Profile: Hillary Clinton’s Soft Power

Susanna Lada - TCS Reporter 26 October 2009

The Secretary of State of the United States is undoubtedly one of the most high-profile positions in the US government. Some analysts were baffled when Barack Obama opted for his erstwhile rival when appointing the Secretary of State. There was widespread agreement among commentators that had Mrs Clinton been victorious, she would not have offered her former challenger such an important post. By now nevertheless all rivalry between the two seems to have evaporated, most clearly demonstrated by Mrs Clinton’s recent announcement that she has ‘absolutely no interest in running for president again’.

Interestingly, two of the last four Secretaries of State have been women. But just how differently the demands may be interpreted is epitomised in the stark contrast between George W. Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s strict academic style and Hillary Clinton’s focus on informality and soft power. The reasons for that could be that Mrs Clinton is on a mission to boost and revive America’s tattered image. A personal approach is evidently more appropriate for that. Her interest in people and emphasis on human potential is clearly different from Condoleezza Rice’s preference for official meetings.

Or is it perhaps that the former First Lady is merely handling foreign policy this way out of necessity? A large part of the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has been handed over to special envoys, so that Hillary Clinton has only been to Israel once and has not visited Afghanistan or Pakistan yet in her capacity as Secretary of State. But she defends herself: ‘I believe in delegating power,’ ‘I’m not one of these people who feel that I’ve got to have my face in the front of the newspaper or on the TV in every moment of the day.’

As the President’s subordinate, the Secretary’s role incorporates providing background support for shaping US foreign policy. Hillary Clinton embarked on her ‘difficult and exciting adventure’ in January and has worked consistently to further the foreign policy objectives of the Obama administration since then. The first few months were quiet, with Mrs Clinton honing her executive skills and sticking to ‘listening tours’. Just like Obama’s (oft contested) stance of reconciliation and diplomacy, the Secretary herself follows those principles.

Her skill as a mediator is also praiseworthy as was most recently demonstrated by her trip to Europe. She played an important role in saving the Armenian-Turkish agreement; the two countries have now signed an accord to establish diplomatic relations and open their borders. It came as a surprise that no statement was made afterwards. But ‘let the protocols be that statement’ Hillary Clinton said, showing her willingness to do business and achieve results without the need for big ceremony.

And she does indeed appear to be getting results. From abroad she has received positive feedback for her involvement with the local people and at home a recent Gallup poll shows her popularity ratings at 62%, even more than Barack Obama’s 56%. She has also demonstrated her capability to cooperate with colleagues. Instead of the unpleasant wrangling between the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defence that characterised the Bush years, there is an admirably close and fruitful working relationship between the incumbent Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates and Mrs Clinton.

All in all, Hillary Clinton’s record so far as Secretary of State is not in the least to be scoffed at. The assertion of her unimportance from some corners misses the point. In the complexities of today’s world politics and as a consequence of the turbulence of the recent years, there is a palpable need for a more cautious approach and a flexible mindset. The representative of the United States showing inclination to exercise soft power, her engagement with the people and her conduct of her job as a behind-the-scenes advisor to Mr Obama all signal a good start and offer Mrs Clinton the potential for leaving behind a proud legacy.

Susanna Lada – TCS Reporter