As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prepares to hand the reins of foreign policy over to Senator John Kerry, her legacy is a matter of hot debate. To be sure, with much of the Middle East in turmoil and U.S. relations with Russia and China shifting, broad assessments of her tenure, no matter how heated, are only provisional. Even so, some of the most important and enduring elements of the Clinton years—steadiness and pragmatism coupled with a reinvigoration of ties with Europe and the so-called rebalancing with Asia—are clear.
For style and for collegiality, Clinton gets high marks. She understood that she was a part of President Barack Obama’s team, not a co-president, as some might have once worried she would try to be coming out of the bruising 2008 election season. When Obama had strong views, she did not publicly dissent or allow any distance to open between her position and that of her boss. She understood that secretaries of state carry out the foreign policy determined by the president and that little good can come from public disagreements of the kind that plagued the Carter administration and the George W. Bush administration.
Clinton’s work ethic as secretary of state was remarkable. She did not quite overtake Condoleezza Rice’s record for miles traveled during her four-year stint as the nation’s top diplomat — Rice traversed a total of 1,006,846 miles, Clinton a mere 956,733 — but most everyone around her was continually impressed by her preparedness. Hard work is no unusual distinction for secretaries of state, and is, in itself, no great virtue. But in Clinton’s case, diligence paid off. Gaffes were rare, and she never embarrassed allies with a failure to understand the constraints binding them; there were few public trip-ups of the kind that haunted the Reagan administration’s early efforts on missile defense, the Clinton administration’s dealings with allies over Bosnia, or the George W. Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq. Moreover, Clinton did not have to backtrack on positions she recognized too late as unpromising, unwise, or simply incorrect; for example, there was none of the on-again, off-again quality to negotiations with North Korea that there had been in several previous administrations.