Several bomb blasts accompanied Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to Pakistan. This was a wake-up call in more ways than one. The moment had come for Clinton to act more boldly as the nation’s top diplomat. Historically our best secretaries of state have been those who think creatively and move assertively. Likewise our most effective foreign policies have come under strong and secure secretaries of state.
Of course, the verdict is far from in on Secretary Clinton, but if she doesn’t look out, her role may be shaped for her by others. What role should she choose?
Clinton can look to predecessors for guidance. Alexander Haig is one example. During his brief tenure as secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, from 1981 to 1982, Haig sought to clarify the nature of his job. He took a cue from the arms negotiator and perennial bureaucrat Paul Nitze, who suggested to Haig that he fashion himself the president’s foreign policy “vicar.”
Nitze probably had in mind his former boss, Dean Acheson, the son of an Episcopal bishop and Harry Truman’s fourth secretary of state, who retrospectively has become one of the most admired secretaries, despite his notable unpopularity while in office, between 1949 and 1953.
Acheson’s role as “vicar” was to be the wise voice of authority and the occasional stiff backbone for a president likely to be buffeted from all sides. Haig, as it happened, turned out to offer a more robust backbone than the rest of the Reagan administration and the country wanted. His days in office were numbered after his infamous “I am in control here” news conference following the attempt on Reagan’s life in 1981.
But this didn’t mean the possibilities of vicarage were ill advised, or forgotten. In fact, Haig’s successor, George Shultz, turned it into an art form. By being especially resourceful, clear and firm, and by earning the confidence of Reagan, the State Department and most of his foreign counterparts, Shultz established himself as the most successful secretary since Acheson. It was no accident that the Cold War ended peacefully during Reagan’s second term.
By contrast, there are the examples of John Foster Dulles (1950s), Henry Kissinger (1970s), and James Baker (1990s)– more entrepreneurial secretaries who played a combination of roles featuring brinkmanship, jawboning and intrigue. Occasionally such secretaries have been the bad-cop foil to a president who pulled more conciliatory levers behind the scenes.
As for Clinton, she still appears unsure about the kind of role she wants. Until only very recently she appears to have confined herself to the quiet, bureaucratic parley and the goodwill tour.
In the meantime she has been upstaged by others, such as John Kerry and Joe Biden. This has led some critics to suggest a deliberate hedging strategy for a future political career, or for some other, unexplained motivation.
Clinton has denied any future presidential aims and is shrewd enough to know that it sometimes makes sense to let others take the credit, or the hits. But there may come a day in the near future when her profile sinks too low to recover.
If so, she risks becoming a third category of secretary — the nonentity or figurehead. Think Dean Rusk, Cyrus Vance, Warren Christopher, even Colin Powell. They mattered on occasion — sometimes a great deal. But in general they are eclipsed and frustrated by the White House or by other cabinet secretaries. Clinton can’t possibly be satisfied with such a fate.
If not, she needs to continue taking more high-profile risks. Her direct involvement in the Turkey-Armenia talks and her most recent trip to South Asia and the Middle East suggest she’s finally ready to get her hands dirty. This is a good start. It needs to be accompanied by major diplomatic initiatives in these and other areas. Not only must she lead them; she has to be seen to lead them.
The foreign-policy pot has had many cooks for as long as most people can remember. But the best secretaries of state, such as Acheson and Shultz, have been those recognized as first among equals. They were effective because they reinforced their words with actions in the field, and with their personal and professional relationship with the president. So far, Clinton’s record appears to fall short on both counts.
To be a reliable vicar, even for a president as cautious and deliberative as Barack Obama, she must still prove just how strong her backbone really is. She shouldn’t wait for the next crisis to do so. Now is the time to forge strong constituencies of her own at home and abroad, and to take those risks. At stake is not only her own reputation, but also that of her president and her country.
Kenneth Weisbrode is a historian at the European University Institute in Fiesole, Italy, and the author of The Atlantic Century (2009). He is a writer for the History News Service.
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