December 10, 2012

COMMENTARY: A great secretary of state has four essential traits

Aaron David Miller

The secretary of state sweepstakes is on. Who's it going to be? Susan Rice, John Kerry, Tom Donilon or some mystery candidate who will surprise us all?

Forget the who for a moment. What does the nation's top diplomat need to succeed? Above all, a close bond with the president. Having worked for a half-dozen secretaries of state, I've developed four essential criteria for what it takes to be a truly consequential one.

* Anatomy really is destiny. Freud was probably talking about gender differences here. The ability to project a physical presence and persona is crucial to success in politics and foreign policy. This isn't necessarily related to physical stature or gender. Henry Kissinger hardly looked as if he had walked out of a GQ photo spread. Yet he had star quality. As does Hillary Clinton. Not so much for Warren Christopher -- a man of stellar character yet hardly imposing persona.

F. Scott Fitzgerald held that persona flowed from an unbroken series of gestures. Effective presidents and secretaries of state are actors on a public stage; they require charm, flattery, toughness and drama to make allies and adversaries take them seriously, particularly in a negotiation or crisis.

When a U.S. 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 sitting comfortably, wondering how best to manipulate the secretary. If anything, they should be worried about being manipulated themselves.

This means playing a number of roles, sometimes with high gestures of real or feigned anger, frustration or disappointment. At the 1948 Senate hearings on the plan for European recovery that would bear his name, George C. Marshall, whom columnist James Reston described that day as displaying "moral grandeur," silenced an interrupting senator with a single glare.

Kissinger threatened to walk out on Syria's Hafez al-Assad at least once; James Baker did the same with Assad, the Palestinians and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

* They must have the negotiator's mindset. By definition, effective secretaries of state conduct negotiations, defuse crises and tackle issues that normal human beings consider very hard. A coherent worldview is important, too, but not as critical as the instinctive ability to know how to make a deal, sense the opportunity, and then figure out how to close it.

Kissinger may have been the grand strategist, but both he and Baker had the negotiator's mindset, the ability to figure out how to assemble the pieces of the puzzle strewn on the living-room floor and stay even when all the pieces didn't quite fit.

Kissinger's Middle East diplomacy -- three disengagement agreements after the October 1973 war -- is a remarkable testament to those skills. The one between Israel and Syria still survives, while the other two, between Egypt and Israel, evolved into a peace treaty. You can't learn these things in school.

Marshall was a military man; Kissinger an academic; Baker a lawyer. All possessed a natural ability to gauge how to move the pieces around on the board.

Effective secretaries of state are manipulators, no matter how politically incorrect this sounds. 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.

Baker and Kissinger weren't sentimentalists. To close their Middle East deals, they trash-talked Israelis to Arabs, and Arabs to Israelis. They threatened when they had to and conceded when they had to, never losing sight of their objective or of a backdoor to get out if they couldn't accomplish it. Nice secretaries of state are usually ineffective secretaries of state.

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