What It Takes to Be a Great Secretary of State

(And why we can't have one in the Obama administration.)

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Johannes Simon/Getty Images
Johannes Simon/Getty Images
Johannes Simon/Getty Images

First, full disclosure: I really admire Hillary Clinton.

First, full disclosure: I really admire Hillary Clinton.

I was never an FOB or an FOH* in the political sense of the term, though I did work for her husband, whom I also like. In 2000, while at the U.S. State Department, I had the privilege of accompanying her to the funeral of Leah Rabin, the wife of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Then, as now, she struck me as a smart, charismatic leader, a quick study with a strong sense of humor and of the absurd — both very useful when working on foreign-policy basket cases where chances of solutions are slim to none. The Clintonites can shoot me if they want, but Clinton isn’t going to end up in the Secretary of State Hall of Fame.

You might conclude otherwise, given the tsunami of favorable media coverage she has received, particularly from the traveling press corps. But that’s not unusual. Alone among the cabinet secretaries, America’s top diplomat traditionally already wears a nonpartisan halo, whether her name is Albright or Rice.

Still, what the media haven’t done is to ask some of the tough questions about what makes a truly consequential secretary of state. Nor has the press (or the punditocracy, for that matter) been able to establish any standard against which her performance might be measured.

My take on her performance — midway through what is likely to be her last year in the job — has little to do with her own abilities, which are impressive.

What shapes Clinton’s performance more are the two unfriendly universes in which she operates: the cruel world beyond America’s shores and the bureaucratically skewed one back home. Throw in her own innate caution when it comes to taking on some of the hopeless issues of the day (see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran), and what you have is a very hardworking and smart media superstar who fights for her department at home and shines abroad on several key 21st-century issues that she has identified as critical, but has yet to put any major points on the board. The Twitter summary of Clinton’s legacy would read: No spectacular failures, but no spectacular achievements either. A John Quincy Adams, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, or James Baker she’s not.

Over the years, I’ve thought a great deal about what is required to be a truly effective, consequential, even great secretary of state. The position is a unique one. It’s the second-best job in Washington and carries a status no other cabinet position holds, period.

Part of the halo effect is that the job is supposed to be apolitical, like the country’s foreign policy itself. When it comes to foreign policy, politics is supposed to stop at the water’s edge. And Americans like to believe, somewhat naively, that the country’s top diplomat is immune or somehow protected from the seamier aspects of Washington’s partisan swamp. Secretaries of state are expected to rise above the fray, and they generally try to. This is one reason their public image and favorability ratings tend to be so high.

Still, in the history of the Republic, only two secretaries of state have resigned over reasons of high principle — William Jennings Bryan and Cyrus Vance. The job — like so much of America’s high politics — is filled by survivors, not martyrs. Tending to the country’s foreign policy is a tough assignment, one that requires a combination of skill and luck to succeed.

The latter is particularly important. If crisis opens the door to greatness in the presidency, it does the same for the country’s top diplomat. Had there been no Civil War, Theodore Roosevelt lamented about his own missing great moment, no one would have known Abraham Lincoln’s name. Without the right kind of crisis abroad, no matter how talented the secretary of state, there’s no chance to demonstrate his or her stuff.

So what makes a great secretary of state? Fortuna is necessary, but not sufficient for top-level performance. Three other elements are required too.

1. The president must have your back.

All presidents support their secretaries of state, but not all get the kind of support critical to success. Baker used to say that he was George H.W. Bush’s man at the State Department, not the State Department’s man at the White House. Those two were particularly close, and it gave Baker real authority, power, and street credibility. Kissinger and Richard Nixon, on the other hand, were more competitive, though each exploited the other’s talent and authority to command and marshal respect and power.

If there’s daylight between the two or if it’s clear that the White House isn’t really empowering the secretary to take on the important issues of the day, the latter’s status is diminished. The president not only needs to tell the world that his secretary of state is a trusted confidante, but he also needs to demonstrate it. If a president doesn’t charge the secretary with responsibility for tackling the biggest challenges, how does he or she become truly important?

2. Anatomy really is destiny.

Freud was talking about gender differences here. But the capacity to project a physical presence and persona is critical to success in politics and foreign policy. And that persona, F. Scott Fitzgerald held, flowed from an unbroken series of gestures. Effective presidents and secretaries of state are actors on a public stage; they require charm, flattery, toughness, and drama to make allies and adversaries take them seriously, particularly in a negotiation or crisis.

That means playing any number of roles, sometimes with high gestures of real or feigned anger, frustration, or disappointment. During the 1948 Senate hearings on the plan for European recovery that would bear his name, Marshall, whom columnist James Reston described that day as displaying legendary "moral grandeur," silenced an interrupting senator with a single glare. Kissinger threatened to walk out on Syria’s Hafez al-Assad at least once; Baker did the same with Assad, the Palestinians, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

3. The negotiator’s mindset.

Beavers build dams, and teenagers talk on the phone and text. By definition, effective secretaries of state work negotiations, defuse crises, and tackle issues that normal human beings consider very hard. A coherent worldview is important too, but not as critical as the instinctive capacity to know how to make a deal, sense the opportunity, and then figure out how to close it.

Kissinger may have been the grand strategist, but both he and Baker had the negotiator’s mindset, the ability to figure out how to assemble the pieces of the puzzle strewn on the living room floor and stay even when all the pieces didn’t quite fit. Kissinger’s Middle East diplomacy — three disengagement agreements following the October 1973 war — is a remarkable testament to those skills: The one between Israel and Syria still survives, while the other two, between Egypt and Israel, evolved into a peace treaty. There’s no school at which to learn these kinds of things. Marshall was a military man; Kissinger an academic; Baker a lawyer. All possessed a natural ability to gauge how to move the pieces around on the board.

Almost four years in, Hillary Clinton is undeniably one for three.

She clearly has star power — a Gallup poll last year had Clinton at an approval rating of 66 percent, more popular than the president and the vice president and better regarded than she herself has been at any time since 1993. And in terms of raw ability, she has the smarts and work ethic to do the job.

We know Clinton is talented. What we don’t know is how she’d do in a sustained negotiation or in coordinating and orchestrating a grander political and military design. Her capacity in that regard has never really been tested, and likely won’t be: You can’t be a John Quincy Adams negotiating a historic treaty with Spain, a Dean Acheson orchestrating the Truman Doctrine, or a George Marshall doing NATO unless Fortuna and your boss let you.

What about her relationship with the president? Political rivals turned compatriots can make for close bonds — think Rabin and Shimon Peres. Frenemies? Perhaps there’s a great respect between the two born of political combat and now from the common challenge of making America’s foreign policy work.

But by either circumstance or design, her relationship with President Barack Obama doesn’t seem to have produced real empowerment. Sure, they may have lunch together each week and she has a chance to weigh in on key decisions, but he hasn’t allowed her to own the high-profile issues. And ownership is critical to at least having a chance to do big things.

This doesn’t mean she lacks accomplishments. She has fought hard and succeeded in acquiring resources for the State Department; used her star power to improve America’s image abroad; sharpened America’s response to the Libyan crisis; focused on development, technology, and the environment in a way few of her predecessors have; and highlighted the urgency of women’s issues from one end of the planet to the other. That she’s had no legacy achievements is less her doing than the result of two self-reinforcing realities.

First, in this administration, power on domestic policy and foreign policy is lodged in the White House. Many key issues (and the strategic policies that shape them), from Iran to Afghanistan to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are reposited there, the president’s various envoys and czars notwithstanding.

The irony really is quite striking. Here’s a president who inherited the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. You might have thought he’d be only too happy to delegate some of the big issues to his secretary of state. This hasn’t happened; the White House controls everything of real consequence. Indeed, whoever gets the job when Clinton leaves should take notice: This president doesn’t let go, at least on foreign policy.

Second, one reason for the absence of ownership is the changing nature of the world Clinton inherited. The reality is that there haven’t been all that many good chances for successful diplomacy. The conflicts where U.S. diplomacy might actually bridge gaps between conflicting parties — always rare — are tough to identify. There are plenty of crises, but are any really amenable to effective diplomacy?

I know the rap that effective secretaries create their own opportunities. But negotiating with the mullahcracy in Iran on the nuclear issue? Going for broke with Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu on the Israeli-Palestinian issue? Building nations in Iraq and Afghanistan by sorting out differences between Sunnis, Kurds, and Shiites? Let’s get real.

The fact that Obama inherited the two longest wars in U.S. history also gives the Pentagon an outsized role in his foreign policy. The State Department is of course deeply involved in the political dimensions of these issues. But abroad the military quite appropriately runs these wars, and at home, because of the stakes in American lives and money, the White House controls and coordinates high policy.

Finally, there’s the secretary’s own caution.

Clinton was a star even before becoming secretary of state; she had little to prove. Ditto for Colin Powell. That kind of fame also makes you less hungry and less eager to take risks.

Maybe it’s also just smart political instincts. I suspect that when Clinton looks around the world these days, she concludes that all these high-level issues she doesn’t own are really a dog’s lunch; they are opportunities all right — for failure. Sometimes getting out of the way of history is better than getting run over by it. And knowing what you can’t do is as important as figuring out what you can.

Perhaps Clinton is a secretary of state well suited for her times. She has faithfully carried out the president’s policies and reinforced the balance he’s trying to strike: how to lead a world in which America has to be much more discerning and disciplined about where and how it projects its power. To the extent Obama is succeeding in this enterprise, she is too. And whatever the future holds for her, she’ll be remembered as a pretty competent secretary of state.

So what if Hillary Clinton doesn’t get admitted into the Foggy Bottom Hall of Fame. James Buchanan didn’t either, and he was the last secretary of state to become president. But who’s thinking about that?

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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