Hillary Clinton to step down from 'high wire' of US diplomacy

It's too early to talk of her legacy, or to grade the Obama administration's foreign policy, but four years of repairing relationships and defending US interests have taken a physical toll. 

Evan Vucci/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner greet President Barack Obama after the president delivered his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday. At a State Department press conference Thursday, Clinton announced that she would be stepping down from the 'high wire of American politics.'

No matter what happens in the 2012 US presidential elections, Hillary Clinton will not be America’s chief diplomat for much longer.

At a State Department press conference yesterday, she announced that she would be stepping down from the “high wire of American politics” after 20 years, as first lady, as a senator from New York, and finally as US Secretary of State. At the press conference, she told reporters that “it would be a good idea to find out how tired I really am.”

Diplomacy is a largely thankless task in America. In France, diplomats are practically rock stars, and the actions and speeches of senior French diplomats abroad are noted closely as to whether they match the standards of French diplomats of the past. Not so in the US. Newspapers like the New York Times may have front-page articles about the US secretary of State’s latest foreign trip to Myanmar, for instance, but the vast majority of Americans are blissfully unaware of what their government is doing overseas.  

Ms. Clinton inherited a job when American diplomacy was every bit as messy as the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Many nations that initially felt sympathy for the US after the Sept. 11 attacks had grown quickly tired of American statements such as, “You’re either with us or against us.” Changing the tone of American foreign policy meant bringing back a level of trust, and to do that meant thousands of foreign trips.

Here’s the US State Department's interactive map showing Hillary Clinton’s hundreds of foreign and domestic trips.

Rumors have been flying around for weeks that Hillary Clinton was planning to bow out.

Chris McGreal, the Guardian’s man in Washington, quoted a keen diplomacy-watcher, John Norris of the Center for American Progress, as saying that Clinton’s legacy abroad will be her dogged attempts to reverse hostility.

"I have a hard time thinking of a secretary of state in recent memory who inherited a portfolio that was more of a mess. She had wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a very troubled relationship with Pakistan, and a full-blown economic crisis on her watch," he said.

"Her ability to reconstruct the United States as a player on the multilateral stage is some of the most important and least acknowledged work. If you look at the broad architecture of US foreign policy, she really has done a pretty remarkable job of helping us emerge from what was something of a smouldering train wreck when she took office."

Distrust still lingers, of course, just as American troops linger in an Afghanistan that remains desperately poor and insecure after 10 years of US involvement. Several governments still view the US as a unilateral force of nature on the United Nations Security Council, pushing through its call for the right to protect Libyan civilians with NATO air strikes against the Qaddafi regime, for instance. Now president of the UN Security Council, South Africa seems to view its job as America’s Nay-Sayer.

In his speech before the UN General Assembly this month, South African President Jacob Zuma slammed the UN Security Council initiative – which South Africa voted for – for NATO airstrikes to protect Libyan civilian populations. The UN moved too quickly toward war, ignoring African Union efforts to negotiate a “peaceful” settlement between Muammar Qaddafi and the rebels.

“The consequences of the actions that were carried out in Libya in the name of the United Nations Security Council have spilled over into other countries in the region,” Mr. Zuma told the UN meeting. He did not mention the US by name in his speech, but he warned that outsiders must not see the African continent as a “playground” for rivals battling for resources and influence.

The historical judgment of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, and Hillary Clinton’s management of it, will only focus in part on how well it cleaned up the messes of previous administrations. The larger question is how it handled major events that occurred on its watch. Obama himself attempted to get a jump on shaping his legacy, by reading off a list of foreign policy achievements during his recent state of the union speech. In the past year alone, the US had eliminated its greatest individual enemy – Osama Bin Laden – had adapted  quickly to the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and directly confronted the Iranian regime over what is believed to be its nuclear weapons program.

But history is not written in the heat of a 24-hour news cycle. It is written when the dust settles and the effects are seen more clearly. That verdict won't be written until long after Hillary Clinton has left the building. 

IN PICTURES: Hillary Clinton through the years

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