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 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 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.