The Changing Role of the US Secretary of State

The poorly titled US “Secretary of State” is the chief executive minister for foreign affairs. The mandate of this office has essentially remained unchanged for decades — supervise the conduct of the foreign service, advise the president on foreign policy matters, and participate in high-level negotiations with other states. Yet the profile of the Secretary of State has recently undergone a silent revolution, a far-reaching overhaul of the profile that has been silently accepted by both Democrats and Republicans.

the classical secretaries of state
The classical model: established statesmen with long experience in government and public service, which lasted from the 19th century until 1997.

From the first secretaries of state up until the end of the 20th century, the secretary of state was invariably a senior statesman. Presidents generally picked a person with institutional connections in the ruling party and administration who could be seen to truly speak for the President and act as his trusted agent in foreign affairs. Time after time, senior figures or trusted mentors of the President have been selected to fill this position — Alex Haig under Reagan, James Baker under Bush, and Warren Christopher under Clinton.

In 1997, Clinton made a unique selection by picking his former Ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright — the first female Secretary of State. With Albright, the profile of the Secretary of State changed from the eldest statesman of the administration — instead, Albright serve as a popular, telegenic and outspoken chief diplomat. Albright lacked much of the sophistication held by previous people in the position, evidenced by some of her cavalier public comments on Iraq sanctions and her internal comment to Colin Powell, “What’s the point of you saving this superb military if we can’t use it?” But Clinton picked someone who was popular in much of eastern Europe where she had personal roots, who advocated matters such as democracy and human rights, and who appealed to many people across the world both in government and in the general public who wanted to see a softer, friendlier face of America.

the new secretaries of state
The new model: telegenic and popular figures designed to act as media-savvy diplomats.

Republicans should have instinctively opposed this radical reshaping of the position of the Secretary of State. But George W. Bush, he of the “compassionate conservatism” school of politics, embraced the model that Clinton pioneered. Bush selected former General Colin Powell, who, although he had some elements that made him the elder statesman, was telegenic and globally popular, and also served as a prominent black figure for a political party that was isolated from minority voters, and as a popular figure across the globe. Bush went even further with his selection of Condoleezza Rice, who, despite having a style similar to the classical Secretaries of State model with diplomatic initiatives backed by personal presidential support, she lacked the gravitas to be successful in these initiatives to the same extent as her predecessor.

Obama’s selection of Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State is a continuation of this new model. Yes, she’s an established figure in her party. But my hunch is that had Obama been elected a few decades ago, he would have chosen someone such as Richard Holbrooke — an established diplomat who was a favorite of the Clinton administration — or George John Mitchell — a retired politician with institutional ties — rather than a world-famous female politician. Today, Mitchell and Holbrooke serve in the curious regional “special envoy” role, a position that, not surprisingly, has only emerged in the last decade for people of high stature to tackle a specific global concern.

And of top of that, Hillary Clinton is a woman. It’s no coincidence that as part of reshaping the role into a global diplomat, three out of four secretaries of state have been women. The position has been reshaped in such a way that a woman is almost a more natural pick for the position.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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6 Responses to The Changing Role of the US Secretary of State

  1. GW says:

    You are discounting Albright’s classical diplomatic skills and academic background. I don’t believe that her media savvy was apparent at the time of her appointment, but rather Clinton liked her intellectual approach. If you have ever seen Albright interact, in French or Russian, with counterparts used to monolingual American SOSs, you would have realized what an asset she was in terms that had nothing to do with her profile in the US.

  2. Daniel says:

    Nice post :)

    I think it would be worth mentioning the role of secretary of state hate-object of the US far right, especially in the McCarthy era. The state department was constantly under fire for being communist-infiltrated and left leaning.

  3. Master Cook says:

    This is an interesting post and argument. I have a serious nitpick and a minor nitpick.

    The serious nitpick is that Hilary Clinton, as the runner up for the Democratic nomination (and who was very narrowly defeated), definitely fits in with the classical model of the Secretary of State. She has a power base, in what is essentially the Clinton faction of the Democratic party, separate from Obama and her selection actually harks back to the early days of the Republic, when the Secretary of State was viewed as a President-in-waiting. Also, being telegenic is not really among her talents, one of the reasons she was defeated in the primaries is that she has a poor, even grating, presence on television (compare here presence on television with that of female politicians who became prime minister in other countries, particularly the new prime minister of Australia).

    The minor nitpick is that the office is not really oddly titled. In Britain, until 1782, the offices of the Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary were not differentiated, instead there was a Secretary of State for the Northern Department and Secretary of State for the Southern Department, who divided up both foreign and police business. Even today, when there is a deputy prime minister, he is simply titled “Secretary of State”. The U.S. government in many respects was modeled on the government of the UK as it existed during the early reign of George III, and its pretty fascinating the extent to which it is still modeled on that period while the governments of Commonwealth countries have continued to evolve.

    By the way, in the U.K. and other countries there has also been a trend to make telegenic lightweights the foreign minister, which may reflect that the fact that foreign policy is increasingly run directly by the head of government. But the current Foreign Secretary reverses that trend to some extent, having been a former, albeit unsuccessful, leader of the Conservative Party, and one of the few members of the new cabinet with previous ministerial experience, albeit in a minor post.

  4. Alfred Russel Wallace says:

    I would have said that Alexander Haig and Colin Powell had rather similar histories up to their appointments…

  5. Jupiter says:

    Is it just me or do these ‘special envoys’ tend to be as useful as a third foot– that is, more likely to trip you up than to provide any kind of ambulatory advantage.

  6. Curzon says:

    GW: Your comment just reemphasizes my point, I think.

    Master Cook: Thanks for the comments, good perspective.

    Daniel: Criticism from both the right and left is a characteristic common among very good secretaries of state, as previously noted here.

    ARW: Their bios are similar, but the perception of them overseas was entirely different.

    Jupiter: Agreed.