Henry Kissinger and Hillary Clinton on what it's like to be secretary of state.

Henry Kissinger and Hillary Clinton on what it's like to be secretary of state.

Henry Kissinger and Hillary Clinton on what it's like to be secretary of state.

Dec. 22 2009 7:02 AM

"It's a Job That Requires 24-Hour Attention"

Henry Kissinger and Hillary Clinton on what it's like to be secretary of state.

This conversation appears in Newsweek's "Interview" issue. To read more of the magazine's interviews with the year's biggest newsmakers, go to Newsweek.com.

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Clinton: Oh, I think it's critically important. First of all, it's critical to the formulation of policy and the giving of advice and having the perspective of diplomacy and development at the table when decisions of moment are made. Speaking for myself and I think other secretaries with whom I've spoken, including Henry, it is such a key relationship that you really have to invest time and effort in it. I work closely with not only [National Security Adviser] Jim Jones but also [Defense Secretary] Bob Gates. But at the end of the day, it's that sort of funnel; the tough decisions end up in the Oval Office. And you can't just walk in and say to the president, "Here's what I think you should do." It takes a lot of thought and effort. I meet with the president one-on-one once a week. I'm in other meetings with him with the national-security team. It's a constant conversation.

Kissinger: I fundamentally agree—the relationship of the president and the secretary is absolutely key. The State Department has a tendency to insist on its prerogative that it is exclusively entitled to conduct foreign policy. My view is that when you assert your prerogatives, you've already lost the bureaucratic battle. I saw the president every day when we were both in town because I felt it was absolutely essential that we thought along the same lines. I was lucky. I had extraordinarily close relationships with the two presidents I served. In fact, if one looks at the history of the secretaries of state, it's rare. If they don't have a close relationship, they don't last.

Clinton: What I have found hardest to balance is the amount of travel that is expected today. One would think that in an era where communication is instantaneous, you would not have to get on an airplane and go sit in a meeting. But, in fact, it's almost as though people are more desirous of seeing someone in person.


Kissinger: Because they have to have explained to them what is really being thought, which you can't put through cables.

Clinton: You can't. And because press coverage, with all due respect, often raises fears and anxieties that are not rooted in any decision process. People sit around in capitals all over the world reading tea leaves, trying to make sense of what we're doing. We have to go and meet and talk and listen, and it is a challenge to manage all of the relationships you have to manage when you're on an airplane as much as I am these days. But that's why having the trust and confidence of the president means that you can do the travel, check back in, report back in without worrying that you're not on the same page because you've talked at length about where you're headed before you go.

I think that, of course, countries make decisions based on their own assessment of their national interests. But part of what you can attempt to do when you've developed a relationship is to offer different ways of looking at that national interest, to try to find more common ground. And it's going to be a more likely convergence if the person with whom you're talking feels that they've already developed a personal understanding of you and a personal connection with you. And I've spent, as Henry has, an enormous amount of time just building those relationships. Because it is all about having enough trust between leaders and countries so that misunderstandings don't occur, but also on the margins, there can be a greater appreciation of the other's point of view.

Kissinger: The difficulty here is in the relations between countries. Very often there arises a gray area where the national interest is not self-evident or [is] disputed, where there is sort of a 2 percent margin of uncertainty. It's very important to establish relationships before you need anything, so that there is a measure of respect in negotiations once they occur or when a crisis develops. When you travel as secretary, one problem you have is that the press comes with you and wants an immediate result because it justifies their trip. And sometimes the best result is that you don't try to get a result but try to get an understanding for the next time you go to them. I don't know whether that would be your experience.

Clinton: It is exactly my experience.

Meacham:What is the role of theory and doctrine when you are behind the desk or on the plane?

Clinton: Well, Henry's the expert on theory and doctrine. I'm someone who thinks that it could help provide a framework and direction and lessons from history. There are patterns that can be discerned, but the ingredients for every single challenge that you face are not cookie-cutter. You have to be able to be creative and agile and responsive and have enough instincts to recognize the opportunities when they arise and then retrospectively fit it into a doctrine is what I would probably say [laughs].

Kissinger: Because I started life as a professor, I was concerned with doctrines and theory. But professors have a hell of a time getting their concepts rele­vant to a contemporary situation. They don't always understand that as a professor, you have all the time in the world to write your book. As a professor, you could come up with absolute solutions. As a secretary of state, there is almost no solution that you could achieve in one blow. You could only achieve it in a series of steps.

Meacham:You are both wartime secretaries of state. You have nothing to compare it to, but what complications do you think warfare adds to diplomacy?

Clinton: Well, I can only speak from the experience we've had this past year where President Obama inherited two wars and had to make some early fast decisions that were waiting for him, not of his making. I give him high marks for taking the time and putting in place a process for us to examine the assumptions and ask the hard questions. Because the war in Iraq is winding down, but as the war winds down and our military troops leave, the State Department and USAID [United States Agency for International Development] are expected to assume even more responsibility. I'll give you one example: The military has been doing the police training in Iraq. They have a lot of resources to do these jobs. Not only tens of thousands of bodies but all kinds of equipment and flexibility in funding streams that are not part of the experience of the State Department or USAID, and I'm having to accept the responsibility, which is going to be handed off. That's a very daunting undertaking.