Accessibility links

Breaking News

Clinton Steps Down As Secretary Of State With Achievements But No Breakthroughs

Hillary Clinton testifies in the Senate in January on the attack on U.S. diplomatic sites in Benghazi, Libya
Hillary Clinton testifies in the Senate in January on the attack on U.S. diplomatic sites in Benghazi, Libya
WASHINGTON -- Hillary Clinton completes her tenure as the 67th U.S. secretary of state on February 1. She leaves the post with sky-high approval ratings and, according to President Barack Obama, major credit for restoring America's image and frayed alliances.

In an unusual joint interview broadcast on January 27 on the CBS News show "60 Minutes," Obama said Clinton “will go down as one of the finest secretaries of state we've had."

During four years as the country’s top diplomat, Clinton was seen as tireless, traveling nearly 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) and visiting a record 112 countries.

Aides called her a master of her brief, recalling work days that lasted well past midnight as she caught up on developments in far-flung countries.

Those around her say she excelled at combining the key diplomatic tools of tough talk, likability, and listening skills.

'Good, But Not Extraordinary'

She forged international consensus on the toughest Iran sanctions to date, roused support for intervention in Libya, and established diplomatic ties with Burma (aka Myanmar). She reinvigorated ties with Europe and was an energetic supporter of the rights of women and girls.

Clinton’s solid reputation even survived the political controversy surrounding the deadly September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi that left U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead.
NEWS QUIZ: How Well Do You Know The Next Secretary Of State, John Kerry?

However, analysts also point to the lack of a landmark achievement that bears her name -- something on the scale of Henry Kissinger's work on detente or George Marshall's theory of containment -- or a breakthrough on a major international problem during her time on the job.

Many in Washington's foreign policy community say she leaves behind a legacy that is very good, but not extraordinary.

Michael O'Hanlon, the director of foreign-policy research at the Brookings Institution, puts Clinton one notch below history's most memorable secretaries of state.

"If you're not historic, it doesn't always mean that you haven't done a great job. It may be a function of circumstances. And sometimes people are historic for bad reasons, not just good reasons: Look at some of the Vietnam-era secretaries of state and defense," O'Hanlon said.

"You know, Jim Baker didn't want to touch Bosnia[-Herzegovina]. But there wasn't a big issue where it's easy to say [Clinton] made the fundamental difference and that we are now in a radically different place than we were when she was secretary."

PHOTO GALLERY: Hillary Clinton as secretary of state

The lack of a "Clinton Doctrine," O'Hanlon says, is largely due to the nature of the major world problems that she inherited -- from the Israeli-Palestinian issue to the standoff with North Korea -- many of which he says are in the "long, slow, tough-it-out phase."

He says Clinton may have made her most memorable contributions in Asia, where she stood up to China at regional forums and reestablished ties with Burma. She also commanded fresh respect for the United States as the Obama administration pivoted toward Asia, he says.

Asia was also the site of one of the secretary's few controversies. In early 2009, just weeks into the job, she incurred a public backlash after saying the need to press Beijing on its human rights record "can't interfere" with economic cooperation and other issues.

Many human rights activists criticized that statement. “The Washington Post” called it “misguided.”

But in the end, it didn’t portend how she would act in the post. Clinton quickly established a pattern of emphasizing human rights issues on trips abroad and prioritizing meetings with civil society and average citizens.

And things seemed to come full circle during a May 2012 trip to China, when Clinton's diplomatic finesse helped resolve a standoff involving the dissident Chen Guangcheng, who had escaped house arrest and sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy.

In their joint television interview, Obama praised Clinton for improving the State Department's coordination with the Pentagon. Those efforts, he said, helped wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and disrupt Al-Qaeda's core, including tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden.

21st-Century Issues

And yet Aaron David Miller, a U.S. foreign-policy expert at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center, says the White House rarely gave Clinton the reins on "big-think strategy.”

He says special envoys appointed by the president, like the late Richard Holbrooke, who worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan, sometimes overshadowed Clinton.

Clinton was left to focus on a different set of issues, Miller says, and made "a virtue out of necessity."

"She identified an agenda -- I call it 'planetary humanism.' These issues are important [and] I'm not trivializing them: gender issues, lesbian and gay rights, antidiscrimination efforts, press freedom, social media, the environment," Miller said. "These are all 21st century issues. They're important. They're just not the kinds of issues that normally get you nominated as a great or truly consequential secretary of state."

Analysts say it's too soon to offer the final word on Clinton's legacy. It is still unclear, for example, whether the Iran sanctions she helped facilitate will lead to movement on the nuclear issue. Under her watch, the "reset" with Russia led to early and varied cooperation, but relations have since plunged. It is also not clear whether the Libya coalition she helped establish between NATO and Arab countries sets a precedent for the future. Also to be determined is just how consequential her State Department's emphasis on Twitter and social media outreach will be.

Clinton is not unaware of the mixed assessments.

When asked about them in a January 29 interview with CNN, she emphasized her global outreach.

"I think we have to go back to my beginning in January of 2009 to remember how poorly perceived the United States was, how badly damaged our reputation was, how our leadership was in question, how the economic crisis had really shaken people’s confidence in our government, our economic system, our country," Clinton said.

"Part of my job in the very beginning was to get around the world and restore confidence in American leadership."

On the lack of a big breakthrough on her watch, she said, "Diplomacy is sometimes building on steps one after the other."

She also said, "I'm very proud of what we’ve done."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.