Stephen M. Walt

Is Hillary Clinton a great secretary of state?

Is Hillary Clinton a great secretary of state? A puff-piece in the New York Times Magazine a couple of weeks ago referred to her as a "rock star diplomat," and quotes Google chairman Eric Schmidt calling her "the most significant Secretary of State since Dean Acheson." (Hmm. . . has Mr. Schmidt ever heard of ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Is Hillary Clinton a great secretary of state? A puff-piece in the New York Times Magazine a couple of weeks ago referred to her as a "rock star diplomat," and quotes Google chairman Eric Schmidt calling her "the most significant Secretary of State since Dean Acheson." (Hmm. . . has Mr. Schmidt ever heard of some guys named Dulles, Kissinger, and Baker?). I’m neither a fan nor a foe of Ms. Clinton, but one can’t really call her a great secretary at this point, through no fault of her own.

First the positives. There’s no question that Clinton has been terrifically energetic, as well as a loyal team player. In this sense, Obama’s decision to appoint her has worked out brilliantly, due in no small part to her willingness to serve the man who defeated her for the 2008 nomination, and in a broader sense, to serve her country. She’s also proved to be relatively gaffe-free (there have been a few slips, but that’s inevitable for anyone who’s in the limelight 24/7 and who has to respond and react to rapidly evolving events). Insiders with whom I’ve spoken say she is an excellent boss who elicits considerable loyalty from those around her. And as the Times piece notes, she’s helped restore the somewhat battered morale of the foreign service, and used her celebrity to raise public awareness on a number of signature issues. Nothing to be ashamed of there, and I’d argue her record puts her well ahead of predecessors such as Warren Christopher, William Rogers, Christian Herter, Madeleine Albright, Dean Rusk, Condoleezza Rice, or Colin Powell. (For a balanced but positive appraisal of Clinton’s record, see FP editor Susan Glasser’s profile here).

The problem, however, is that she’s hardly racked up any major achievements. The Chen Guangcheng affair was a nice bit of on-the-fly crisis management, but the fate of a single Chinese dissident is not exactly the stuff of high politics and in the end won’t have much impact on Sino-American relations either way. She played little role in extricating us from Iraq, and it is hard to see her fingerprints on the U.S. approach to Afghanistan. She has done her best to smooth the troubled relationship with Pakistan, but anti-Americanism remains endemic in that country and it hardly looks like a success story at this point. Yes, her belated quasi-apology eventually got the NATO supply trucks rolling again, but it took months to get this matter resolved and the relationship itself remains deeply fractured. She certainly helped get tougher sanctions on Iran, but the danger of war still looms and there’s been no breakthrough there either.  

Needless to say, she has done nothing to advance the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace or even to halt Israel’s increasingly naked land grab there (for which she can share blame with the rest of the administration, AIPAC, the U.S. Congress, and the Netanyahu government). Finally, although she’s helped articulate the need for the "pivot" to Asia and has done some effective salesmanship on that topic both at home and in the region, this move was both a geopolitical no-brainer and still faces significant obstacles. Among other things, the recent debacle over the aborted strategic cooperation agreement between South Korea and Japan (which led to the resignation of one of Korean President Lee Myung-Bak’s top aides) is a setback for both Lee and for Clinton’s efforts to build a stronger coalition in Asia.

The lack of major accomplishments isn’t really her fault, however, for several reasons. First, as I noted way back when Obama became president, there just weren’t a lot of low-hanging fruit available when the new team took office in 2009. On the contrary, they faced a series of difficult-to-intractable problems, several of which (Iraq, Afghanistan) were likely to end up looking like failures no matter what they did. Even if Clinton had been a magical combination of Bismarck, Machiavelli, Gandhi, and Zhou en Lai, she’d have had trouble devising a strategy that could have solved all these problems quickly and without costs.

Second, Clinton isn’t a great secretary of state because that is not the role that she’s been asked to play in this administration. Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker had extremely close working relationship with the presidents that they served, and each enjoyed far more authority over foreign policy than Clinton has been given by the Obama White House. Obama’s initial reliance on a set of "special envoys" diluted Clinton’s clout even more, even when some of them (such as the late Richard Holbrooke) were personally close to the secretary.  

Add to this the fact that the Pentagon and intelligence community now controls vastly greater resources than the State Department does, and has for more impact on our relations with trouble spots like Central Asia, Yemen, the Persian Gulf, etc.. Given that raw bureaucratic reality, it’s not surprising that Clinton cannot point to any major achievements on her watch. Indeed, a good case can be made that American foreign policy is still operating ass-backwards: Instead of seeing military power as one of the tools we use to advance a broad political agenda, today military imperatives tend to dominate and the diplomats just get sent out to line up some compliant partners and to clean things up afterward (see under: Drone wars).

Which is not to say that Clinton has performed badly. On the contrary, I’d give her high marks for executing the job she was asked to perform, especially given the constraints (both organizational and geopolitical) in which she had to operate. So maybe the "rock star" label is right after all. Rock stars get a lot of attention and sometimes adulation, and sometimes they even deserve it. But not even Elvis had much lasting impact on international politics.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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