F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “there are no second acts in American lives.” US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s stunning (and, I trust, unfinished) career — from US first lady to US Senator to presidential candidate to secretary of state in the administration of the man who defeated her — proves that Fitzgerald could not have been more wrong.
Today there is widespread speculation that Clinton will seek to succeed US President Barack Obama in 2016. She has had not only a second act, but a third as well, and millions of Americans want her to write a fourth.
Clinton’s four years as the US’ top diplomat have given her iconic status around the world — and deservedly so. On her watch, two of the longest wars in US history have been wound down, the US’ alliances have been reinvigorated and young women everywhere have been encouraged to pursue their dreams — whether in academia, business, or politics. Clinton’s is a record that ranks her among the great post-war US secretaries of state: Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger and James Baker.
The position of US secretary of state is truly global in scope. It demands not only a coherent conception of how the world works and the place of US national interests within the international order, but also political skill, stamina, timing and, above all, courage. Clinton used all of these virtues to their highest possible effect.
In the midst of two wars and Asia’s rise, Clinton confronted the three great tasks that any US secretary of state must face: pinpointing the challenges at hand; developing a viable strategy that attracts the support of the entire US government and public opinion; and managing the practice of US diplomacy. Here, she was aided by the great confidence that Obama placed in her — a remarkable outcome, given their rivalry in the 2008 presidential campaign. Obama’s decision attests not only to his judgment, but also to her character.
Clinton’s primary challenge as secretary of state was to recast the very nature of US involvement in global affairs. The go-it-alone US of the years of the War on Terror had alienated its closest allies and had proven incapable of both resolving the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and creating a structure of peace for an Asia struggling to cope with China’s new power and assertiveness.
With Clinton at the diplomatic helm, the US once again made its alliances — in Europe, the Middle East and Asia — both a core principle and the key operational mechanism of its foreign policy. This renewed trust in allies has been particularly important in Asia and the Middle East, where the US has used cooperation with old partners like Turkey, Japan and South Korea, and new near-alliances with India and Indonesia to deter aggression.
US foreign policy’s “pivot to the Pacific” could not be undertaken without the US having first reinvigorated its relationships with Asia’s democracies. However, it also could not have been undertaken without Clinton’s resolve to make China part of the solution, rather than merely a target of recrimination or containment. As a result, China is being given the opportunity to preserve its dignity while receiving incentives to integrate into a stable regional — and ultimately global — order that welcomes it as an integral player, so long as it abides by multilateral rules.