In My Opinion: Hillary Clinton’s state department legacy is subtle, yet powerful

Tony Cheramie, Political science senior

Usually, politicians don’t have trouble spinning their own achievements, so it was bizarre that Hillary Rodham Clinton, when asked about her legacy at the State Department, had trouble articulating it. Her broad and generalized responses often feed the narrative that she may have been glamorous as Secretary of State but didn’t actually accomplish much.

In fact, that assumption is dead wrong, for Clinton achieved a great deal and left a hefty impact on the world — just not the traditional kind. She didn’t craft a coalition of allies, like James Baker, one of the most admired former Secretaries of State. She didn’t seal a landmark peace agreement, nor is there a recognizable, definite “Hillary Clinton doctrine.”

No, her legacy is different.

For starters, Clinton recognized and vociferously advocated for policy positions and trade pacts that would realign America’s economic future to be more focused on Asia than Europe, and she pushed hard to rebalance our relations with many Southeast Asian nations after a particularly cool Bush tenure.

She may hide it, but interviews with her closest aides describe Clinton as a policy nerd. When asked about microfinance, sources from the New York Times say she’ll talk your ear off. Mention early childhood interventions, and she will go on about obscure details of a home visitation experiment in Elmira, New York that dramatically improved child education retention outcomes.

More fundamentally, Clinton vastly expanded the diplomatic agenda. Diplomats have historically focused on “hard” issues, like trade and blowing up stuff, and so it may seem “soft” to fret about women’s rights and economic development.

Yet Clinton understood that impact and leverage in 21st century diplomacy often come by addressing poverty, the environment, education and family planning.

It’s not that Clinton was a softie. She was often more hawkish than President Obama, favoring the surge in Afghanistan (a mistake, I believe) and the arming of moderate Syrian rebel groups — a good call, but one vetoed by the President.

Clinton was relentless about using the spotlight that accompanied her to highlight the need to economically empower women and girls. At one global forum, she went out of her way to praise Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning entrepreneur of microfinance, who was being persecuted by the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

The kidnapping of the Nigerian school girls in April was the kind of issue Clinton was out front of, and not only with a hashtag. She understood that educating girls isn’t a frilly “soft” issue but a way to transform a country to make it less hospitable to extremists. No one argued more cogently that women’s rights are security issues.

“Those who argue that her championing of outreach to women and girls and her elevation of development was not serious miss a central reality of international politics in this century,” notes Nicholas Burns in the Washington Post, undersecretary of state in the George W. Bush presidency. “These issues are now globally mainstream.”

So, sure, critics are right that Hillary Rodham Clinton never achieved the kind of landmark peace agreement that would make the first sentence of her obituary. Instead, Hillary Clinton led the way in reshaping one of the fastest growing regions in the world, not just for women, but for virtually every vulnerable or marginalized group — a truly important legacy.

And, besides, she may have grander dreams for the contents of her obituary.