While campaigning for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama was asked about his future administration and promised that he would form his own “team of rivals.”
Team of Rivals was a 2005 volume by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin which described how President Abraham Lincoln included political adversaries in his cabinet and steered the union to victory in the Civil War.
When Obama assumed the highest office, it wasn’t the best of times for the United States to lead in the world. In Lincoln’s spirit though, he kept on Republican Robert Gates as defense secretary and asked his primary rival Hillary Clinton to lead the State Department. With the president campaigning for reelection, it’s worth evaluating her tenure as the nation’s secretary of state.
Clinton’s tenure as the nation’s chief diplomat is on par with that of several of her illustrious predecessors and head and shoulder above her contemporaries. She ranks among the nation’s greatest secretaries of state which include William Henry Seward, Cordell Hull and Henry Kissinger.
Seward was widely expected to be nominated by the Republican Party for the presidency in 1860 but had to tolerate Abraham Lincoln as the party’s standard-bearer. He agreed to become secretary of state reluctantly and the two men needed considerable time to overcome their differences of character and opinion. However, as the Civil War dragged on, Seward came to be perceived as Lincoln’s prime minister. The two led the Northern states to victory against the Confederate South and it was Seward who predicted soon after Lincoln’s assassination that the president would be remembered as one of the greatest leaders the United States had ever known.
Cordell Hull was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s chief diplomat and the longest serving secretary of state of America. He was the architect of the United Nations and recognized for this effort with the 1945 Nobel Peace Prize.
Henry Kissinger served first as national security advisor and later as secretary of state under Richard Nixon. He negotiated the end of the Vietnam War and “opened up” China in order to balance against Soviet expansionism. Kissinger understood the balance of power and how to ensure it perhaps more than any other secretary of state in modern history.
Unlike these three stalwarts and her immediate predecessor Condoleezza Rice, Clinton had no formal background in international relations when she became secretary. As President Bill Clinton’s wife and a senator, she did gain tremendous experience in the field before running for the presidency herself in 2008. As Barack Obama’s secretary of state, she has traveled around the world almost nonstop and like her predecessors Seward, Hull and Kissinger, pulled chestnuts out of the fire to secure diplomatic victories in trying times.
Under Clinton’s stewardship, American foreign policy has witnessed a paradigm shift from the neoconservative objective of creating allies by military force from positioning the United states an an “offshore balancer” in the Asia Pacific. She has helped reduce the negative impact of American warmongering in the Middle East to improve the nation’s standing in Africa, Central Asia and Europe.
It is largely because of Clinton’s initiative that China’s neighbors in the West Pacific, including Vietnam, are prepared to live under America’s defense umbrella. She has also reset relations with Great Britain, sealed a long-term relationship with India and isolated Iran in conjunction with the president. All of this was achieved through her tenacity and clear understanding of geopolitics.
President Obama deserves credit for appointing Hillary Clinton to one of the most powerful positions in his administration. The decision was, in hindsight, more than political. It helped his government achieve numerous foreign policy successes.