You are here

Head of State: Hillary Rodham Clinton's Foreign Policy Legacy

Commentary, 31 January 2013
ving dominated American and international politics over the last twenty years and become one of the most famous and powerful women in the world, what is Hillary Rodham Clinton's legacy as Secretary of State as she departs the world stage, for now?

Having dominated American and international politics over the last twenty years and become one of the most famous and powerful women in the world, what is Hillary Rodham Clinton's legacy as Secretary of State as she departs the world stage, for now?

Hilary Clinton

The resurrection of Hillary Clinton

Hillary Rodham Clinton leaves her role as U.S. Secretary of State on a personal, professional and political high of unparalleled popularity and approval. Nearly seventy percent of the American public approve of her work as the nation's Chief Diplomat. Similarly, two-thirds see Mrs. Clinton favourably overall, numerically a new high in her long public service career as First Lady, Senator for New York, Presidential candidate and, in her latest incarnation, as Secretary of State.

In addition to this strong public approval for her tenure at the State Department, fifty-seven percent of the American public say they'd back a second attempt by Mrs. Clinton to become the first female President and succeed Barack Obama in 2016. This dominance of the American political field twenty years on from when Hillary Clinton first debuted on the US and international stage was exemplified in her valedictory testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees, where she led a robust defence of her handling of the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi which saw the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens which became a partisan issue during the autumn Presidential election.     

Smart Power

To restore American leadership in the world, Mrs. Clinton declared to the Senate Foreign Relations committee on 13 January  2009 during her confirmation hearings, 'We must use what has been called 'smart power', the full range of tools at our disposal - diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural - picking the right tool or combination of tools for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy.'  In practical terms Hillary Clinton has been one of the most energetic and activist Secretaries of State in American history. Over the course of her tenure she has clocked up nearly 1 million miles of global travel, visiting a record breaking 112 countries with 401 days spent on the road.

As the first elected politician to become Chief Diplomat since Senator Edmund Muskie's extremely brief stint at the tail end of the Carter administration, Secretary Clinton has developed and cultivated a more grass roots, popular diplomacy. Rather than simply meeting with the traditional roster of foreign Heads of State,  government ministers and officials, political and business leaders, Hillary has reached out to regular citizens, civic society, women's groups, children and students, human rights activists. 

Great Power Diplomacy: Asia-Pacific, Europe, Russia, Middle East 

During the first term of the Obama administration the President was largely focused and absorbed with domestic matters, in particular healthcare reform and the economy. A great deal of the international bridge building, diplomatic outreach and alliance strengthening was left to Mrs. Clinton. Secretary Clinton spent considerable time in Asia and the Pacific, the Middle East and Europe. Mrs. Clinton was instrumental in laying the diplomatic groundwork for the US reorientation or 'pivot' to the Asia-Pacific, leading a major push by the Obama administration to increase engagement across the region against the backdrop of rising Chinese power and influence in the area.

Her first trip abroad was to Asia in February 2009 visiting Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China on what she described as a 'listening tour'. Over the course of the next four years she would make frequent visits to those countries as well as taking in many others. In December 2011 Clinton undertook a groundbreaking mission to Burma, the first American Secretary of State to visit since John Foster Dulles in 1955. While there she met with the famous democracy activist and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and sought to support the 2011 Burmese democratic reforms, initiating a process of drawing Burma into the American sphere of influence thus paving the way for the visit of President Obama in November 2012.

As part of the burgeoning US pivot to the Asia-Pacific, which included establishing a new marine-corps base in Australia and a rotating military presence in the Philippines,  during a trip to Vietnam during July 2010 Clinton injected the U.S. into the long-running disputes over the sovereignty of the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands, much to the displeasure of the Chinese who view the South China Sea as part of their core interests, stating ''The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.''

This would develop into a theme of Mrs. Clinton's Asian diplomacy. Hillary became the first Secretary of State to ever visit the Cook islands in August 2012 ostensibly to attend a regional dialogue hosted by the Pacific Islands Forum. The Chinese, who have assiduously courted Pacific Island nations in recent years, were also in attendance and did not respond well to the presence of the Americans with the official Chinese state news agency blasting its discontent, saying Clinton's trip was ''aimed at curbing China's growing influence'' and ''stirring up disputes.'' It called on Washington to ''abandon its surreal ambition of ruling the Asia-Pacific and the world.''  Earlier in 2012, Clinton had been equally blunt telling a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that China had ''brought all of the leaders of the South Pacific to Beijing, and wined and dined them. Let's just put aside all the moral, humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in, and let's just talk, you know, realpolitik. We are in a competition with China.''

While the American 'pivot' to the Asia-Pacific and the tumultuous events in the Middle East dominated US diplomacy throughout the Obama first term, Mrs. Clinton worked hard to revitalize the Trans-Atlantic alliance with the member states of the European Union, especially after the divisions and arguments over the Iraq war of 2003, and at first pursued a policy of 'reset' in relations with the Russian Federation before adopting a more confrontational approach.  T

he attention and time invested in revitalizing the Trans-Atlantic Partnership bore dividends with a more united and integrated approach between the United States and Europe evidenced in shoring up the NATO effort in Afghanistan and determining a timetable for transitioning primary security responsibility to Afghan forces; in a common position regarding the Libyan crisis, and unprecedented unity in dealing with the Iranian regime's nuclear programme and adopting a severe sanctions regime. When it came to intervention in Libya the politico-military burden was distributed more equitably than during the Kosovo war.  Early on, the United States knocked out Libya's integrated air defences and later provided other crucial assets, while encouraging greater European strategic and military front-line leadership. The European and Canadian allies policed the skies, carried out the bulk of air strikes, provided logistical support, and enforced the arms embargo at sea.

 Against this improvement in the Euro-Atlantic alliance, U.S. - Russian relations have been more tense.  With much fanfare a 'Reset' in relations between the USA and Russian Federation was announced in January 2009 to signify a new chapter after the difficulties and friction of the final Bush years. The achievements of the 'Reset'- the New START Treaty, cooperation on Afghanistan, Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization - have been considerable but eclipsed by stubborn and serious differences over Syria and the continuing Iranian nuclear programme  amid rising, antagonistic rhetoric in both capitals.

Mrs. Clinton was at the forefront of managing the Obama administration's response to the Arab Spring which erupted in early 2011 and navigating the tremendous geo-strategic upheaval with the fall of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and the outbreak of mass protests and uprisings throughout the Middle East, most notably in Syria.  

As the Arab Spring gathered momentum the President came to rely even more upon Hillary's long standing contacts in the region from her days as First Lady, in particular when confronted with the geo-political challenge of the fall of the Mubarak regime in Cairo which had been a long standing pillar of American interests and co-operation in the Middle East.  Secretary Clinton was widely credited as the force within the administration for pushing for intervention in Libya to assist the rebels against the autocratic rule of Colonel Gaddafi. In alliance with UN Ambassador Susan Rice and National Security Council director Samantha Power, the troika overcame internal opposition within the White House from National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Counter-terrorism Czar John Brennan and at the Pentagon from Defence Secretary Robert Gates.  

America's mission in the world restored 

As Hillary Clinton passes the baton of American foreign policy to her successor John Kerry, her legacy at the State Department is at one and the same time extremely distinguished, dynamic and yet strangely unfulfilled. Through her global celebrity and historic reputation Mrs. Clinton has succeeded in helping to repair Washington's image abroad. As Mrs America to the world, Hillary has articulated and implemented a more liberal internationalist, networked and multilateral foreign policy guided by a hard headed hawkish realism suffused with principled pragmatism.

Hillary Clinton has also changed not only how the United States actuates its foreign policy priorities but how diplomacy is conducted on the international arena. Her 21st Century Statecraft platform has leveraged the power of ideas while embracing technology and new tools for a better way to engage with the public and all diplomatic actors, traditional and non-traditional.  She embraced social media from the very beginning focusing on what Princeton Professor Anne Marie Slaughter, a former Director of Policy Planning at State, has described as a ''pivot to the people.''   Secretary Clinton was able to integrate traditional diplomacy with new technologies and social media: from public diplomacy to consular affairs, from Ambassadors' Twitter profiles to Facebook accounts, from foreign policy to internal communication. All State Department's operations have been influenced by the shift to ediplomacy and 21st Century Statecraft expanding the Secretary of State's reach to millions of individuals at home and abroad. Under Clinton State has become a powerhouse for innovation.

While Hillary Clinton has been one of the most energetic and active Secretaries of State in terms of travel, diplomacy and international engagements, and her accomplishments are considerable, she cannot claim credit for a major foreign policy success or diplomatic entreaty such as Henry Kissinger's Opening to China. This in part stems from the fact that she has not been granted the freedom to make and set foreign policy as she herself would be inclined to. No Secretary of State can.

Their role is to advise and implement the decisions and policies of the President.  President Obama has operated an extremely tight foreign policy making circle in the White House run in close co-ordination with the National Security Council and overseen by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.  

While the Obama-Hillary partnership has proved much more effective, functional and harmonious than could ever have been imagined at the height of their nomination battle, and Mrs. Clinton has grown to become a valued advisor to President Obama,  the relationship has never been extremely close both personally and politically. If Hillary Clinton wants to make an even bigger mark on American foreign and national security policy, that will require the power of a higher office. As the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair speculated recently when speaking about Hillary he mused 'my instinct is the best is yet to come.'

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research