in August 2009 and speaking against trafficking in persons during another extended October 2010 travel in Asia. According to one account, she mentioned “women” or “woman” at least 450 times in public comments during her first five months as Secretary, reportedly twice as frequently as did former Secretary Rice.

And for China, Clinton appears to have embraced the “bad cop” role. Her push for enhanced human rights for Chinese citizens and minorities has been real, albeit less public. And during her October 2010 Asia visit, she emphasized that China should not use its “rare earths” export position as leverage in its territorial disputes with Japan. Moreover, the Secretary further emphasized support of Japan by wading into a neuralgic dispute over East China Sea islands. She twice emphasized that the islands are covered by the U.S.-Japan mutual defense pact, although the USG doesn’t take a position on who holds their ultimate sovereignty, while offering to host tripartite talks to address problem issues. When President Obama met Chinese President Hu Jintao on January 19, the Secretary’s scene setting speech the previous week served to push the “reset” button with Beijing.

A Quick Report Card

Thus at halftime in President Obama’s administration, Secretary Clinton gets a “B”—partly reflecting her accomplishments in the intra-agency Washington bureaucratic mud wrestling, but also for avoiding identifiable errors. She has not been the featured star for foreign affairs, but rather let the demolition derby of USG efforts in international relations play out with her role more as supervising the “pit crew” than as a driver. And honestly, it is hard to see the United States exercising a defining role in the ever-more-tangled Middle East conundrum. Anyone who says now that they know what the region will look like in 2013 is lying—and the Secretary is smart enough to avoid prophecy.End.

David T. Jones
David T. Jones

David T. Jones, a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer, served as Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. He is frequent contributor to American Diplomacy and other publications as well as the co-author of Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs, a book about U.S.-Canada relations.


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