Assessing Hillary

Is America's 67th secretary of state a Seward or a Powell?


Susan B. Glasser (“Head of State,” July/August 2012) does a good job of chronicling Hillary Clinton’s successes and setbacks as U.S. secretary of state. True, Clinton has been marginalized by her initial diplomatic inexperience and exclusion from President Barack Obama’s inner circle. But she argued in favor of two key administration initiatives (the 2009 Afghanistan troop surge and the 2011 Osama bin Laden raid), constructed the NATO coalition that helped the Libyan people overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi, and advocated the “pivot” to Asia, which has increased U.S. popularity in the region.

I argue in a forthcoming essay that there are five types of secretaries of state. “Prime ministers” such as Martin Van Buren and William H. Seward are influential in foreign and domestic policy, while “foreign ministers” such as John Quincy Adams and George C. Marshall control foreign policy in partnership with the president. “Junior partners” like Thomas Jefferson and Colin Powell wield some power over foreign policy but are not its primary architects, whereas “figureheads” like John Sherman and Robert Lansing have almost no say in foreign policy. “Caretakers” such as Edward Everett and Robert Bacon only hold office for a short time.

I would characterize Clinton as a junior partner, albeit a high-profile one. She is the first elected official to transition directly to secretary of state since Edmund Muskie during the Carter administration. The last time such a prominent political leader assumed the post was when President Harry Truman tapped James F. Byrnes in 1945. Byrnes’s influence declined over the course of his brief tenure, however, while Clinton’s stature has grown.

Today, Clinton is one of the most popular politicians in the United States and once again finds herself responding to speculation that she will run for president in 2016. That’s quite a turnaround for someone whose appointment was initially greeted with doubts about whether she was up to the job.

Associate Professor of Political Science
Texas State University
San Marcos, Texas

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