When Hillary Clinton was invited to become US Secretary of State, few doubted it was astute politics on the part of the newly elected President. At a stroke, Barack Obama gained a team-member of undeniable stature and removed a powerful rival. But the appointment was risky, too, given how hard the pair of them had fought in the primaries. It was a gamble for Ms Clinton, as well. She sacrificed the certainty of a leading position in the Senate in return for a diplomatic brief that was very far from her comfort zone in social policy and a secondary position in an administration she had hoped to lead.
As it turned out, the venture proved highly effective. Perhaps Mr Obama went too far last weekend when he described his outgoing Secretary of State as “one of the finest” America has ever had. But Ms Clinton’s four years in office have been largely successful. Although she leaves behind no single, signature achievement, the US has become a safer place on her watch, and a more congenial presence in the world.
Those in search of shortcomings can find minor misjudgements. It was indeed an error to inform the Chinese that she would be limiting her concerns on human rights when she meant merely to signal that her previous role as a campaigner would now be augmented by consideration of economic issues, North Korea and much else. But it was a mis-step rather than an outright tumble. And Ms Clinton still managed not only to secure the freedom of the blind activist Chen Guangcheng after he took refuge in the US embassy in Beijing, but to do so without damaging the wider American relationship with China. Indeed, it was in her handling of that relationship that she was at her most deft, opposing China’s bullying of its neighbours and restoring Washington’s standing in Asia.
Ms Clinton performed similar balancing acts elsewhere. She dragged relations with Pakistan back from the brink. She wooed Europe back, after its initial high hopes for the Obama presidency dimmed. In Afghanistan, the US policy of more robust engagement with the Taliban has avoided retreat looking too much like defeat.
All of which was achieved thanks to sharp intelligence, matched by immense hard work. The Secretary of State’s peers say the routine thoroughness of her preparation meant, crucially, that she understood the constraints upon those with whom she negotiated. She did not let slip ill-judged words that would require subsequent backtracking or retraction. She was a team player, careful not to allow public space to open between herself and the Oval Office.
If the Middle East peace process has ground to a halt, the blame must surely rest with Mr Obama, but also with the continuing flux of the Arab Spring. Against this, the Secretary of State was central to both the dismantling of the leadership of al-Qa’ida and US support for budding Arab democracies, while being wise enough to prevent Washington from repeating the mistakes of Iraq in Libya. She also understood the constraints that Russian support for President Assad placed on US options in Syria.
To such traditional diplomatic considerations Ms Clinton added both economic statecraft and an engagement with civil society in many of the 112 countries she visited. It is, of course, too soon to judge the outcome of longer games played with China, Russia, Iran and Syria. But Ms Clinton has, without doubt, played a key role in the restoration of US credibility so battered by the Bush era. As she departs the State Department, she leaves America stronger and her own reputation enhanced – the ideal preparation for a presidential run in 2016, should that be what she chooses to do.