What makes a good secretary of State?

As Condoleezza Rice faces confirmation hearing Tuesday, history offers many models.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

By many accounts, Alexander Haig came off as a secretary of State more interested in his own agenda than in furthering the priorities of the president he served, Ronald Reagan.

"General Haig was enormously talented, but he was not a team player," says Lee Edwards, a Reagan scholar at the Heritage Foundation. "He would come into a cabinet meeting saying, 'We have to do this or that,' and you could tell Reagan didn't like it."

It may also be why Haig didn't last long and is not generally cited as a particularly successful occupant of America's top diplomatic post. By contrast, his successor, George Shultz, often is. For starters, Mr. Shultz took what President Reagan liked to call his "simple ideas" and got down to the business of implementing them.

Recommended: Robert Gates memoir: Top 5 bombshells

With Condoleezza Rice facing Senate hearings Tuesday on her nomination as secretary of State, the question of what makes a successful captain at the helm of diplomacy is again on the Washington agenda - amplified by challenges from the Middle East to East Asia.

Different secretaries are known for different approaches, and for different strengths and weaknesses. The Shultz tenure is considered by many experts as the "golden years" of the American diplomatic corps, for the respect and closeness the secretary developed with department professionals. James Baker, secretary of State to the first President Bush, preferred on the other hand to work with a coterie of close advisers and largely disregarded the rest.

And Warren Christopher, President Clinton's first secretary of State, was considered more successful in small-group settings than when articulating policy to the public - even though one "model" of a secretary of State is to give a face and voice to US foreign policy.

"[Christopher] was a brilliant negotiator," says James Steinberg, Clinton's deputy national security adviser, "he just wasn't always the best communicator."

Past profiles vary

No single model exists for a successful secretary, experts say, largely because the president, his policies and style, and other principal foreign-policy players are such crucial variables. Then there is the influence of the events of the day.

"What worked for Nixon and Kissinger is not going to work necessarily for a Clinton or a Bush," says Mr. Steinberg, now director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "There's no ideal model the president should always follow."

Still, there are certain factors that more than others have determined a secretary of State's success. Chief among them, say specialists, is the secretary's relationship with the president.

"The most important factor in assuring a secretary's success is his or her relationship with the president - and on that score Condoleezza Rice is way ahead of the game," says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary State. "The last secretary of State to have had such a close relationship to a president was James Baker with the first President Bush. [It] was so solid and based on such strong ties that it was unshakable."

Mr. Inderfurth, now teaching a course on secretaries of State at George Washington University, says such a bond - which Rice has developed with George W. Bush since serving as his chief foreign policy adviser in the 2000 campaign, as his national security adviser, and as a fellow sports fanatic - is an advantage that other administration foreign-policy heavyweights are unlikely to disregard.

"It's something Colin Powell did not have and was unable to acquire," he says.

At the same time, such closeness carries certain responsibilities, others note, such as being the one to confront the president with new ideas and options - even to let him know when he's going in a wrong direction. "The task of educating the president is very important, and it takes skill to do it," says Lee Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Mr. Hamilton, who served 34 years in Congress with a focus on intelligence and foreign affairs, says that "education" includes pointing out issues or approaches the president might not have thought about, and broadening the president's outlook to a global perspective. For example, he says Shultz "wrestled" with Reagan's preoccupation with Central America's battles over Marxism and worked to broaden the president's horizons.

Secretaries of State are in a particularly strong position to do this, Hamilton says, because they "have the world at their fingertips" with ambassadors and the foreign service reporting to the secretary from more than 200 countries and international organizations. "The secretary serves as an early-warning device" on brewing international problems, Hamilton says. "He or she is the one who says, 'Mr. President, you'd better pay attention to this, because it's going to come back and bite us.'"

The Foggy Bottom factor

Of course not all secretaries have seen the value of tapping deeply into the professionals at what is simply called "the building" in Washington's Foggy Bottom. Mr. Baker was one secretary who assembled a tight group of aides to work with rather than plumbing the careerists. "He didn't think [the bureaucracy] was capable of addressing the breaking nature of international affairs that President Bush was faced with," Inderfurth says. "Consequently he didn't bring the foreign service into his orbit."

That approach is not lauded by everyone, especially people who have served in "the building" and understand what it offers. "It's simply a loss of talent for the secretary of State to shut him or herself off from the the professionals of the foreign service," Steinberg says.

Henry Kissinger is seen as someone who came to "the building" with a certain skepticism about its occupants but ended up with a deep respect for them. Colin Powell returned a certain sense of self-respect to the professionals and came to be well-loved by them - but was unable to greatly reduce the mistrust of the service in the White House and other agencies like the Pentagon, experts say.

Perhaps one of the secretary's more complex jobs is as a communicator. "You have to be able to articulate American foreign policy to hugely differing audiences, to Muslim audiences as well as to an audience in Indianapolis," says Hamilton.

The Heritage Foundation's Edwards points to John Foster Dulles, secretary of State to President Eisenhower in the 1950s, as one successful example. "Eisenhower was an anticommunist, but it was Dulles who had a way of putting the cold war in terms of freedom versus tyranny," he says. "He helped give a philosophical context to the president's foreign policy."

Underneath it all, just who the secretary is sends an important message. "It's an enormously positive thing for the US to have a black woman as secretary of State," says Hamilton, who says that already Madeleine Albright communicated something special as a woman with Eastern European roots.

Rice, he says, goes a step farther. "It conveys a signal around the world that I think is very good for the country."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...