Saturday, November 15, 2008

Criteria for Effectiveness in Secretaries of State









Here are four characteristics of exemplary secretaries of state formulated by Aaron David Miller for the L.A. Times. Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and has worked as an advisor on the Middle East for six Democratic and Republican secretaries of State. He is the author of "The Much Too Promised Land."


In the last 30 years, I believe we've had only two truly consequential secretaries of State. James A. Baker III (whom I worked for and admired) and Henry A. Kissinger (who predated me), with all their imperfections and detractors (and there are many), stand out well above the others. They had different personalities, confronted different circumstances and succeeded and failed in different ways. But they embodied four important qualities that helped them succeed:
  • The right persona. The nation's top diplomat needs to be an actor, a teacher, a tactician, an intimidator and a confidant. Most of these qualities are natural and instinctive, rather than learned -- as is the ability to project a strong physical and intellectual presence. When an American secretary of State walks into the room, either here or abroad, his or her interlocutors need to be on the edge of their seats, not comfortably situated in their chairs wondering how best to manipulate the secretary. If anything, they should be worried about being manipulated themselves .... Kissinger and Baker both impressed ... were actors who could yell and threaten to abandon the process ... yet they could also reassure .... That mix of keeping their interlocutors off balance but reassured proved indispensable to successful diplomacy.

  • The president's confidence. The assumption that a new president will appoint a secretary of State who is close to him and has his confidence is not always accurate. Of the six secretaries I worked for, only one -- Baker -- had a truly close relationship with his president. And yet this relationship is crucial. You simply cannot expect to do serious diplomacy abroad, or in the sometimes even more perilous world of Washington, without knowing that the president has your back, will not allow domestic interest groups to undermine you or permit his other advisors to do so. It takes America's friends and adversaries about five minutes to figure out who really speaks for the White House and who doesn't. If a secretary of State falls into the latter category, he or she will have little chance of doing effective diplomacy on a big issue. More likely, they'll be played like a finely tuned violin or simply taken for granted.

  • A negotiator's mind-set. Teenagers talk on the phone, beavers build dams, and secretaries of State manage crises and solve problems. This means having a smart and tough view of the world, seeing how America's ends and means can fit together, and then knowing how to make them do so. There is little room for ideologues here, or for minds that lack the capacity to reconcile the yes and the no of international relations with all of the myriad contradictions that impose themselves on diplomacy. The negotiator's mind-set -- the intuitive capacity to see where the deal is, and to put oneself in the middle of the mix to bring it about -- is critical. It's not learned ....

  • Deviousness and toughness. This last point may not be politically correct, but the fact is, effective secretaries of State are manipulators. Deception is sometimes required, and they maneuver constantly, trying to figure out what's necessary to succeed and how to use incentives, pressure, arm twisting and, when necessary, untruthfulness (either by omission or commission) to manage a crisis or close a deal .... They threatened when they had to and conceded when they had to, never losing sight of their objective or of a back door to get out if they couldn't accomplish it. Nice secretaries of State are usually ineffective secretaries of State.
Of course, even an all-star secretary of State cannot guarantee a successful foreign policy. The president's persona, other policy priorities, sheer luck and the uncontrollable and unanticipated flow of events matter more. But an effective secretary who can deal with crises and exploit them as opportunities is critical ....

This post is intended to inform the discussion above.

1 Moderated Comments:

Blogger Vigilante said...

Comments are redirected to the column above.

11/16/2008 08:05:00 PM  

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