Given the fierce 2008 competition between presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, it’s no surprise that the Obama White House considers itself the main architect of foreign policy and Secretary of State Clinton the “principal implementer.” But don’t be mistaken — Clinton is far from overshadowed. Her “rock star” status across political and pop culture pundits is purposeful and hard earned, even when accounting for the tragic events in Benghazi in September.
Here is why she secured a seat as one of the greatest secretaries of state of all time.
1) She’s blunt.
Diplomats are known for mincing their words and beating around the bush. Secretary Clinton, however, is not. This year, she fearlessly told China and Russia — with whom diplomatic relations echo a delicate dance — that they are “despicable” and will find themselves on “the wrong side of history” for blocking actions from the U.N. Security Council that could have led to sanctions against Syria President Bashar Assad's regime. She’s been known to do the same to Pakistan and North Korea, too. Not unlike Secretary Colin Powell, and his outspoken reputation — from his endorsement of safe sex marriage to his stance on the Mideast crisis — Clinton is known for calling it like she sees it to get stuff done.
2) She’s “got” human rights.
In 2009, Clinton surprised human rights proponents and politicians by saying that human rights are just one part of a larger portfolio of issues with China. But after securing Chen Guangcheng’s release amidst tense political relations with China, she showed that making human rights part of a larger diplomatic agenda, rather than a single issue one, increases the chance of success. She explained, “Because to me, if human rights is over here, where it is separate and apart from everything else they care about and we care about, I don't think you have the level of influence over what you're trying to both advocate and achieve when it comes to human rights.”
She is also largely credited for making women’s rights part and parcel of the human rights agenda, building on the efforts of her friend and predecessor Madeleine Albright (and using her as a stand in). When Clinton introduced the QDDR in 2010, she made gender equality central to American global engagement. And she required that all development assistant programs make special efforts to target women. Along with the creation of the Office of Global Women’s Issues, under the fearless Ambassador Melanne Verveer, these actions have ably and structurally married women's issues as part and parcel of foreign affairs and international development.
3) She’s bringing sexy back ... to diplomacy.
In late 2012, Clinton’s approval ratings reached almost 70%. Coming from an American public that often misunderstands foreign policy, this is pretty significant. The popularity of the “Texts from Hillary” meme — and her famous Oscar de la Renta shades - got social media in a tizzy, making Clinton the frontrunner of a cooler, hipper diplomacy, a diplomacy in touch with "real" people.
Clinton understands the significance of building coalitions, strengthening ties, and making friends through “soft power” by meeting influencers where they are, whether they are netizens, students, or budding entrepreneurs. That’s why she created the department’s first ever strategy on youth, retains an active Senior Advisor on Innovation, built an economic statecraft policy and logged 1 million miles and 112 countries on her diplomatic passport, which makes her the most travelled secretary of state in history.
4) She introduced (good) politics into foreign policy.
Clinton is the first elected official to become secretary of state since Edmund Muskie, whose tenure lasted only eight months. During the 2008 primary elections, opponents pointed fingers at her lack of foreign experience. As soon as she stepped in office, she showed naysayers that political savvy, can get the job done just as well as experience.
She called every living former secretary of state to imbibe their wisdom, reinvigorated a demoralized foreign service through increased personal interaction and the extension of benefits to same-sex partners of diplomats, and called on old acquaintances, like Uzbek leader Islam Karimov and Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to strengthen diplomatic relations with both countries. She got Karimov to ultimately allow an expansion of the flow of military supplies through Uzbekistan to NATO troops in Afghanistan, despite scolding him for his poor human rights record.
Clinton’s ability to connect with people is reminiscent of former Secretary of State James Baker, who is widely regarded as a master negotiator for his work on the Arab-Israeli conflict and for creating the foundation for the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords. “I think that she is brilliant at connecting with people on a political level,” Albright once said. “No question, she knows how to do what I think is essential: putting herself in other people’s shoes.”