Hillary Clinton departs State: What's her legacy as top US diplomat?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton steps down Friday. Her supporters say she has reenergized America’s working relationships with allies and partners, while some critics ask what her defining accomplishments are.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks on American leadership at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013.

Hillary Rodham Clinton steps down as America’s top diplomat still flying high.

After four years as President Obama’s secretary of State and America’s ambassador to the world, Mrs. Clinton is perhaps the globe’s most recognizable woman – one of her few rivals might be the queen of England – and she figures among the most admired.

Clinton’s approval rating among Americans is almost unheard-of in the current climate of over-the-top partisanship: She consistently scores 70 percent or better. And many political pundits assume the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, not to mention the presidency, is hers if she wants it.

Yet despite Mr. Obama’s recent pronouncement of Clinton as “one of our finest” secretaries of State, expert opinions are more divided over the job Clinton did and the impact she’s had on US foreign policy.

Clinton’s last day on the job is Friday, when she’ll culminate a week of valedictory events and goodbyes to an adoring State Department staff. On Thursday she addressed the Council on Foreign Relations on the future of American power, after holding a global town-hall meeting earlier in the week with youths asking questions via satellite.

Also in her last week, Clinton gave a series of sit-down interviews to some of the women journalists assigned to the State Department, underscoring her focus on women’s empowerment.

During the town-hall meeting, Clinton coyly addressed the question of her future political ambitions by saying she is “not inclined” at this point to seek the presidency – though she certainly did not slam any doors shut. If she does eventually decide to make another White House bid, most political analysts say they would expect her to run on a theme of “Hillary can do it all,” in which her tenure as secretary of State would be an important highlight but not the focus.

For her protagonists, Clinton has effectively reestablished and reenergized America’s working relationships with allies and partners that had become estranged from the United States during the George W. Bush administration. Beyond that, she began implementation of Obama’s “pivot” to the Asian Pacific region, they say, by building dialogue and institutional ties with a rising China while at the same time strengthening America’s links with the Asian countries that are feeling the impact of China’s growing weight.

“Hillary Clinton has been highly successful and has left a very positive mark on American foreign policy,” says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “In two areas especially” – stewardship of the Asia pivot and elevation of the role that women and girls play in political and economic development – “she will have a lasting legacy,” he adds.

Clinton recognized that Asia was going to be an economic priority for the US as well as a predominant national-security consideration, Mr. Inderfurth says, and “she set the standard” for US involvement. He cites her attendance and “tireless participation” in gatherings of the region’s multilateral institutions.

While many diplomats and foreign-policy experts give Clinton high marks, the glowing evaluation is hardly unanimous. As one national-security expert with Democratic leanings (and who requested anonymity in order to be blunt) says, “She’s been a fairly effective spokesman for the US government, but what has she done as secretary of State?”

Clinton’s critics argue that something like the Asia pivot, for example, was going to happen no matter who was Obama’s secretary of State. And they say they are hard pressed to find anything significant in the foreign policy of Obama’s first term that is Clinton’s signature work.

Yet even some ardent critics of the Obama administration say that Clinton’s lack of defining accomplishments can’t be blamed on her, but is rather a result of a White House that controls all major policy decisions.

“It’s been a difficult four years for Mrs. Clinton, because the State Department has been marginalized from the making of foreign policy,” says Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington. “I don’t think she was influential – not because she shouldn’t have been or didn’t want to be, but because in this White House, only the very few are influential.”

The Obama White House has kept unusually tight reins on the conducting of foreign policy, many Washington analysts agree. There has been a broad trend in this direction in recent decades, but Obama, they say, has taken the concentration of foreign policy into the hands of a few close White House advisers to new levels.

Middle East policy under Obama is one example of this. In the Bush administration, it was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who dragged a dubious president and White House into a peace initiative that culminated in the 2007 peace conference in Annapolis, Md., some note. Obama launched a Middle East peace initiative his first week in office, but it was clear from the outset it was going to be a White House effort. Clinton was on the sidelines as Obama clashed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Special envoy George Mitchell eventually stepped down in frustration.

But others say Clinton has been effective, with some senior foreign diplomats saying what will be missed are her tireless efforts to keep the US engaged with allies and partners despite an insular and aloof White House. (To a great degree, Clinton has done the engagement on others’ turf: She visited 112 countries – a record for secretaries of State – and logged just under 1 million miles.)

An example that some of these foreign admirers cite is how Clinton “institutionalized” the US-China relationship despite the challenging context of China’s rising economic and global political power.

Clinton’s patient and building-block-style labor on China has paid off on two notable occasions in the past year, they say: last spring, when Clinton was able to carry out a series of high-level meetings in Beijing even as she resolved the prickly asylum case of activist Chen Guangcheng, who took refuge in the US Embassy the same day Clinton arrived in April; and this month, when the US was able to work out a compromise with China that allowed for unanimous condemnation of North Korea at the United Nations Security Council.

To those who say Clinton did a solid job but left behind no signature accomplishment, her defenders most often point to Clinton’s elevation of the issue of women and girls in development. Some add Clinton’s attention to the global campaign for cleaner and more efficient cookstoves – a seemingly secondary issue that nevertheless has considerable health and economic implications for millions of developing-world women and families.

Inderfurth, who has taught a college course on secretaries of State, says Clinton has “upgraded, promoted, and institutionalized” the issue of the role of women in stability and development to such a degree that it is not going to fade to the background as she steps down.

“She has been absolutely laser-focused on the participation of women in politics and economic development – not just in the developing world, but in all countries,” he says. If it is widely accepted now that women and girls are a key to the developing world’s prosperity, he adds, “that will be part of her legacy.”

Obama marked the conclusion of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of State by issuing a presidential memorandum Wednesday directing federal agencies to give an “elevated focus” to gender-equality issues and to “empowering women and girls globally.” Calling this issue the “unfinished business of the 21st century,” Clinton said the memorandum would help institutionalize the issue as a US priority.

But Ms. Pletka of AEI says that “so much talk” of women and girls cannot mask the setback that Obama policies – which she summarizes as “retreat” from the world – have meant for millions of women.

“If Hillary Clinton has done so much to advance this issue, is that why the women and girls of Afghanistan are fearful of losing whatever they’ve gained to a pernicious and resurgent Taliban?” she says. “Is that why the women and girls of Syria are dying by the thousands or fleeing their country? Is that why women and girls are losing their rights in Egypt?”

The point, Pletka says, is that Clinton’s “good intentions” have meant little in the face of a White House that she sees engineering a weakened role for America in the world. “That’s not something,” she says, “that Hillary Clinton or John Kerry,” who replaces Clinton as secretary of State, “or anyone else in this administration’s State Department will be able to do anything about.”

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