Don’t rush to judgment on Clinton

Why it's far too early to label the U.S. secretary of state a failure.

By Kenneth Weisbrode

Hillary Clinton's trip to Asia marks her first venture into the "vast external realm" as secretary of state. She is spending this week in Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and China in order to give and gain what most likely will be salient first impressions.

The trip already has been met with mixed commentary. The New York Times pointed out that she's the first secretary since Dean Rusk (a notable Euroskeptic of his time) to visit Asia first. Does this mean other parts of the word -- particularly Europe and the Western Hemisphere, not to mention Africa and the Middle East -- are lower on her priority list? Has Clinton returned to the Republican roots of her youth and become an Asia-firster?

Her husband's one-time political confidant, Dick Morris, suggested that the trip, coming on the heels of the appointment of high-level diplomatic envoys for Afghanistan and the Middle East and a resurgent National Security Council, means nothing less than an "incredibly shrinking role" for Clinton in the Obama administration. In this interpretation, East Asia was a consolation prize.

Time will only tell if any of the predictions are correct. For now, they are absurdly premature. And they overlook two critical points.

The first is that where a secretary, or a president, for that matter, goes first doesn't necessarily mean much in the long run. All manner of pressures and events will intercede from now on. Nobody's priority list is fixed on day one. President Nixon's first trip abroad was, in fact, to Europe. It was followed by one of the darkest periods in trans-Atlantic relations.

In any case, it's only comparably recently that secretaries of state or presidents traveled very much at all. Franklin Roosevelt's secretary, Cordell Hull, whose tenure in the job was the longest, spent a great deal of time in the hospital, as did John Foster Dulles toward the end of his term. They traveled abroad for the occasional diplomatic conference but left most of the "fact finding" to their men and women on the ground, that is, America's ambassadors.

Dulles's predecessor, Dean Acheson, however, noted the strange trend in government whereby routine diplomatic activity appeared to move up the totem pole of power in the 20th century. First there were ministers, then ambassadors, then secretaries of state, and soon presidents themselves were drafting talking points and engaging in what Henry Kissinger made famous as "shuttle diplomacy."

Acheson had a point. Once upon a time diplomats proposed and politicians disposed. Now, politicians appear to have a monopoly on both. But there's nothing natural or preordained about it, or about the symbolism of destinations. Colin Powell came into office determined to cut back on the amount of time he spent in airplanes. Nobody recalls now where he went first as secretary or whether the volume of his travel was a critical factor. Condoleezza Rice reversed the practice and traveled a great deal, but it is hard to say now whether that made much of a difference in her effectiveness; her relationships back home with the president and other members of the administration were probably more important.

The second critical thing to remember is that the success or failure of a secretary of state -- indeed of an administration's diplomacy -- is not wrapped up entirely in its handling of the crises of the moment. In this respect, Clinton may be thankful that the biggest possible pitfalls now have other people's names written on them.

Rather, the stewardship, or cultivation -- which George Marshall and George Shultz described as akin to gardening -- of America's relationships with the other major powers and regions of the world is vital. It grabs fewer headlines and tends to be neglected, as it was badly in the past two administrations. But it matters tremendously. Whoever is giving Clinton advice has probably made this point. And it is a good one. Bon voyage.

Kenneth Weisbrode is the Vincent Wright fellow in history at the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, Italy.