The HRC Poll: What should Clinton avoid on her first trip overseas?

The State Department confirmed yesterday that Secretary Clinton will depart for her first official trip abroad as secretary on February 15, with stops in Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China. So, for our weekly Hillary Poll, we asked our panel of experts for some diplomatic travel advice: What is the gaffe or mistake secretaries of ...

588708_090206_HRC2.jpg
588708_090206_HRC2.jpg

The State Department confirmed yesterday that Secretary Clinton will depart for her first official trip abroad as secretary on February 15, with stops in Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China.

So, for our weekly Hillary Poll, we asked our panel of experts for some diplomatic travel advice:

The State Department confirmed yesterday that Secretary Clinton will depart for her first official trip abroad as secretary on February 15, with stops in Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China.

So, for our weekly Hillary Poll, we asked our panel of experts for some diplomatic travel advice:

What is the gaffe or mistake secretaries of state should avoid at all costs on their first official trip overseas?


Les Gelb:

The so-called gaffes and blunders that reverberate in the news for a few days don’t mean a damn thing — even if Hillary makes a dumb move, which she will not.

The real rookie mistake is just to treat these initial trips as photo and goodwill voyages. The truth is they represent genuine opportunties for the Secretary of State to demonstratrate that the trip means something, something important. And what’s truly important to the hosts and to us is for HRC to lay out a strategy for future American relations with our closest allies and with important nations.

The hosts want America to lead, contrary to what foreign policy simpletons assert, and they want the United States to put forward a strategy that will help solve problems — theirs and ours. HRC has the chance to show how we intend to build bond and solve problems. And the mistake would be to squander this initial opening on rhetorical baloney.


Stephen Walt:

Secretary Clinton will stumble if she treats each Asian capital like a campaign stop and approaches foreign leaders as if they were voters she is trying to win over. That’s what senators do, and what she did for over a year while running for president, but that’s not how the Secretary of State ought to act.

She is now Diplomat-in-Chief of the most powerful country on earth, and while treating her foreign counterparts with respect, she also doesn’t want to pander or (dare I say it?) kowtow. Instead, she should articulate U.S. interests and goals clearly, listen carefully to what her interlocutors have to say, and make it clear that the more help we get from them, the more help they can expect from us.

She also has to take care not to be either too confrontational with the Chinese or too accommodating with long-time allies like Japan. One of America’s great diplomatic assets is its ability to play different regional powers off against each other, and this requires some delicate diplomatic balancing. Our leverage will be maximized if Asian countries understand that we can be a major asset for them, while being subtly reminded that U.S. support cannot be taken for granted.


Dov Zakheim:

Secretary Clinton needs to tread very carefully on the thin ice of the North Korean nuclear issue. With all the press reports of a possible missile test by Pyongyang, our allies — and China — will hang on every word she uses to address this matter. She must take care not to signal in any way that we are prepared to countenance bad behavior by the North, and that such behavior will immediately terminate any commitments that Chris Hill may have offered in his negotiations with the North Korean regime. We will be back to square one.


David Rothkopf:

I have few worries about what will be in her briefing books or on her agenda. It is also highly unlikely to me that given her experience and her persona that she will make a grand public gaffe along the way.

Rather, my greatest concern is about what will happen out of sight of the cameras…and indeed, beyond the sight of anyone. I am concerned about the far too commonplace, invisible, odorless killer of American diplomacy: the failure to listen. It is tempting to think that these trips are all about America, what the new administration thinks, about hitting the talking points hard.

But everywhere — and in Asia in particular — first encounters need to be about establishing relationships. Eye contact and sincere attentiveness are likely to send a stronger message about what is new and important in Obama-era foreign policy than the most powerful prose a career diplomat can craft for his boss.

Hillary Clinton should learn from the mistake of past diplomats — and of the stimulus package: She doesn’t have to do it all at once. She needs to meet top officials and connect with them, laying the foundation for successful long-term collaborations.

Wonks too easily underestimate the great and vital power of personal diplomacy. The greatest diplomats do not. She needs to hear what Asian leaders are hoping for and worrying about with regard to the relationship.

Yes, of course, we have agendas in each of these countries and if progress can be made, that is great. But the message most important to those at the top in Asia will be that they and the region are important to the U.S. (her trip is an excellent way to send that message) and that we are not the hamfisted hegemon but are seeking to be a constructive partner in the Asia-Pacific region. If there are difficult messages to deliver, like to China on their currency, by all means, deliver them…but in private.

She should not think like a politician playing to U.S. audiences. Much of her best work as Secretary of State will be seen by no one, advancing the interests of the president and the country without making a media ripple.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Carolyn O'Hara is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.

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