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. Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq. Moreover, Clinton did not have to backtrack on positions she recognized too late as unpromising, unwise, or simply incorrect; for example, there was none of the on-again, off-again quality to negotiations with North Korea that there had been in several previous administrations.
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.

The lion's share of the credit goes to Clinton's deft and firm diplomacy, which was on display, for example, when she challenged China and stood up for allies very publicly on territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Remarkably, the pivot occurred essentially as the leadership at the Pentagon shifted from Robert Gates to Leon Panetta as the defense secretary and from Michael Mullen to Martin Dempsey as the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At the same time, the president turned his focus toward domestic policy and his re-election strategy. The one consistent voice was Clinton's, calling for rebalancing.

Clinton held her ground outside of Asia, too. Four years into Obama's presidency, Europeans are still generally favorable toward his administration, with support typically in the 70 percent range. Meanwhile, NATO and the EU remain unified on most key strategic issues.

To be sure, it was Obama's vision of a more multilateralist America that grabbed Europe's imagination in the first place. But once he was in office, Europeans needed to see results. And these were delivered by Clinton. She was the one who traveled to Europe (nearly 40 times) to negotiate, consult, and mend bridges. She was the one who worked with European leaders to hammer out tighter sanctions on Iran and a new missile defense strategy that would provide greater protection against ballistic missiles while antagonizing Russia less. She also helped develop and sustain NATO consensus on the mission in Afghanistan. In Europe, Obama was seen as sound in his thinking but not personable; Clinton and her aides, such as Assistant Secretary of State Phil Gordon, made up for that in spades.
In the Middle East, the verdict on Clinton is mixed, even leaving aside the very sad but overdebated tragedy in Benghazi. On the positive side, the sanctions regime on Iran has never been stronger. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring brought hope, not only to Libya but also to Egypt and Tunisia; the administration was wise enough not to try to prop up aging autocrats such as Hosni Mubarak when it became evident that they would not survive. It has also been patient in its dealings with Egypt's new president, Mohamed Morsi. Clinton was especially prominent in government decision-making on Libya, even in the face of Pentagon reluctance, but she played a major role in the other cases too.

On the negative side, though, U.S. popularity in the region has plummeted back to Bush-era levels. The promise of Obama's June 2009 Cairo speech was generally left unrealized. There has been no movement on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The administration failed in its efforts to keep U.S. forces in Iraq past 2011. Syria is still in chaos. Iran continues to enrich uranium and to sponsor mayhem.

Many of these low points are not Clinton's fault. Obama raised hopes too high that his presidency would be a game changer. He made the world believe that he could build a much better rapport with Iran. When those hopes were dashed by, among other things, the stolen Iranian elections of June 2009, Obama appeared to have been too ambitious. It was also Obama who tried to get Israel to freeze settlement activity as a precondition for peace talks; the idea was reasonably motivated but ineffective.

Yet Clinton should not get off scot-free. On Syria, the United States remains at a loss. The administration's caution has become regrettable and counterproductive in light of the tragedy there. More effective U.S. support for the opposition seems warranted, and there is now a strong case for joint U.S.-NATO-Arab League airstrikes too. In Afghanistan, although more robust engagement and counterinsurgency were preferable to accepting a Taliban defeat, the Obama administration failed to develop a working partnership with President Hamid Karzai or to send successful messages about long-term U.S. plans, and some of Clinton's team contributed to the mixed messaging. That uncertainty led Pakistan to hedge, at times even condoning the insurgency.
Put it all together and, despite the setbacks, you have one of the most respectable records of any modern secretary of state, although not yet a historic legacy -- a major bending of history. Perhaps Clinton be able to take her solid record as a public servant and spend the rest of her career using her charisma and energy and public voice to work on the issues of greatest concern to her. Or perhaps the lack of a signature achievement during her tenure as secretary of state will be one more reason that the lure of running for president in four years will be irresistible. After all, it would still be desirable for her and for the world if we could someday point to a Clinton Doctrine -- something to cap off her other achievements as a remarkable public figure who has served the country well and helped keep it safe.

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  • MICHAEL O’HANLON is a Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution and coauthor (with Martin Indyk and Kenneth Lieberthal) of Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy.
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