F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Hillary Clinton’s stunning (and, I trust, unfinished) career – from First Lady to US Senator to presidential candidate to US Secretary of State in the administration of the man who defeated her – proves that Fitzgerald could not have been more wrong.
Today, as Clinton prepares to leave office, there is widespread speculation that she will seek to succeed President Barack Obama in 2016. She has had not only a second act, but a third as well – and millions of Americans want her to write a fourth.
Clinton’s four years as America’s top diplomat have given her iconic status around the world – and deservedly so. On her watch, two of the longest wars in US history have been wound down, America’s alliances have been reinvigorated, and young women everywhere have been encouraged to pursue their dreams – whether in academia, business or politics.
Hers is a record that ranks her among the great postwar US secretaries of state – Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger and James Baker.
The position of secretary of state is truly global in scope. It demands not only a coherent conception of how the world works and the place of US national interests within the international order, but also extraordinary political skill, stamina, timing and, above all, courage. Clinton used all of these virtues to their highest possible effect.
In the midst of two wars and Asia’s rise, Clinton confronted the three great tasks that any US secretary of state must face: pinpointing the challenges at hand; developing a viable strategy that attracts the support of the entire US government and public opinion; and managing the actual practice of US diplomacy.
Here, she was aided by the great confidence that Obama placed in her – a remarkable outcome, given their rivalry in the 2008 presidential campaign. Obama’s decision attests not only to his judgment, but also to her character.
Clinton’s primary challenge was to recast the very nature of US involvement in global affairs. The go-it-alone America of the years of the war on terror had alienated its allies, and had proven insufficient both to resolving the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to creating a structure of peace for an Asia struggling to cope with China’s new assertiveness.
Of course, Clinton’s efforts to revitalise America’s alliances made restoring confidence in US leadership an overriding priority, which she achieved without seeking to militarise every international problem.
Moreover, even as she emphasised the importance of alliances, she did not neglect diplomatic engagement with adversaries, though never – particularly with respect to Iran and North Korea – as simply an exercise in splitting the difference.
Clinton, the one-time legislator and practising politician, understood that a stateswoman’s real legacy is not found in today’s headlines and opinion polls, but in lasting policies and institutions.
Ms Koike, Japan’s former minister of Defence and National Security Adviser, is a former chairwoman of Japan’s Liberal Democrat Party, and currently an opposition leader in the Diet. (c): Project Syndicate, 2013. www.project-syndicate.org