5 secretaries of State advise Hillary Clinton

George Shultz, James Baker, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell offer their views.

December 7, 2008

Hillary Rodham Clinton will have no shortage of issues to take on as secretary of State. She steps into the job amid a global economic meltdown and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On top of that, she must address the rising tensions between India and Pakistan, and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while managing complex relations with Russia and China. And there are the perennial issues of hunger and disease in Africa, drugs in Latin America and the nuclear threat worldwide. How can one person manage it all?

Times editorial writer Marjorie Miller asked five former secretaries of State what advice they had for Clinton in her new job. What follows are edited transcripts of their counsel.

George P. Shultz
Served under President Reagan, 1982-1989

I'm a great believer in the gardening analogy. If you're gardening and you go away for six months, it's a mess. You have to pull weeds when they're small and keep track of things. The same is true in diplomacy. You've got countries of various shades of friendliness and enmity around the world, and you have to garden. You have to set an agenda, talk to people. If there are things you don't like, you have to say what they are. You do that, and when a problem comes along, you've at least laid a base and have the ability to work. You have to do that all over the world.

Sen. Clinton wants to come into office having a commitment from the president and an understanding with members of Congress that our diplomatic capability has to be built up sharply. We have to have the budget to expand the Foreign Service, to take in more new recruits. We should also look at hiring back people who retired recently from the Foreign Service. You bring people in and train them and give them experience. They get into their late 40s and early 50s, and then they leave at the height of their powers. That doesn't make any sense. You need this talent, and you want to see if you can recoup it. If you're running a big organization, if you don't take in new people, you run into big holes. Secretary Colin Powell understood that. You may be a brilliant general, but if you don't have good troops, you're not going to get anything done.

As for priorities, there are plenty of them. If you take the attitude you'll only work on things with a good probability of success, well, you can't do that. You have to work on possibilities. Anyone can write an answer to the Israel-Palestine problem, but it doesn't mean a thing. You've got to get people to agree, and that's hard. You just have to work at it, and if you work and keep things from sliding backward, you make a little progress. You make life a little better, and gradually something may emerge. Take the Irish Republican Army and Northern Ireland. No one ever thought that would be solved, but people kept working and working and eventually people got tired of killing each other, and now you have something that works.

James A. Baker III
Served under President George H.W. Bush, 1989-1992

I was fortunate. I had been Treasury secretary for the four years before I became secretary of State. And I was chief of staff before that. So I had knowledge of many foreign policy issues and a good understanding of how Washington worked. I understood the importance of having a seamless relationship with the president. That is most important for a secretary of State, because everybody in Washington wants a piece of the foreign policy turf. Everybody has an idea about how the United States should deal with Russia or Iran. That's not so much the case at Treasury, where the issues are a bit more esoteric; not everyone is trying to get in your sandbox there. But they are at Foggy Bottom.

You must make sure you have an understanding with the president that he is going to protect your backside. You cannot be successful unless you have a president who will support you, protect you and defend you, both internationally and domestically. You need to have a clear understanding with the president that you are his principal foreign policy spokesman, formulator and implementer. There cannot be discordant voices on foreign policy. If there are, you will send mixed signals to other countries that will result in your administration being ineffectual. In public, a secretary of State should be as close to a clone of the president as possible. That doesn't mean you don't tell him in private when you disagree. Sen. Clinton is extraordinarily capable and is in a position to be a very good secretary of State as long as she has that understanding with the president that there will be no daylight between them on any foreign policy issue.

I think it's important for Sen. Clinton to tackle the Arab-Israeli issue early. I happen to believe that both her husband and President George W. Bush waited too long. The temptation is to wait because it is a very tough issue from a domestic political standpoint. Now there seems to be more desire for a secure, negotiated peace on the part of the Israeli body politic than there has been in the past. I think the stars are right. But you don't get peace between Arabs and Israelis unilaterally. So that's one I think she might undertake productively.

It also will be important to rebuild the consensus in this country for free trade. It's gone. The left and the right used to be staunch advocates of free trade. It's not just an economic issue, it's a significant political issue. Sen. Clinton is going to have a big role to play in rebuilding a consensus. We can't backslide on free trade. It's going to be tough for this administration because of the things they've said in the campaign. It's so easy to be against free trade when times are tough. But anyone who has studied the issue knows free trade creates more economic winners than losers, and that creates jobs and economic growth.

Warren Christopher
Served under President Clinton, 1993-1997

The No. 1 priority needs to be to try to restore America's reputation abroad. It is a task that cannot be done overnight, but Secretary Clinton's widely admired presence will be an important sign of commitment.

There has to be a readjustment in our thinking, and our approach to other countries has to be through a spirit of cooperation. We must put behind us the you're-with-us-or-you're-against-us philosophy that has dominated for eight years.

This can be done through meetings with other countries in an atmosphere that shows an understanding of their problems and a spirit of cooperation, rather than the belief that the United States has all the answers.

There are several initial steps Sen. Clinton can take. First of all, join the leadership to close Guantanamo and deal with the detainees in the U.S. justice system. Second, outlaw torture by all U.S. agencies, and that includes waterboarding. And third, the United States should take the lead in developing a climate-change proposal to replace Kyoto. We cannot hang back with a dog-in-the-manger position. If all of this is done early, it will send a powerful signal abroad.

Madeleine Albright
Served under President Clinton, 1997-2001

The thing that is most difficult is setting priorities. You want to do everything. You think, "I have the job for a limited period of time and there is so much to do." Clearly, there are short-, medium- and long-term priorities. Yet the urgent often blocks out the important. You have to keep track of everything, and you can't do it all yourself. So it is critical to put together a team within the department using the best Foreign Service officers, and bringing different groups together to provide support. You have to have people you trust and who will follow the policy of the president and make sure things stay on track. You have to be able to do a lot simultaneously.

Even though I had been at the National Security Council before, one is never fully prepared for how rapidly the situation changes in the State Department. You become so dependent on instant information. It is very hard to determine which information is the piece you are looking for, and you have to weed through it all instantaneously. The world expects you to react without delay.

I think there are advantages to being a woman secretary of State. A lot of diplomacy is being able to put yourself in the other person's shoes. Frankly, I think women are better at that. We are better listeners, and there has to be a lot of listening in diplomacy. I was able to develop good personal relationships and to speak frankly. I had a standard line I used: "I have come a long way, so I must be frank." People knew that we could have a good discussion but that ultimately my job was to represent the interests of the United States.

There is no question that it is an amazing job. It is the best job you can have. Being secretary of State offers huge opportunities to use the power of the United States on behalf of the principal causes that our country was founded on. It is the best chance we have to restore America's reputation and leadership and to make clear that the issues out there require partnership with other countries. You have to have respect for the people you are dealing with, and you have to understand that they too are speaking on behalf of their countries. Everyone is representing their national interests. The great part about diplomacy, however, is that often national interests coincide. So the goal is to look for common ground.

Colin L. Powell
Served under President Bush, 2001-2005

What I would say to Sen. Clinton is that you must get the department and the Foreign Service fully on your side. Leadership and management are as essential to the job of secretary of State as are foreign policy formulation, world travel and dealing with the crises that come your way. You have to help the NSC, the vice president, secretary of Defense and the intelligence community put together a national security system that is agile and responsive so you can be ready for that first crisis.

With respect to policy issues, you will soon become totally involved in the crises of the moment. There will be those you inherit, like Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East, India-Pakistan, and I guarantee you there will be new ones too. They will take an enormous amount of time and energy, and you have to be ready for that.

And you'll need to spend just as much time thinking through the major relationships that have to be tended to and make sure they're solid. First, I would put our major alliances, NATO being the principal one. Then major relationships with the countries that truly have the economic capacity to be considered peers: China, Russia and India. You add up those three and you're talking about half the world. Japan is important. Touch base with our friends here in North America -- Canada and Mexico -- early on.

I was really taken by how much time I had to devote and how much I had to learn about economics, and especially international economic policy, NAFTA, Doha, bilateral trade issues with Canada, Mexico, Japan. Here I am, a hardened and courageous jungle fighter becoming an expert in soy, lumber, shingles, rice. You don't have to go further than today's hearings on GM and Ford to understand that the major political force at work in the world today is economic. This economic trouble here trickles through the whole global economy. China loses jobs it needs for the billion people who have not yet benefited from the economic opening. It affects Russia and Eastern European countries. It affects stability and security and just about everything we're trying to do around the world.