The listening legacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton

The legacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State may be in her enhancement of the diplomatic art of listening to other peoples – especially women – and not only world leaders. With President Obama honoring her in a "60 Minutes" interview, that legacy needs to be sustained.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speak with ”60 Minutes” correspondent Steve Kroft in the White House on Friday.

The greatest challenge of our time, said Madeleine Albright last week to a group of Massachusetts students, “is between the people who are willing to listen and those who believe they know it all.”

As the first female United States secretary of State (1997 to 2001), Ms. Albright set a precedent for the United States in the art of listening more and asserting its interests less in foreign affairs. She was a model for two women who later ran the State Department, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

As Secretary Clinton now leaves office after four years as America’s top diplomat, she, too, is telling others – such as in a “60 Minutes” interview with President Obama – that diplomatic style matters as much as substance for the world’s most powerful country.

Take, for example, her advice to US lawmakers last week on how the US should act in North Africa to repel Al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants: “We have to approach it with humility.”

The US military alone can’t stabilize a terrorist-torn nation like Mali, the center of current fighting in North Africa. The Pentagon’s previous training of Mali’s Army only led to a coup against an elected leader, sparking the kind of chaos on which Islamists thrive. Instead, as Clinton advised, the US must learn from the examples of Somalia and Colombia, where the US helped deploy a balance of its assets – diplomacy, development, and defense, or the “3 D’s” – to quell insurgencies in those countries.

Clinton refers to this security strategy as “smart power,” but its main tactic is to hold back force in reserve in favor of connecting first to other nations through personal ties and building coalitions. A good part of her legacy also lies in building closer ties between the State Department and the Pentagon and in expanding the US diplomatic corps.

“Nobody can match us in military assets and prowess,” she told Congress last week, “but a lot of the challenges we face are not immediately – or sustainably – solved by military action alone.”

Her favorite approach, as seen during official visits to 112 countries, was to listen to private citizens, mainly women, young people, and leaders of “civil society” groups. This listening style allowed her to take the pulse of a country but also plant seeds of goodwill and expand shared values. If she doesn’t run for president in 2016, this “soft power” activism may be her next calling.

She leaves State having enhanced an office devoted to women’s rights and created one dedicated to young people. With Mr. Obama in office for four more years, this style of outreach will likely continue under the incoming secretary of State, Sen. John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat.

By talking directly to women in countries with mass poverty and conflict, Clinton elevated their status in the economy and as leaders. “People are beginning to see that empowering women leads to economic development. That you don’t espouse women’s rights because it’s a virtuous thing to do but because it leads to economic growth,” she said.

Women are also usually the people most affected by war, and thus often the ones who must be on the front lines of negotiating for peace. Clinton’s global “listening” tours may have left lasting contrails of peacemaking that won’t be seen for decades.

Perhaps the measure of future secretaries of State should no longer be the policy “doctrine” they leave behind but the quality of bonds created with other peoples.

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