Hillary Clinton: A quiet brand of statecraft

Hillary Clinton has been loyal to President Obama, her one-time rival. Now she's seeking to redefine U.S. foreign policy for a new century, even as the latest mideast peace talks test her skills as a negotiator.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bade farewell before boarding a plane to head home following a regional forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Hanoi, Vietnam, in July.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
On the road with Hillary Clinton
Drew Angerer/AP
This profile of Hillary Rodham Clinton is the cover story of the Sept. 27, 2010, issue of the Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine.

Barely 48 hours had passed since daughter Chelsea's Hudson River Valley wedding, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton – still clearly in the glow of mother-of-the-bride-dom – was back giving full attention to her role as chief diplomat and administrator for the foreign policy of President Obama.

Taking the stage Aug. 3 in a turquoise pantsuit before a sea of young African leaders invited to Washington for a presidential initiative, Secretary Clinton told her audience in a deadpan voice that her talk on the US trade and development partnership with sub-Saharan Africa would have to wait. She had a little business to clear up first.

"When I was in Nairobi last year, a very nice man offered 40 goats and a number of cows for the chance to marry my daughter," she said as cellphone cameras snapped a shot of one of the world's most powerful and recognizable women. Noting that her husband, former President Bill Clinton, had received the same offer from the same man five years earlier, Clinton added, "As of this week, I can now say with great certainty my daughter is officially off the market."

IN PICTURES: Travels with Hillary Clinton

Despite some wincing by a few Africans in the audience who considered it a ham-handed remark – with its images of a continent of goatherds and young women as chattel – the hearty laughter and camera clicks suggested something else. For most of the young Africans in the hall, especially the women, it was a thrill to be so intimately addressed by Clinton.

Clinton's speech that early August afternoon was a small affair among the hundreds of talks she has given, the thousands of miles traveled, and dozens of fraught issues addressed as secretary of State – from crafting a "reset" with Russia to addressing China's military rise with East Asian allies. But there she was, expounding on the role she sees development playing in US foreign policy, with special emphasis on a favorite theme – women.

In that sense, it offered a glimpse into how this reluctant chief diplomat with the unique curriculum vitae – former first lady and senator from New York, and onetime chief political rival of the president she serves – culls from personal narrative in her approach to shaping US foreign policy.

It is Hillary Clinton the politician who returns to villages in Africa she last visited as first lady and addresses people by their first names. It is Hillary Clinton the woman and mother who takes alleged mass rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a personal affront. And it is Hillary Clinton, the once-assumed and later vanquished future president, who opened the formal return to Middle East peace talks in Washington this month by urging the Israeli and Palestinian people to rise above "the disappointments of the past" to become "champions" for peace.

Seventeen months into a job she resisted accepting, Hillary Rodham Clinton is seen by many longtime analysts as making a quiet mark on US statecraft through hard work and by reaching down into the well of personal experience.

They see her patiently rebuilding America's image in the world and expanding US diplomatic reach by securing more resources for the State Department from former colleagues in the US Congress. While some still question her creative vision and negotiating skills – a hallmark of successful secretaries of State – others laud her for embarking on a redefinition of American foreign policy that gives new weight to diplomacy and development alongside defense.

"Where she could leave her mark is in putting into practice this idea of smart power," says former secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a longtime friend and close associate of Clinton's who describes the "plethora of issues" facing the secretary of State today as "more complex than anything I've ever seen." To respond to that, she adds, Clinton "sees the potential of using a variety of tools in the diplomatic tool box."

But others who have no less admiration for Clinton's accomplishments in her short time see this moment as a threshold for her – and not only because of the Israeli-Palestinian talks and the test those talks will pose to her skills and propensity for problem solving. They also point to the major foreign-policy review – the so-called "QDDR" or Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review she initiated by adapting a Pentagon policy evaluation process – that she is set to unveil next month.

Both the Middle East negotiations and the policy review will provide a measure, these critics say, of Clinton's ability to think in new ways and to fashion a foreign policy for 21st-century America.

"I admire and appreciate the way she has really drilled down on some of these crises that have come up, from the Pakistan floods to the earthquake in Haiti, even her handling of the Kyrgyzstan turmoil – she's working herself ragged on these things and you can see it in her face," says Steven Clemons, publisher of the widely read Washington Note blog and a foreign-policy specialist. "But what we need is an innovator – not an incrementalist, but someone who envisions the strategic leaps that can get us out of these holes we're in, and I just haven't seen it in Hillary Clinton."

What Mr. Obama got when he insisted his former rival for the Democratic presidential nomination take on the job of applying his foreign policy and running US diplomacy was an indefatigable advocate for America with a work ethic that astounds admirers and critics alike. She has proved her loyalty to Obama, some say to a fault, matching her pragmatic vision of 21st-century American leadership to his. She has put her unmatched star power to good use, commanding the stage whether with a room of colleagues, with young leaders like those Africans assembled in Washington, or with the many television audiences she has engaged with, Oprah-style, while abroad.

And she has demonstrated the value of having a tested politician as secretary of State – and not only because of her ability to relate to average people in a world where that kind of connection increasingly matters to US foreign-policy goals. She has built on her time on the Senate Armed Services Committee to deepen a relationship with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The two cabinet members have forged a crucial State-Pentagon relationship at a time when Mr. Gates and other military leaders are calling on the civilian arm of American global reach to take on more of the duties – like nation-building – that the military assumed by default in places like Iraq.

But she also has credibility with her colleagues, the many foreign ministers who are politicians themselves and who appreciate Clinton's grasp of the challenges, if not outright limitations, public opinion often poses.

"People forget that most foreign ministers are also political leaders, especially among our allies," says James Steinberg, one of Clinton's two deputy secretaries and a national-security expert who also served in the Clinton White House. "She can relate to politicians. She knows the particular pressures they face, and that allows her to be particularly effective."

Foreign-policy practitioners and observers alike profess a uniform respect for Clinton's hard work and her mastery of the briefs she takes on. Still, some admit they have less of a feel for where she wants to take US foreign policy.

"Frankly, it's hard for me to place her," says George Herring, a professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky and an expert on secretaries of State. "She seems to have become an effective manager of the [State] department, which is not always the case, but she does not appear to have put her trademark on anything at this point."

A not-uncommon take on Clinton had her spending the better part of her first year casting about to secure a place for herself in the administration. That perception was fed by a couple of factors: Vice President Joe Biden's keen interest and close involvement in foreign affairs – Obama made Mr. Biden his go-to guy on Iraq – and the high-powered special envoys Obama named. Either former Sen. George Mitchell, named as Middle East special envoy, or Richard Holbrooke, whose portfolio contains Afghanistan and Pakistan, could have been secretary of State in his own right, experts note.

John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush and former assistant secretary of State for nuclear proliferation issues, says someone of Clinton's stature "must be finding it hard to play such a limited role and not be a central figure in foreign-policy decisionmaking." He compares her to Colin Powell, under whom he served, as "the State Department's envoy to the president, and not the other way around."

Mr. Herring says Clinton has been a "team player," but he adds that this does not mean she has been "marginalized" the way Mr. Powell was. Indeed, Secretary Albright says the cold-war-era scenario of one dominant player in the promotion of US foreign policy is over, replaced by a "constellation" of participants and influences.

"Her role is to exert power by being a team player, knowing when to delegate and when to take the driver's seat," Albright says. "It's a different modus operandi from a Dean Acheson or a Henry Kissinger."

In Clinton's case, it may be a sense of security about who she is as a global personality that has allowed her to stand back and make way for other high-powered figures to take on the day-to-day management of key portfolios. The idea of naming Senator Mitchell as Middle East envoy came from Clinton, aides say: Obama wanted someone working on the Middle East peace issue full time from the beginning of his presidency, and Clinton knew she wouldn't be able to dedicate the time required as she learned her new job and focused on other priorities like China and Asia, where she symbolically chose to make her first major trip as secretary.

"Maybe it doesn't matter to her; she's already a star," says Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert who has worked under six secretaries of State. "She's a very smart leader with a real persona." But he says Clinton nevertheless has two formidable obstacles in her path: an "unforgiving world where diplomatic breakthroughs are very hard to come by," and a bureaucratic structure that "leaves her on the outside of ownership of the big issues."

That second factor may be about to change, as Clinton dives into the Middle East peace process.

But Mr. Miller, now at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, says Clinton is a blank slate when it comes to being a negotiator – a talent that he considers one of the defining attributes of a great secretary of State.

"Consequential secretaries of State are great for one of two reasons, and one of them is that they solve problems," he says. "You either look at the world as a chessboard or you don't; it's not something learned. It remains an open question: Does Hillary Clinton have the negotiator's mind-set?"

UNDER ALUMINUM-GRAY SKIES, Clinton was riding in a limousine through the streets of Zurich when the phone rang. The news wasn't good. It was the beginning of a trip to Europe last October that was to include crucial talks with Russian leaders. Clinton was stopping off in Switzerland to witness the signing of a diplomatic accord between longtime rivals Turkey and Armenia. This was supposed to be the pro forma part of the trip.

But Philip Gordon, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, was on the phone, telling her that the signing was in jeopardy. An Armenian official had just warned him that his boss was balking at some of the wording the Turkish foreign minister planned to use in his statement.

"She thought she was coming in for a signing ceremony and instead ... she got down in the weeds on the details," recalls Mr. Gordon.

Despite the presence of the French and Russian foreign ministers, it was the American secretary of State the two sides turned to. Clinton tried some shuttle diplomacy, but neither side budged. She then proposed to her American entourage a simple idea: How about if there are no statements, just the signing, with the accord doing the talking?

Gordon and others nixed the idea as unworkable, and the effort to finesse the statements resumed – unsuccessfully. But Clinton remained adamant that a way forward be found. "At some point she passed me a note that said, 'Why can't my idea work?' " Gordon says. This time the idea of no statements was proposed – and accepted by both parties. "You have to be creative in these situations," says Gordon. "And she was."

The tense dealmaking in Zurich is one example aides cite as evidence that Clinton is a skilled negotiator. They note, too, that she was a senator, and you don't get legislation passed without knowing how to broker deals – a skill that they believe she will be able to call on in the Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Actually a debate rages in Washington over just how much of a role the United States, and Clinton as secretary of State, should play in the renewed talks. Even if the negotiations get past the end-of-September expiration of Israel's moratorium on settlement construction, the question of when Clinton should be in the room, and when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should be left to hammer things out on their own, draws sharply differing responses.

When Obama invited the two leaders to Washington earlier this month to formally restart direct talks, Clinton told them neither she nor anyone else from the US would be with them at all times at the negotiating table. What worries some specialists is that Clinton's approach will be too much like past US peace-process efforts – with too little that is innovative and game-changing.

"If all you do is restart the same old talks, all it does is get you back to the messy status quo," says Mr. Clemons. "We need to do more about Hamas than ignore its presence in the room. We need to think in innovative strategic terms that get us to a new game board where Arabs and Israelis see a two-state solution as a move toward rolling back Iran in the region. But unless Hillary has something up her sleeve, I don't see her reshaping the board in a way a secretary of State should."

What makes critiques of Clinton as a foreign-policy traditionalist so striking is how this view contrasts with Clinton's own characterization of what she is trying to do. She speaks of fashioning a foreign policy for the 21st century, where partnerships – American-led, granted – and dialogue replace the bygone days of the American superpower. She has directed her staff to think expansively in defining a new role for diplomacy in the QDDR. She has even come up with a new concept, the "townterview" – a mix of a town-hall meeting and an interview with a big-name local TV journalist to reach mass audiences with issues average people care about – that she has used when visiting countries like Indonesia, China, and Pakistan.

"The complexities and connections of today's world have yielded a new American moment, a moment when our global leadership is essential, even if we must often lead in new ways," Clinton told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington earlier this month. "The challenges we face are more complex than ever, and so are the responses needed to meet them. That is why we are building a global architecture that reflects and harnesses the realities of the 21st century."

All well and good, but not the kind of issue a secretary of State can "own" – especially in today's complex world, notes the Wilson Center's Miller. Others wonder whether it's possible to speak of a "new American moment" in a world where the perception of American power is so reduced. "Hillary Clinton believes in American power," says Clemons, "but it's still an old power, when what is needed is to reinvent American leverage for a new era."

Aides and longtime diplomats say the ideas like those offered at the CFR are not just words, but that Clinton constantly presses them to translate such rhetoric into reality.

"She has already left an important mark," says Bill Burns, undersecretary for political affairs and the highest ranking career diplomat in the State Department. Citing a restructuring of the department and a "reimagining" of what diplomacy will mean and entail in the 21st century, he acknowledges that while not everything Clinton is doing is new, under her "it is sinking in in ways I haven't seen before."

And the new directions Clinton has emphasized – the introduction and elevation of global issues in strategic dialogues with countries like India and Pakistan, the focus on reaching publics and working with nongovernmental organizations – are about more than simply dreaming up new ways of doing diplomacy, Secretary Burns says. "She has helped to broaden the terms of how you look at national-security interests."

As an example, he cites Yemen. Bilateral relations with the hotbed of Islamist extremism still focus on the security challenges there, Burns says, but Clinton has insisted that diplomats dig deeper into the causes of conflict and public dissatisfaction that feed extremism. "She has nudged the discussion there beyond Al Qaeda to development issues like water," he says. Such a broadened sense of strategic dialogue "is a departure from how we have done things in this institution."

The people Clinton has chosen to do the "big thinking" for her while she tends to what Miller describes as an "unforgiving world" say she is clear in her assignment to them. "She wants us reexamining the definition of diplomacy, and elevating development," says Anne-Marie Slaughter, Clinton's director of policy planning. As head of what she describes as "the department of longer-term thinking," Ms. Slaughter – whom Clinton enticed away from Princeton University, where she was dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs – says she is mindful that her job is very much about "creating what [Clinton's] stamp on the department will be."

That job includes delivering that QDDR by October, and reenvisioning what diplomats do so they are more like foremen of American development projects – or as Clinton likes to say, "people who wear cargo pants as much as striped pants." In that vein, another priority for Clinton is reinvigorating a long-marginalized US Agency of International Development – a task that, if successful, would go down as her "legacy," according to Burns.

IT'S A HEFTY TO-DO LIST, not one likely to be completed anytime soon. So the question naturally arises: Will she be around to see it all through? This being Washington, speculation regularly surfaces of a coming change for Clinton. She will replace Gates when he fulfills his self-announced departure from the Pentagon sometime next year, some say. Ambassador Bolton sees her so focused on development – and so unfulfilled at State – that she will leave her post as Obama's top diplomat to take the presidency of the World Bank when that job comes open. Others speak of the proven vote-getter switching jobs with Vice President Biden before the 2012 election.

When CFR President Richard Haass repeated that latter bit of Washington tea-leafing in his introduction of Clinton before her speech this month, she faintly smiled and shook her head "no."

If Clinton has found a comfortable stride as secretary of State – as many analysts say she has – one reason may be how much she reaches into her own past to share what America is and her vision of the force it wants to be in a 21st-century world. Albright recalls how Clinton responded to her invitation to address the Community of Democracies, a group bringing together new and old European democracies that Albright founded a decade ago when she headed the State Department.

"It was a very good speech, but then she did something else," Albright says, recounting how Clinton retold for her audience the story of the 2008 presidential campaign: How she had run very hard against Obama, how he had won "fair and square," and how she came to serve her former rival as his secretary of State.

"She showed those people assembled, from old and young democracies alike, what power sharing really is and what it means in a democracy," Albright says. "It was brilliant, and it was everything this woman is about."

Clinton may not have yet made the "strategic leaps" that some say the 21st century requires of American diplomacy. If the president calls, her sense of duty may well have her decamping the State Department for other climes. In any case, she has said she cannot envision remaining in a job with such a grueling pace into a second term, should Obama win reelection. In the meantime, she will pursue her vision of renewed American power in the way of the global politician she has become: audience to audience, one village at a time.

IN PICTURES: Travels with Hillary Clinton

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.