Exit Hillary Clinton: The Secretary of State and Her Legacy

Hillary Clinton is perhaps the most beloved politician in America. While Barack Obama’s presidency polarized the nation and suffered from low approval ratings throughout much of his first term, the Secretary of State has maintained sky-high favorability. Though only days have passed since the second inauguration of President Obama, Democrats are already keen to see Clinton run for the top job in 2016. Clinton’s established global profile, diplomatic skill and departure from the unpopular doctrines of President Bush have made it a no-brainer that the Obama Administration gets its highest marks on foreign policy.

Now that Clinton is leaving the Department of State, she will undoubtedly remain a recognized name for years to come. But the legacy she leaves behind is another question. While most Americans approve of her tenure as Secretary of State, the “Clinton philosophy” – the set of principles by which she handles America’s relationship with the world – is more difficult to determine. But in the tradition of celebrated Secretaries of State like William Seward, Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, Clinton has forged her own foreign policy dogma. Above all, it strikes a tone of balance.

During her 2009 confirmation hearing, Clinton endorsed the use of “smart power” in approaching foreign policy. The term, popularized by former Bill Clinton Administration official Joseph Nye, defines a balance between two competing visions for America’s role in the world: on one side, the use of military force and an emphasis on American influence in the world; on the other, stress on strong alliances and the use of international institutions to achieve peace. “There are three legs to the stool of American foreign policy,” Clinton said in 2009. “Defense, diplomacy, and development.”

Clinton has arguably incorporated elements of mainstream conservative and much more liberal philosophies into her foreign policy, finding a balance that passes for center-left. She pledged to end the unpopular War in Iraq and reached out to heads of state around the world during the first months of her tenure, satisfying the anti-hawk sentiments of many Americans in 2009. “Diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy,” she declared at her confirmation hearing. But she also pledged to use all the tools available to the State Department, including military action if necessary.

Clinton maintains the importance of advancing American interests in all areas of the world, striking a contrast with the isolationist sympathies backed by more liberal members of her party such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich. During a maritime border dispute between China and Vietnam, Clinton ruffled some feathers in the Chinese government by declaring that the U.S. had a strong national interest in keeping the waters of the South China Sea free, and that America would follow through to make sure all countries in the region respected international law.

While in the Senate, Clinton was a strong proponent of the U.S. War in Afghanistan. She not only recognized the importance of eliminating the terrorists who attacked America on 9/11, but also made an argument that reflected another important part of her foreign policy philosophy: the empowerment of women. Afghan women lived oppressed lives under Taliban rule; Clinton emphasized improving their lives, and the lives of all Afghan citizens, as a primary purpose of military action in the country.

Worldwide empowerment of women has been a consistent goal for Clinton, during her terms in the Senate as well her tenure as Secretary of State. Early on in her role at the State Department, she introduced several programs aimed at improving women’s lives abroad. These include the Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, which sought to help developing countries innovate to solve their food security problems, with a special emphasis on the role of women in food production. Another initiative was the Women in Public Service Project, which sought to elevate women to positions of power in male-dominated governments. The State Department partnered with several women’s colleges, including Bryn Mawr, to advance this initiative.

Emphasis on women’s empowerment has even worked its way into mainstream foreign policy issues. In 2011, Clinton praised Middle Eastern revolutions in the Arab Spring for their potential to advance women’s rights. She also tied women’s rights abroad to American national security interests. Countries which did not respect the rights of their citizens are inherently more unstable, Clinton argued. “Where women are disempowered and dehumanized,” she said in 2011, “you are more likely to see not just anti-democratic forces, but extremism that leads to security challenges for us.”

In promoting U.S. values overseas, Clinton has also stressed the importance of free speech and open media. While initially reluctant to support the political upheaval in Egypt, she did rebuke President Hosni Mubarak for censoring social media during the Tahrir Square protests. (Social media would end up being instrumental in the success of the revolution in Egypt.) Once again, she received backlash from the Chinese government when she criticized their heavy censorship of the internet. She also inspired strong words from Russian leader Vladimir Putin for questioning the integrity of elections in the country.

As popular as Clinton has been, however, her State Department has had its share of controversies, most concerning its policy in the Middle East. Liberals and conservatives alike criticized the U.S. military intervention in Libya, arguing that there was no clear goal heading into the conflict and that it might just create another unstable situation, similar to Iraq. Many have also faulted the Obama Administration’s foreign policy for its inconsistencies, choosing to intervene in Libya but not in Syria, where the civil war has claimed over 60,000 lives. Clinton’s critics have not ignored her role in these shortcomings.

Perhaps the most visible blemish on Clinton’s State Department career is the continuing controversy unfolding from the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi last year in which four Americans were killed. Prior to the attack, the State Department did not respond to cables requesting additional security at the embassy. While she has defended her State Department in regards to the Benghazi controversy, many fault her for insufficient oversight. At a Senate hearing last week, Sen. Rand Paul declared that he would have relieved Clinton of her State Department post had he been president.

The new Secretary of State, Sen. John Kerry, was confirmed on Tuesday to succeed her, so Clinton will soon step down from the State Department. While Democrats remain enthusiastic about a Clinton presidential run in 2016, it is unlikely, since she has publicly denied her interest in a second campaign. Clinton will likely remain a public figure and a powerful influence, even as a private citizen. Her philosophy has undoubtedly shaped the way America approaches foreign policy, and her State Department will continue to bear vestiges of her tenure long after she has resigned.

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