State and the Stateswoman

How Hillary Clinton Reshaped U.S. Foreign Policy — But Not the World

Secretary of State Clinton during an interview. (Gary Cameron / Courtesy Reuters)

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prepares to hand the reins of foreign policy over to Senator John Kerry, her legacy is a matter of hot debate. To be sure, with much of the Middle East in turmoil and U.S. relations with Russia and China shifting, broad assessments of her tenure, no matter how heated, are only provisional. Even so, some of the most important and enduring elements of the Clinton years -- steadiness and pragmatism coupled with a reinvigoration of ties with Europe and the so-called rebalancing with Asia -- are clear.

For style and for collegiality, Clinton gets high marks. She understood that she was a part of President Barack Obama's team, not a co-president, as some might have once worried she would try to be coming out of the bruising 2008 election season. When Obama had strong views, she did not publicly dissent or allow any distance to open between her position and that of her boss. She understood that secretaries of state carry out the foreign policy determined by the president and that little good can come from public disagreements of the kind that plagued the Carter administration and the George W. Bush administration.
Clinton's work ethic as secretary of state was remarkable. She did not quite overtake Condoleezza Rice's record for miles traveled during her four-year stint as the nation's top diplomat -- Rice traversed a total of 1,006,846 miles, Clinton a mere 956,733 -- but most everyone around her was continually impressed by her preparedness. Hard work is no unusual distinction for secretaries of state, and is, in itself, no great virtue. But in Clinton's case, diligence paid off. Gaffes were rare, and she never embarrassed allies with a failure to understand the constraints binding them; there were few public trip-ups of the kind that haunted the Reagan administration's early efforts on missile defense, the Clinton administration's dealings with allies over Bosnia, or the George W.
None of this is to say that Clinton was necessarily a historic secretary of state. The flip side of her caution and deliberation was that her positions were not usually remarkably imaginative. And even an admirer must acknowledge that few big problems were solved on her watch. There was no equivalent of Ambassador George F. Kennan's development of the containment doctrine and associated initiatives, such as the creation of NATO during the Cold War; Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's paving the way for the United States' opening to China; or Secretary of State James Baker's push for German reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In part, this is because there is no single overriding threat or issue today. Further, the problems that do exist might just not be ripe for major initiatives. But the fact remains that there was no big historic breakthrough. And Clinton gained little ground in the battles nearest to her heart -- ending global poverty, tamping down civil conflict in Africa, improving the status of women around the world -- perhaps because they require patient diligence more than big speeches or doctrines. But still, Clinton cannot claim a signature accomplishment just yet.
That is not to say that she won no victories. The pivot toward East Asia, which she orchestrated with Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and others, is one example. In many ways, the pivot was more a diplomatic achievement than a military one. After all, the United States added only limited forces to the region, but it got a lot of mileage out of those modest changes. In four short years, the United States struck back at regional perceptions of imminent American decline and distraction, convincing many allies that the United States has staying power in the twenty-first century.

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