Junior Partner

How does Hillary Clinton stack up compared to her predecessors?


Now that Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state is drawing to a close, it’s possible to begin to assess her record and place her service in historical perspective. Although Clinton was not part of President Barack Obama’s inner decision making circle, she has done a credible job representing the interests of the United States abroad. At the same time, Clinton’s influence has grown during her tenure as secretary of state — culminating in the pivot toward Asia, of which Clinton was one of the chief architects. But how does she stack up against past secretaries of state?

In a forthcoming encyclopedia of diplomatic and military history, I develop a simple typology for secretaries of state that helps us to understand the role — and the historical importance — of the men and women who have held this position. Broadly speaking, past secretaries of state fall into one of the following five categories or types: "senior partner/prime minister," "foreign minister," "junior partner," "figurehead," and "caretaker."

The "senior partner/prime minister secretary of state" advises the president on both foreign and domestic policy and is, for the most part, the dominant force in the executive branch after the president. Secretaries that fall into this category have almost complete freedom in foreign policy and also play an important role in shaping domestic policy. Martin Van Buren and William Seward were acknowledged as the most powerful Cabinet members in the administrations of Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, respectively. Lincoln, for example, took Seward’s advice on issues ranging from White House protocol to the timing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Other secretaries who served in the role of senior partner/prime minister were John Marshall under John Adams, Jeremiah Black under James Buchanan, Hamilton Fish under Ulysses S. Grant and William Evarts under Rutherford B. Hayes. Likewise, President Millard Fillmore asked Daniel Webster to be his secretary of state because he wanted Webster’s advice and counsel on a range of foreign and domestic policies, especially on the bills that coalesced into the Compromise of 1850.

The "foreign-minister secretary of state," in contrast, controls U.S. foreign policy without at the same time dominating domestic policy. Occasionally, secretaries in this category derive their primacy in foreign policy from an existing friendship with the president. James Baker, for example, was a friend of George Bush for decades before his appointment and helped Bush on his first election campaign. Similarly, John Forsyth, Abel P. Upshur, and Elihu Root all had preexisting friendships with the presidents they served under. Other foreign-minister secretaries, such as John Quincy Adams, Charles Evans Hughes, and George C. Marshall, were not close with their bosses prior to taking office. Yet Adams shared in one of the most productive foreign policy partnerships in U.S. diplomatic history with President James Monroe while President Warren G. Harding devolved total control of foreign policy to Hughes. President Harry S. Truman, meanwhile, had the highest respect for Marshall, calling him the "greatest living American."

The "junior-partner secretary of state," as the name suggests, plays a less commanding role in formulating and executing U.S. foreign policy, but still participates in the process. Typically, this occurs because the president has strong ideas about how to direct foreign policy. Occasionally, however, the junior-partner secretary finds himself or herself sidelined when the president solicits foreign policy advice from another official. Thomas Jefferson, Cordell Hull, William Rogers, and Colin Powell all had their advice disregarded as other advisors pulled the foreign policy strings. Each of the secretaries mentioned above had at least one major competitor: Jefferson had Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Hull had Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, and Rogers had National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. Powell, meanwhile, had the unique misfortune of facing two competitors working in tandem: Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

During his first year as secretary of state, Powell enjoyed something close to foreign minister powers — buoyed by his previous working relationship with Dick Cheney – but after the 9/11 terrorist attacks he was reduced to junior partner status. It was Cheney and Rumsfeld, not Powell, who articulated the Bush administration’s neoconservative national security strategy from 2002 onwards. Powell, who still favored a multilateral diplomatic approach, became little more than a reassuring face plastered on a policy that many — including Powell — had serious misgivings about. Indeed, so powerless was Powell, that some observers have argued that he was little more than a figurehead secretary of state by the end of his tenure.

"Figurehead secretaries of state" are those who have had little or no impact on foreign policy. This has occurred when presidents demanded total control of foreign policy and treated their secretaries of state as glorified clerks. President Benjamin Harrison, for example, distrusted his first secretary of state, James G. Blaine, and was jealous of his popularity. (Blaine was introduced as the "plumed knight" at the 1876 Republican National Convention.) Harrison reviewed all of Blaine’s state papers and liked to remind him that he, Harrison, controlled U.S. foreign policy.

Likewise, John Sherman held little sway under President William McKinley and both William Jennings Bryan and Robert Lansing were ignored by President Woodrow Wilson. Harrison and Wilson both preferred to keep foreign policy in their own hands and delegated responsibility to trusted personal advisors. McKinley relied heavily on Assistant Secretary of State William Day and Wilson regularly consulted Colonel Edward House, treating Lansing as nothing more than a legal draftsman.

The "caretaker secretary of state" is slightly different from the other categories in that it refers to the purpose of the appointment — to form a bridge between administrations — rather than the influence of the appointee. As such, caretaker secretaries are usually appointed at the end of a presidency and only remain in office for a short time. Edward Everett, John W. Foster, Robert Bacon, and Lawrence Eagleburger, for example, were all appointed in the last months or even weeks of an outgoing administration and were in office to ensure the continuation of policy. Despite their short tenure, some caretakers have left a lasting imprint on foreign policy: Everett rejected a British and French proposal to guarantee Spanish sovereignty of Cuba, Edmund S. Muskie helped resolve the Iranian hostage crisis, and Eagleburger influenced President Bush’s decision to send troops to Somalia.

So where does Hillary Clinton fit in? Although she was the most high-profile official to be nominated at the beginning of a presidency since Harry S. Truman tapped James F. Byrnes for the top job at State in the summer of 1945, Clinton’s impact has been fairly circumscribed. During her tenure, the bulk of U.S. foreign policy has been formulated in the White House, where the President Barack Obama relied heavily on aids like Thomas Donilon and Denis McDonough. Secretary Clinton, for example, played a relatively marginal role in the decision to implement the surge in Afghanistan in 2009. The same can be said of her role in formulating the administration’s foreign policy toward the Middle East. Clinton, it seems, never managed to penetrate Obama’s inner circle.

Perhaps part of the problem was that she was President Obama’s major opponent in securing their party’s presidential nomination. There also may have been some concern that if Hillary Clinton was too involved in setting policy early on, people would view the Obama presidency as Bill Clinton’s third term, at least as it pertained to foreign policy. Yet, Clinton has done a credible job executing policies formulated by others and should be given credit for the "pivot" to Asia, which has increased U.S. popularity in the region (though perhaps not in China). Clinton also did an admirable diplomatic tap-dancing job to resolve the standoff between the U.S. and China over the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng.

But put into historical perspective, Clinton falls in the "junior partner" category for secretaries of state. The president and the White House staff have controlled foreign policy and have consistently excluded the secretary. To her credit, Clinton has maintained good professional relationships with both Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta and is viewed as a good chief by State Department personnel. In addition, Clinton has used her exceptionally high profile — stemming from her previous roles as First Lady and U.S. senator — to shepherd a number of her own initiatives like economic development and women’s empowerment projects.

Given the constraints put on her by the White House and her own previous lack of diplomatic experience, Clinton has excelled as a junior-partner secretary of state — thanks mainly to her intelligence and work ethic. Indeed, she has logged more miles than any secretary of state in history. And perhaps most importantly, looking forward to a presidential run down the line, Clinton now has the foreign policy credentials she lacked in 2007-2008.

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