The smooth passing of the baton from Hillary Clinton to John Kerry has predictably led to debate about the legacy and prospects, respectively, of the outgoing and incoming chief diplomat for the US. Admirers of Clinton, starting with President Barack Obama, are gushing in their praise about her tenure, which is also reflected in her 70% approval rating. They point to her remarkable and gruelling travels to 112 countries, notching up nearly a million miles and hobnobbing with almost every world leader. Her promotion of the concept of smart power (a combination of hard and soft power) diplomacy and the issue of women and security also won accolades, as did her outreach to civil society.
Critics note that her travels, while impressive, fall short of her predecessor’s over million miles mark. Then, despite her “shoe leather” diplomacy, there’s not one treaty, agreement or breakthrough that can be attributed to her. On the contrary, her efforts to “reset” relations with Russia were lost in translation; there was no progress on either the vexed Israel-Palestine issue or the North Korean and Iranian conundrums; Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria continue to simmer.
However, neither perspective is entirely fair. While Clinton’s re-engagement with multilateral institutions and her charm offensive, particularly on US allies in Europe and Asia, was vital to repair relations damaged by the Bush administration, it did not remove concerns about US commitments or intentions. Similarly, her outreach to civil society, though commendable, did not address Washington’s immediate security concerns: while Clinton participated in town hall meetings and interacted with students it was Kerry who carried out the tough negotiations with the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria to secure US interests. Finally, if supporting the Libyan revolution was her greatest triumph, then the death of the US ambassador in Benghazi was her biggest tragedy.
Presumably, with an eye on a possible presidential bid in 2016, Clinton chose to play it safe rather than take unnecessary risks.
In contrast, Kerry, who is unlikely to join any future presidential race, is likely to use this position to shore up his reputation as America’s most consummate diplomat.
To do so, Kerry will inevitably have to deal with the hard security issues, ranging from the Middle East, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan and, of course, China. The challenge is even more daunting given the Obama administration’s aversion to be drawn into open-ended military campaigns.
Simultaneously, Kerry will also have to contend with two key paradigm shifts. First, in addition to the traditional security issues, US diplomacy has now expanded to embrace a slew of non-traditional security challenges, ranging from human rights to gender and security and greater engagement with civil society, not to mention climate change, food and energy security as well as cyber security. Given that the US state department budget of around $50 billion—one-twelfth of the defence budget—is unlikely to be increased and might even decline, its capacities will be further stretched.
Second, US diplomacy is no longer the exclusive remit of the state department if indeed it ever was. This means that US diplomatic initiatives are often challenged or hijacked by competing priorities of other departments, such as defence, intelligence and even homeland security, which can often outspend the state department. For instance, the increased drone attacks effectively dealt a blow to Clinton’s efforts to engage the Muslim world. Similarly, Clinton was only the third cabinet-ranking official of the first Obama administration to visit India (after the CIA chief and the National Security Advisor).
For India, adjusting to the new guard might prove easier than addressing the challenges posed by the new paradigms.
W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org