When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton steps down, she will have completed a stellar career as America’s top diplomat. She entered office under the worst of conditions. America’s foreign policy was framed by two unpopular wars, and its image was immortalized by a journalist who threw a shoe at President Bush during a press conference in Iraq. She leaves office as arguably the most popular cabinet official in the Obama administration, with generally high approval ratings among the American people.
One of the hallmarks of Clinton is her stamina and resilience. Time magazine once described her endurance as legendary. She has survived low approval ratings and scandals, misogynistic personal attacks, and failed elections. She has logged over a million travel miles and been to 112 countries. She has spent the equivalent of a full year traveling and meeting the world’s leaders. At a time when technology allows for instant communication, Clinton’s brand of personal diplomacy — “shoe leather diplomacy” — emphasized the importance of developing relationships based on face to face interaction. Clinton felt that the personal investment demonstrated the strategic value of all the world’s nations. As Clinton recently explained, “No secretary of state had ever been to Togo before. Togo happens to be on the U.N. Security Council.”
Clinton leaves office with historically high approval ratings, as “68% approve of her work, second only to Colin Powell among the last five secretaries of state.” Her overall approval rating is “a new high in her long public career as first lady, U.S. Senator, presidential candidate and top U.S. diplomat.”
Clinton’s career has been marked by highs and lows every step of the way. There was the Whitewater scandal, when her approval ratings dropped to 44%. During her 2008 presidential campaign, her approval rating also dropped to 44%. However, today, 57% of Americans say they would support a Clinton campaign for 2016.
Clinton has been the target of misogynistic attacks throughout her career. She was ridiculed for supporting her philandering husband, and she has been the stuff of political legend in “how to be presentable.” Even the criticism of her weight, penchant for pant suits, and ability to party and have a good time, have all had a decidedly misogynistic slant. Regarding her hair, Clinton told ABC’s Barbara Walters she doesn’t travel with a hairdresser, and said, “I'm not very competent myself. I've been admitting that for years.” Clinton shared that to her amazement her hair has been “one of the great fascinations of our time.” She has never shied away from the personal attacks. In 2010 “when asked about her fashion sense by a moderator in Kyrgyzstan,” she responded, “Would you ever ask a man that question?” During the interview Walters noted that “nobody asks the men that” to which Clinton responded “Have you noticed?”
Clinton endured her husband’s many extra-marital affairs, but she did not let them define her. In 2001 she was elected senator from New York, becoming the only first lady of the United States to win elective office. During her second senate term she announced her candidacy for president of the United States, and came within a hair's breath of defeating Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. She received 1,640 pledged delegates to Obama’s 1,763, and they both broke the Democratic primary record with over 17 million votes each.
Clinton’s senate win was not her only first. As ABC News pointed out, she has a legacy of firsts. “She was the first secretary of state to visit more than 100 countries. She served under the first black president and was the first first lady to have an office in the West Wing of the White House.” She was the first woman to be made a full partner of Rose Law Firm, and she was the first woman elected senator from the state of New York.
As secretary of state, she advocated for women’s and gay rights throughout the world. In what became known as the “Hillary Doctrine,” Clinton pushed for recognition of women’s rights as a worldwide humanitarian cause. She explained, “If a country doesn't recognize minority rights and human rights, including women's rights, you will not have the kind of stability and prosperity that is possible."
Clinton led worldwide efforts to recognize women’s contributions in health, education, diplomacy and peacekeeping, what Newsweek described as her “categorical imperative.” She made the connection between women’s right and national security by saying “where women are disempowered and dehumanized, you are more likely to see not just antidemocratic forces, but extremism that leads to security challenges for us.” In a speech before the UN Human Rights Council, Clinton declared her intent to advocate for gay rights abroad. “Gay rights are human rights,” she said, and, “It should never be a crime to be gay” she explained to the attendees.
As secretary of state, Clinton believed in tactical short term necessities and strategic long term planning. She implemented the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), a process that seeks to plan on a longer-term basis than the usual year-to-year, appropriations-based practice. The QDDR analyzes the short-, medium-, and long-term blueprint for the United States' diplomatic and development efforts abroad. Clinton’s approach to international relations was based on the concept of “smart power.” Smart power is a combination of hard powers and soft power strategies that include using traditional military and economic influence with investments in multi-level bi-lateral alliances and partnerships.
Clinton moved from Obama’s political adversary to one of the key administration official in foreign policy. She helped to develop the Libyan strategy resulting in the ouster of Gaddafi, saved the signing of an historic Turkish–Armenian accord, and helped secure foreign aid for developing countries dealing with the effects of climate change. Clinton was the first senior American official to tie the internet to American foreign policy. Responding to nations that have internet censorship policies, cyber-terrorists, and hackers, Clinton announced that “those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society or any other pose a threat to our economy, our government and our civil society.”
Clinton has played an active role in the ongoing, seemingly never ending Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. She has been credited on more than one occasion for keeping the peace talks alive. She restored formal diplomatic relations with New Zealand ending a 25 year ban on military and training exercises in that region of the world.
It hasn’t all been successes for Clinton. She took a lot of heat for the lack of intelligence regarding the Arab spring, and the release of confidential State Department cables by Wikileaks. In response to the suggestions that Obama was unhappy with the State Department’s intelligence on various Arab Spring developments, including the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Clinton stated, “I don't think anybody could have predicted we'd be sitting here talking about the end of the Mubarak presidency at the time that this all started.”
As America’s top diplomat Clinton has been called upon to explain some unpopular and controversial policy decisions. She was asked to defend the U.S.-Pakistani relationship after the assassination of Osama bin Laden and in the most difficult moment of her diplomatic career she accepted blame for the terrorist attack on the Benghazi consulate.
Regarding her next steps Clinton says “I want to get out and spend some time looking at what else I can do to contribute.” She described her time as Secretary of State as “advancing a new approach to development that puts human dignity and self-sufficiency at the heart of our efforts.”
Clinton has served the country in a number of ways, First Lady of Arkansas, First Lady of the United States, United States Senator, and Secretary of State. After 31 years of public service she leaves knowing her legacy is secure.