It may be that the process is so unruffled that many people won’t notice, but the woman who has presided over a major shift in United States foreign policy — Hillary Clinton — has left her job. Not only has she left her position as US secretary of state, she has also left with a stunning personal approval rating of 69%.
Such a remarkable personal approval rating raises the question of what her next career move will be. Having had one tilt at the US presidency and been beaten by the incumbent, Clinton says she is no longer interested in that job. That, however, may be a ploy to have herself drafted into the candidacy, seemingly acceding to the demands of the thronging crowd.
With a current approval rating that would make her a highly competitive presidential candidate, there may be some thought as to what Clinton can do to maintain herself in the public limelight. Should she demur, after a suitable break, from being in the public eye, it may well be that she really isn’t interested in the US presidency.
Clinton’s popularity has built over the past four years — presiding over a shift in US foreign policy from direct intervention and a high level of international belligerence to one of diplomacy and increasing multilateralism. For a country weary of war, and especially without anything that looks like a victory, this has been especially well received.
Clinton has conducted herself with considerable style, charm and the strongest background in top-level politics, courtesy of husband and former two-term president Bill Clinton. This has won over most Americans. She has also won over very many in the international community, which is the real test of a secretary of state.
Clinton’s specific claims to success are considerable; the failures are relatively few. Her biggest success has probably been in the field of seeking to avoid problems, especially violent conflict, before it arises. She has travelled more extensively than any of her predecessors, clearly valuing face-to-face contact, and has wanted the US to have “a seat at every table that has the potential for being a partnership to solve problems”.
In particular, she has deftly managed US-China relations at a time when China’s own belligerence has risen. To illustrate, Clinton led the freeing of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who took refuge in the US embassy in Beijing in May last year , without derailing US-China relations.
Clinton also reoriented US foreign policy to reflect the main game for the US and Europe — repairing their damaged economies. She also used economic policies to apply pressure; sanctions rather than bombs against Iran. Clinton summed up her approach by saying she regarded diplomacy as key to US national security.
Needless to say, as a “secretary” to the president, Clinton’s policies were also those of President Barack Obama. However, she both advised on those policies as well as presented them in the best possible light.
Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, is himself widely regarded as a seasoned diplomat and will slip easily into the secretary of state role. Reflecting the same policies as those pursued by Clinton, the transition will be almost seamless.
But Kerry will not have Clinton’s easy charm, her ability to sub-consciously flatter opposite numbers or her public warmth. Kerry will very probably do a good, perhaps great, job. But just a little of the star quality will be missing.
If Clinton chooses to keep that public charisma alive, she will be ideally placed to have another, perhaps more successful, run at the presidency. But, at age 69 when the next US elections roll around, it may also be that she is genuinely prepared to depart high-level public life.
We’ll have a much better idea about Clinton’s future if she starts appearing in public places in a few months’ time. We’ll also have a much better idea about her intentions if she disappears.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University