For a very long time, the State Department has been on the losing end of a turf war. For all the prestige of the Secretary of State,* the department is nowhere near as large or as organized as the Pentagon, which has used that advantage to great effect in the shaping of US foreign policy. The White House too has evermore increased its role in foreign affairs, further squeezing out State. Therefore, despite the allure of the State Department (so much so that it is simply referred to as “Foggy Bottom”, referring to the DC neighborhood where it is located), the truth is that its influence is not what it once was.
When Hillary Clinton was named Secretary of State, this waning influence was a concern of hers, especially as she believes in the importance of diplomacy. She agreed to take the position only if the President gave her a direct line to him. Although there are still turf skirmishes with the Pentagon, things are generally better in the Obama Administration. It’s not that Foggy Bottom has become as organized or as competent as the Pentagon, but the two organizations work much better together. In large part this is because Robert Gates, the previous Secretary of Defense, shared the belief with Clinton that diplomacy is important, and he supported good relations with the State Department. Contrast that to the last administration where Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney (himself a former Defense Secretary) were often bitterly at odds with the Secretary of State–first Colin Powell and then Condoleezza Rice.**
There are understandable reasons why State and Defense would be at odds, merely beyond the egos of the people in charge. In a sense, State and Defense have oppositional outlooks out of necessity. The Defense Department cannot afford to make mistakes lest tragedy occur while diplomacy between nations is an ongoing process full of pitfalls and setbacks. It is also easier to see the Defense Department in terms of black and white or good and evil depending on the eye of the beholder. This reductiveness overlapped very nicely with George W. Bush’s own dichotomous view of the world–a view that ominously is shared and espoused by the current crop of Republican candidates for President and the Tea Party base. In contrast, diplomacy is made up of shades of gray; it is complicated and time-consuming and full of compromises. Good and evil are replaced by costs and benefits, which is not always pretty. (Americans also tend to love their troops and hate their politicians who are akin to diplomats because diplomacy occurs in the political sphere. Guilt by association.)
Back to Hillary Clinton. I have already expressed my appreciation for her speech about LGBT rights, and there have been some incredible diplomatic victories for the State Department. First, there was the Armenia-Turkey accord from 2009. Second, and probably most notable, was the fact that she was the force behind the successful intervention in Libya (success of course being the overthrow of Gaddafi, whatever comes next remains to be seen). While the Pentagon wanted to stay out of the conflict, Clinton forcefully advocated for humanitarian intervention, a logical followup to her husband’s successful intervention in the Balkans and failed intervention in Somalia. Through Clinton’s efforts, the State Department pioneered the use of social media and smart power in political relations. Clinton became the face of the US response to the Arab Spring–for better or for worse only time will tell.
To my mind, the most unlikely achievement of Clinton’s State Department is the apparent transformation in Myanmar (Burma). One of the earliest posts in this blog was about Myanmar and the end of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest. That, it turned out, was the initial step in what has tidal waved into seemingly real democratic reforms. Aung San Suu Kyi herself will stand for parliamentary elections, an indication that she too believes these reforms to be genuine. Last month Clinton visited Myanmar, and, following the pardon and release of over 600 prisoners (at least some political prisoners) two days ago, formal diplomatic ties between the United States and Myanmar are about to be reestablished with an exchange of ambassadors. As the Myanmar government continues to reform, more diplomatic ties will be restored or created.
It is hard to determine exactly why Myanmar is reforming. Despite Western sanctions, Myanmar has not exactly been hurting. Neither China nor India, two major allies, have cared much about the Myanmar government’s human rights record. Nevertheless, Myanmar has been taking steps to create and a legitimate democratic process favored by the West. For this, I believe that at least a little bit of credit belongs to the State Department.*** Since Obama and Clinton took over, diplomacy has been used as the first resort rather than the last. It is true that often the Administration’s diplomacy efforts badly failed (e.g., Iran, Syria, North Korea), but at least diplomacy was tried. In the carrot and stick diplomacy. The United States looks far more reasonable and agreeable than under the with-us-or-against-us outlook of the Bush 43 Administration,† and other nations are more willing to follow where the United States leads if diplomacy is tried first. Clearly the Myanmar government responded to such diplomatic persuasion; the carrot was good enough even if Myanmar did not fear the stick.
Whether Myanmar stays on this path or reverts back to military dictatorship remains to be seen. Presumably, Aung San Suu Kyi is not going anywhere any time soon, and she will remain both leader and symbol to so many of her countrymen. She will also continue to be the beacon that the West focuses on. The Myanmar government will continue to work with her if it wants the benefits of friendship with the West.
I am hopeful. Myanmar seems to be taking the right steps. Just as the world is full of dictatorships, it is also full of former dictatorships and juntas that became democracies. Hopefully the latter is Myanmar’s future.
Finally, Clinton begins a tour of four African nations this week where she will emphasize nation building, economic development, good governance and democratization. Her stops include Togo, the Ivory Coast, Cape Verde and Liberia. In the latter nation, she will attend the inauguration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who, following her Nobel, won a second term as Liberian President. The elections were not always pretty; there was some violence, and the run-off was plagued by low voter turnout and a boycott by the opposition party. Nevertheless, outside observers judged the elections to be free, transparent, and fair. In a country that until just recently was plagued by violent civil war, to have a second consecutive relatively peaceful and transparent election is progress.
* Secretary of State is one of the big four Cabinet positions, along with the Secretaries of Defense and Treasury and the Attorney General. These were the original four positions in George Washington’s Cabinet (sort of; the Secretary of Defense was preceded by the Secretary of War), and the first Secretary of State was none other than Thomas Jefferson. The Secretary of State is also the first Cabinet Secretary in the line of Presidential succession.
** Three of the last four Secretaries of State (Clinton, Rice, and Madeleine Albright) have been women. On one hand this would appear to be a good thing, a progressive sign that it is not only okay that the chief diplomat of the United States is female, it is almost expected. (The fourth, Colin Powell, is a black man.) On the other hand, two positions of more authority, the Defense Secretary and the White House Chief of Staff, have been held only by white men. I just thought this was interesting.
*** Cabinet secretaries are generally chosen for their political ties rather than expertise. They are politicians, administrators, and bureaucrats who determine policy but generally lack the specialized experience of career employees (Stephen Chu at the Department of Energy being an exception). Often they are selected as a way to repay political favors or to make a statement of policy intent. Clinton is actually a very good choice as Secretary of State. Through her experience as First Lady, Senator, and Presidential candidate, she has acquired a breadth of foreign policy experience (if not depth) that makes her uniquely suited for the position.
† I am always amazed by Obama’s critics on the left who criticize his foreign policy because generally they apply the same good/evil world view and “us against the world” mentality of the Bush Administration. Positive proof that stupidity knows no political party.