The Clinton Legacy

How Will History Judge the Soft-Power Secretary of State?

Overshadowed: Hillary Clinton, Washington, D.C., January 2007. (Courtesy Reuters)

In late January, only a few days after his second inauguration, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a surprisingly fond farewell to his old political rival Hillary Clinton. Sitting for a joint interview with the outgoing secretary of state on 60 Minutes, Obama lauded their “great collaboration.” He continued: “I just wanted to have a chance to publicly say thank you, because I think Hillary will go down as one of the finest secretaries of state we’ve had.”

The president had reason to be grateful. His Lincolnesque effort to create a team of rivals had paid off, thanks largely to Clinton’s own efforts at reconciliation. During her four years in office, Clinton, displaying impressive humility and self-discipline for an ambitious politician, managed to put one of the fiercest presidential primary battles in U.S. history behind her. Once the runaway favorite to win her party’s nomination, Clinton transformed herself into a loyal messenger and passionate defender of the Obama faith.

But neither Obama’s gratitude nor Clinton’s graciousness should cloud history’s judgment. By any standard measure of diplomacy, Clinton will be remembered as a highly competent secretary of state, but not a great one. Despite her considerable star power around the world, her popularity at home, and her reputation for being on the right side of most issues, she left office without a signature doctrine, strategy, or diplomatic triumph. It is a stretch to include Clinton in the company of John Quincy Adams, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and Henry Kissinger -- some of the great secretaries of state who profoundly changed U.S. foreign policy. Although she has avoided all talk of what comes next, it may well be that Clinton’s tenure as diplomat in chief will someday be viewed as a steppingstone to the presidency, as it was for Thomas Jefferson and Adams.

It is not that Clinton can’t point to some notable and enduring achievements. Because of her worldwide popularity and tireless travel -- she set a new record for a secretary of state by visiting 112 countries -- Clinton helped undo the damage that the habitual unilateralism of the George W. Bush administration had done to the global image of the United States. As Clinton put it to me in a 2010 interview, “My big-picture commitment is to restore American leadership, and I think that’s about as big a job as you can get. And everything I’ve done is in furtherance of that.”

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