Hail to the (secretary of the) chief


In the fall of 2012, an International Relations lecturer stepped up to the podium and remarked that, considering St Andrews’ surprisingly high American student population, it may as well be the 51st state in the United States of America. One year later, our quaint 51st state is appropriately receiving a visit from an eminent figure in American politics. Though many are familiar with her name, fewer are aware of the importance Hillary Rodham Clinton played in shaping both domestic and foreign policy in the United States.

Throughout his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama signalled quite clearly that he intended to break the country away from the foreign policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush.  In order to successfully do so, Obama had to reconcile with his fiercest and most formidable rival from the Democratic Party Primary, New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her cunning and past political experience as First Lady made her an attractive choice for a role that embodies both chief advisor to the President and the instrument to his policy. Despite the reservations she expressed about accepting the position of Secretary of State under her former rival, Clinton and Obama shared a common interest in dismantling the foreign policy predilections of the past. Secretary Clinton summarized the duo’s situation early in her tenure as “a lot of damage to repair.”

American foreign policy under Mrs Clinton was not defined by the scale and scope of US international engagement – Mrs Clinton, having touched down in 112 countries, is America’s most-travelled Secretary of State, a strategy she affectionately calls “shoe-leather diplomacy” – but rather a transition away from the ideologically driven and bullishly executed policies of the previous administration. The Clinton tenure saw a foreign policy that favoured broad and direct international engagement with both state partners and international institutions, prudently combining diplomatic and military means to express and secure American interests. Dubbed “smart power”, Clinton’s approach to foreign relations emphasized legitimacy and cost-effectiveness in action, both of which had been notoriously absent during the Bush administration.

The first term of the Obama administration was tumultuous, with significant foreign policy challenges, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. In 2011, the world watched as popular demonstrations against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi quickly devolved into a ferocious civil war. As the brutality of the conflict intensified and Gaddafi’s rhetoric became more radicalized – he gained infamy for speeches composed of rambling threats to cleanse Libya of the “rats” and “cockroaches” that opposed his regime – Clinton and the Obama administration joined the Arab League and responded to what was amounting to a nationwide massacre.

The Secretary was an early and strong advocate for legitimate intervention in line with international law. Clinton saw as crucial that the United States act in partnership with the global community and reestablish a respectful multilateralism. Alongside United Nations ambassador Susan Rice, Clinton pursued and achieved that goal, obtaining approval through United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 for the establishment of a ‘no-fly zone’ and further multinational intervention. This strategy was entitled “leading from behind,” and, after having been inadvertently leaked to the public by an advisor to the administration, was flippantly derided by critics as a euphemistic encapsulation of newfound American flaccidity and weakness. To take such a stance is so reductionist as to miss the point.

Though peaceful and diplomatic measures were always given precedence, Clinton did not shy away from using American military power if necessary. She helped orchestrate the long-overdue assassination of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, as well as continuing and defending the drone-strike program in Pakistan. Mrs Clinton’s recent advocacy for military intervention against the Syrian government indicates that her personal views as a private citizen shaped the foreign policy directives during her time as Secretary of State, and not vice versa. Mrs Clinton is therefore revealed to be pragmatic and empathic both on and off the job, her words and decisions tempered by a national self-awareness that recognises the need for multifaceted American and global foreign policy.

Near the end of Mrs Clinton’s time as Secretary of State, with John Kerry waiting in the wings, she and President Obama sat down for an interview on 60 Minutes, a famed American news programme. The two once fierce rivals sat together and beamed with a mutual respect and admiration for one another. As they responded to myriad questions from the interviewer, it became evident that the fear of ‘a White House divided against itself’ was unfounded. Just as Mrs Clinton was able to win over the world – following her tenure, a majority of nations polled now  hold a more favorable view of the US than before – she seemed to have won over the President as well. Mrs Clinton acted honourably as a steady, guiding figure on the world stage during a revolutionary time in American foreign policy, wherein the bravado and single-mindedness of the Bush administration was discarded in favor of an openness that still finds the United States leading, and “leading from behind.”


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