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History notices this Cabinet post

For days now, we've known that President-elect Obama plans to name Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state. (If not, a lot of journalists will be eating a lot of crow.) So here's a question: Why do we call it "secretary of state?''

In almost every other country, the top diplomat dealing with foreign leaders is called, logically enough, foreign minister. Even the United States started out in 1780 with a Department of Foreign Affairs headed by a secretary of foreign affairs.

But then Congress loaded up the job with a lot of bureaucratic duties, including custody of the Great Seal and preservation of the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and other important records. Given these domestic responsibilities, secretary of state made sense back on Sept. 15, 1789, when President George Washington signed a law creating the new Department of State.

Today, in a far more globalized world, the job has become the most important Cabinet position. And Clinton, or whomever Obama picks, will take over at one of the most troubled times since World War II.

Arguably the greatest modern-day secretary of state was Dean Acheson, who in Harry Truman's administration designed the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and helped define U.S. foreign policy toward the Soviet Union. He also played a key role in creating many of the most important postwar institutions, including NATO, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and early entities that became the European Union and the World Trade Organization.

"Dean Acheson is still the towering figure, partly because of the circumstances he was in,'' says Robert Jervis, professor of international politics at Columbia University. "When you look at those years of the late '40s and early '50s and think of how much they did in a short period of time, it really is quite startling.''

Another hugely influential, if controversial, secretary was Henry Kissinger, who served under Presidents Nixon and Ford. A proponent of realpolitik (the idea that foreign policy should be based on practical considerations, not ideological ones), Kissinger successfully pushed for reopening of relations with communist China and won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a cease-fire in the Vietnam War.

Kissinger's robust record under Nixon shows that presidents and their chief diplomats do best if on the same page policy-wise even if they are not always in perfect harmony otherwise.

Nixon and Kissinger "were very close,'' Jervis says, "though they had very difficult relations because both were paranoid.''

(A historical note: Most of the secretary of state's domestic duties have been transferred to other positions, but a presidential resignation still must be made by written communication to the secretary. That's happened just once, in 1974 when Nixon resigned in a letter to Kissinger.)

In recent years, the job of secretary of state has had a more diverse face, albeit with mixed results.

Colin Powell, the first African-American to hold the post, "simply was not on the same page substantively with Bush, and this was clear from the beginning,'' Jervis says. A moderate in a hawkish administration, Powell resigned before the end of President Bush's first term and supported Obama for president this year.

Powell's successor, Condoleezza Rice, is in tune philosophically with Bush. Her effectiveness, though, has been blunted by America's dismal image abroad, largely due to the unpopular Iraq war.

Born in Prague, former U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright had a wealth of international experience when she became Bill Clinton's chief diplomat in 1997. But she "laid the groundwork for some of the Bush errors by underestimating the difficulties of military interventions and by thinking that spreading democracy should be a major aim of U.S. foreign policy,'' Jervis says.

Assuming Clinton becomes the nation's third female secretary, she will have two requisites for the job — boundless energy and an ability to absorb complex issues fast. Though she and Obama were at odds over invading Iraq, they share a pragmatic world view.

And if Clinton still hopes to be president, the good news is that several secretaries of state, including Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, went on to the top job.

The bad news: That hasn't happened in more than 150 years.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

History notices this Cabinet post 11/29/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 1, 2008 11:21am]
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