Was Hillary Clinton a good secretary of state?
By Walter Russell Mead, Published: May 30
Walter Russell Mead is the James Clarke Chace professor of foreign affairs at Bard College and editor at large of the American Interest. He is the author of “Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World.”
A forthcoming memoir, speculation about a presidential run, enemies stoking scandal, friends protecting Brand Hillary — it’s business as usual in Clinton World. And with the publication of “Hard Choices,” the fight over Hillary Rodham Clinton’s years as secretary of state is likely to grow more heated and polarizing than State Department post-mortems usually get.
So how does one rate the performance of Madame Secretary? The conventional indicators — landmark treaties, a new doctrine, signature deals — are actually poor guides to assessing the caliber of American diplomats. Just as the best lawyers aren’t the ones with the most famous courthouse victories but those who quietly keep their clients out of trouble and litigation, belt-notching in diplomacy has led presidents and secretaries of state into trouble. When American diplomats restlessly roam land and sea, desperate for that Nobel-worthy moment, the national interest is rarely served.
Remember that secretaries of state don’t control U.S. foreign policy. Clinton wasn’t following her own grand strategy when she reigned in Foggy Bottom; her job was to implement President Obama’s ideas. To make a fair and useful assessment of Clinton’s record in office, one must consider some complicated questions:
How did Clinton understand the interplay of America’s power, its interests, its resources and its values? Was she able to translate that vision into policies that won enough support throughout the government to be carried out? Was she able to gain or keep the president’s confidence, and was the State Department under her leadership able to hold its own in the bureaucratic battles of the day? To the extent that her policy ideas were adopted, how effective were they? How well did she manage on the inevitable occasions when things went horribly wrong?
Clinton’s approach to the intersection of U.S. power, interests, resources and values revolves around two big American ideas.
First, Clinton is what I call a Hamiltonian, believing that America’s interests are best served by an adaptation of traditional British strategies: sea power, commercial expansion and a focus on strategic theaters in world politics. She thinks that Asia is where America’s interests are most vitally engaged for the long term, and she consistently argued for a greater focus on the region in our foreign policy. The pursuit of a balance of power in Asia will naturally focus on China, but Clinton is a realist who believes that the United States and China can reach a genuine accommodation based on economic interests and a common desire to avoid war. (She also believes that technology industries are the engines of economic growth and a chief field of competition among states, as in the battle between the American and Chinese visions of Internet governance.)
Traditional Anglo-American geopolitical thought is not Clinton’s only inheritance from the past. She also shares the optimism about America found in the Methodist religious tradition in which she grew up. The spirit of the 19th-century missionaries who fanned out across the world to promote development, human rights, and social and economic reform lives in her and shapes her basic thoughts about what American power is for. For some realists, “global meliorism” — the belief that U.S. foreign policy can and should try to make a better world — is a dirty word. For Clinton, it is a bedrock conviction. “We are the force for progress, prosperity and peace,” she said during a remarkable speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in early 2013.
This combination makes Clinton an American exceptionalist: She believes that the United States has been called to a unique role in leading the world, and that the American state and the American people, at home and abroad, can be powerful instruments for good.
Of course, as Colin Powell and Cordell Hull learned, a secretary of state without presidential support has trouble getting much done. How successful was Clinton in winning and holding the confidence of her chief and in persuading Obama to accept her ideas as the basis for foreign policy?
While she did not win all the battles she fought — the president resisted her counsel on Syria, and she failed to persuade him to back Richard Holbrooke’s diplomatic efforts in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region — she managed the relationship successfully and won his trust, to the point that the president wanted her to stay on the job well into his second term. This outcome was not a given; Clinton’s association with Obama began in their bitter 2008 Democratic nominating contest, and her success at building a strong relationship with a president not known for embracing new friends or Washington insiders testifies to her formidable interpersonal skills.
Similarly, her strong ties with former defense secretary Robert M. Gates and former CIA chief David H. Petraeus ensured that the State Department was rarely isolated in the policy process. And while other Cabinet departments sometimes resisted her efforts to assert State’s primacy on issues of interest to them, she was more successful than many of her recent predecessors at ensuring that her agency had a voice at the table for key discussions on economic diplomacy and counterterrorism.
Clinton relied on these relationships to magnify her impact on U.S. foreign policy. Although the Obama White House has centralized more power than any of its predecessors, and although Clinton always worked under the eyes of the president’s staff, she made substantial progress toward building American policy around some of her key ideas.
Two elements of Clinton’s statecraft are often wrongly dismissed as secondary to true diplomacy: her emphasis on the empowerment of women and her push to move beyond government-to-government engagement to work with civil society. Neither concept was original to Clinton; interest in women’s rights abroad has been a feature of U.S. global engagement since the early 19th century, when American missionaries denounced foot-binding in China and launched literacy programs for women and girls across the Middle East. And Condoleezza Rice’s “transformational diplomacy” was an early effort to convert the State Department into a more activist organization with a broader social and political mission.
Clinton’s focus on the rights of women and girls, a hallmark of her international profile since her appearance at the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, is more than idealism or feminism. It reflects her convictions about the nature of American power and the direction of history. The industrial and information revolutions have created conditions in which more women can overcome limits on their freedom; to the degree that women (and sexual minorities) succeed in asserting themselves, they will support the emergence of the kind of world Americans want to live in.
Meanwhile, Clinton’s emphasis on Internet freedom and connectivity, together with a focus on training civil society actors, came alive in the State Department and USAID’s work with democracy activists and human rights organizers in authoritarian countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. They developed technological work-arounds to curtail the ability of national governments to close down the Internet during times of civil unrest; they trained and promoted female leaders in countries dominated by tradition-minded rulers.
These ambitious new ideas — though not amounting to the Clinton “doctrine” foreign policy junkies hunger for — could come back to haunt us. The U.S. emphasis on human rights and democracy, as well as the active support for civil society organizations, contributed to China’s harsh response to the pivot to Asia and probably deepened Vladimir Putin’s view of the West as a danger to Russia. For Moscow and Beijing, Washington’s work to engage and strengthen democracy activists and movements represents an aggressive effort to undermine the Russian and Chinese regimes. And the push for changing gender relations allows Islamists to portray the United States as a threat to religious values. American opponents often fear ideological and cultural “aggression” as much as U.S. military power.
Shaping a legacy
Clinton was an influential secretary of state and a savvy manager with a clear agenda that, at least in part, she translated into policy. So how did it all work out?
The answer: Historians will probably consider Clinton significantly more successful than run-of-the-mill secretaries of state such as James G. Blaine or the long-serving Cordell Hull, but don’t expect to see her on a pedestal with Dean Acheson or John Quincy Adams anytime soon.
She weighed in hard and strong in favor of the president’s risky but ultimately justified decision to attack Osama bin Laden’s last refuge. The focus on Asia — relabeled a “pivot” before it became a “rebalancing” — reinvigorated America’s Pacific alliances but also elicited a more aggressive China, which has taken a harder line with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam since the pivot began. The “reset” with Russia enabled concrete cooperation on Iran’s nuclear program and at the United Nations (notably on the resolution authorizing intervention against Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi), but it would be hard to argue that Washington and Moscow have ended up in a good place. Here again the rhetoric of the “pivot to Asia” may have encouraged Putin to think that the United States was taking its eye off Russia’s revisionist ambitions.
In her new memoir, Clinton highlights her attempt to reorient U.S. foreign policy around “smart power” — the integration of military, political and economic tools with grass-roots outreach and efforts to strengthen civil society — but this approach also yielded mixed results. The outreach to Burma led to political reforms and helped move one of China’s closest regional allies closer to Washington. This was an important success, but continuing problems in Burma, including brutal violence against the country’s Rohingya minority, demonstrated the difficulty of integrating human rights with classic geopolitical strategies.
If Burma was a success of the Clinton approach, Egypt and Libya were sobering failures. Except in Tunisia, U.S. efforts to promote democracy after the Arab Spring were largely unsuccessful, with Egypt a particularly dramatic case. But the greatest problem for Clinton’s legacy is likely to be the miserable aftermath of the U.S.-backed overthrow of Gaddafi. Here, advocates of the Libya mission failed to take seriously one of the most important lessons of Iraq: When you overthrow a dictator in the Arab world, expect chaos and violence to follow. The mess in Libya — besides leading to the Benghazi attack that has entangled Clinton in congressional investigations and conspiracy theories — strengthened the voices in the administration opposing the more activist Syria policy Clinton promoted. It also deepened public resistance to more use of American military power abroad. This is not the legacy Clinton hoped to leave behind.
Of course, some of the problems U.S. foreign policy encountered during Clinton’s tenure cannot be laid at her door. There was a constant tug of war within Obama between his desire to transform the world and his strong sense of the limits to American power and will in a post-Iraq age. That struggle often made U.S. policy look indecisive and at times, notably on Syria, created a damaging gap between tough American words (“Assad must go”) and flabby American deeds. That led to questions about U.S. resolve as friends and foes struggled to understand Washington’s intentions. Moreover, the economic and social problems of the Arab world are beyond the abilities of any American government to solve, and the jihadist movement is powered by rage and ideology that Washington can, in the short term, do very little about.
Yet, some of the policies Clinton advocated have exacerbated challenges we now face. Her embrace of transformational diplomatic goals probably undermined her realpolitik efforts to reset relations with Russia and work out a modus vivendi with China. And when American advocacy of an open Internet goes hand in hand with revelations of National Security Agency surveillance, U.S. high-tech policy looks less like a philanthropic venture in supporting human freedom and more like an effort by a powerful state to dominate the world’s communication networks.
The verdict? Clinton brought a clear vision of U.S. interests and power to the job, and future presidents and secretaries of state will find many of her ideas essential. Yet she struggled to bring together the different elements of her vision into a coherent set of policies. The tension between America’s role as a revolutionary power and its role as a status quo power predates Clinton; the struggle to reconcile those two opposed but equally indispensable aspects of American foreign policy has survived her tenure at the State Department.