The Case for Competent Cabinet Secretaries

Hillary Clinton in AfghanistanWith John Ker­ry’s handy con­fir­ma­tion to be the next Sec­re­tary of State comes a chance to reflect on Hllary Clin­ton’s tenure as the nation’s top diplo­mat.

Yet in that reflec­tion an odd meme has emerged: because Clin­ton, as sec­re­tary, didn’t real­ly change the world in some way, she there­fore does not deserve praise for her job per­for­mance.

Writ­ing for For­eign Affairs, Michael O’Hanlon sug­gests that because Clin­ton did not have “imag­i­na­tive” posi­tions or “big his­toric break­through” she doesn’t real­ly deserve very much praise. Con­sid­er­ing O’Hanlon does not men­tion the most sig­nif­i­cant advance­ment for nuclear arms reduc­tions with Rus­sia in two decades – the Sen­ate rat­i­fied New START in 2010 under Clinton’s aus­pices – the claim that she has no imag­i­na­tion or major suc­cess­es is puz­zling.

It’s obvi­ous­ly not on par with James Bak­er push­ing to reuni­fy Ger­many, a com­par­i­son O’Hanlon makes. But the Ger­mans prob­a­bly had some­thing to do with their deci­sion to reuni­fy as well, and quite unlike the debate in the Sen­ate about strate­gic arms reduc­tions reuni­fy­ing Ger­many did not spark con­tro­ver­sy in the U.S. Sen­ate.

Addi­tion­al­ly, while the ulti­mate out­come of the Arab Spring remains uncer­tain, it would be unfair to give Clin­ton a mere pass­ing grade for how the U.S. has respond­ed to it. I have been an ear­ly skep­tic of the deci­sion to inter­vene in Libya, but Clin­ton has not over­seen a mas­sive over-com­mit­ment of U.S. resources to grand nation-build­ing schemes, either. While she has been more eager to inter­vene in civ­il wars than I would pre­fer, she has not been reck­less about it – if any­thing, the mod­el she’s urged has been restrained and lim­it­ed.

This rep­re­sents a sub­stan­tial change from the pre­vi­ous administration’s sec­re­taries of state, and even from the inter­ven­tion efforts of the 1990s, which were far more expen­sive and wide-rang­ing.

Man­ag­ing a con­tin­u­ing cri­sis while avoid­ing cat­a­stro­phe dur­ing a social move­ment as huge and com­plex as the Arab Spring is no small accom­plish­ment. It’s also not a sin­gle big accom­plish­ment, but rather a series of small ones, which makes it eas­i­er to dis­count in grand his­tor­i­cal the­o­ries of how to grade a Sec­re­tary of State.

At the New York­er, John Cas­sidy finds many for­eign pol­i­cy wonks plac­ing Clin­ton in a some­what ambi­tious con­text:

In for­eign-pol­i­cy cir­cles, the knock on Hillary is that, unlike some of her sto­ried predecessors—John Quin­cy Adams, George C. Mar­shall, Dean Ache­son, Hen­ry Kissinger—she failed to carve out a his­tor­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant role for her­self.

John Quin­cy Adams wrote the Mon­roe Doc­trine, which stip­u­lat­ed that Euro­pean pow­ers no longer inter­fere in the Amer­i­c­as in return for the U.S. not inter­fer­ing with Euro­pean pol­i­tics or colonies. George C. Mar­shall deserves tremen­dous cred­it for his ambi­tious plan to rebuild Europe after the dev­as­ta­tion of World War II (he also opposed rec­og­niz­ing Israel). Dean Ache­son imple­ment­ed George Kennan’s pol­i­cy of con­tain­ment in response to the rise of the Sovi­et Union and helped to design NATO, and over­saw the diplo­mat­ic response to the Kore­an War. Hen­ry Kissinger had a curi­ous dual role as Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advis­er and Sec­re­tary of State. Many respect him for his rap­proach­ment with Chi­na, for exam­ple, or for his books on nation­al secu­ri­ty strat­e­gy. But he remains deeply con­tro­ver­sial for his poli­cies in Viet­nam and Latin Amer­i­ca.

Obvi­ous­ly, Hillary Clin­ton nev­er faced the cir­cum­stances that these giants of the office did: while she was run­ning the State Depart­ment there was no hor­ri­ble, bloody war on the scale of World War II, Korea, or Viet­nam.

But that in and of itself is a real accom­plish­ment. It is far hard­er to man­age a rapid­ly chang­ing coun­try in a com­plex world than to stake out sexy, bold ideas in a sim­pler bipo­lar world. The world today is far safer than it was dur­ing the Cold War, but it also much more com­plex and dif­fi­cult to man­age with­out the famil­iar bipo­lar com­pe­ti­tion to guide inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics. Man­ag­ing America’s place in the world com­pe­tent­ly sure­ly deserves some mea­sure of praise.

In real­i­ty, the entire dis­cus­sion of judg­ing Clinton’s tenure seems to be a reac­tion against Pres­i­dent Oba­ma say­ing she’s “among the best” sec­re­taries the U.S. has ever had. It is a bit sil­ly. The demand by for­eign pol­i­cy wonks for world alter­ing grand his­toric trans­for­ma­tion­al lead­er­ship from an appoint­ed bureau­crat is a bizarre and, frankly, destruc­tive impulse. Push­ing for mas­sive, his­toric change was a crit­i­cal pit­fall dur­ing the pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tion, and it nev­er ful­ly recov­ered from ear­ly mis­takes try­ing to imple­ment the vision of advanc­ing democ­ra­cy across the Mid­dle East through inva­sions and regime change.

For run­ning the State Depart­ment com­pe­tent­ly, man­ag­ing a huge num­ber of con­stant and com­pli­cat­ed cri­sis events, and avoid­ing any huge geopo­lit­i­cal mis­takes, Hillary Clin­ton sure­ly deserves some mea­sure of appre­ci­a­tion from the coun­try. In a real way, by being a bit bor­ing she ensured that Amer­i­can lead­er­ship and promi­nence con­tin­ues. It’s an instinct we’d be lucky to have in more offi­cials.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.

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