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.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton

Two of the most prominent secretaries of state in recent history sat down with Newsweek's Jon Meacham to discuss their relationships with their respective presidents and the difficulties of managing diplomacy during wartime. Excerpts:

Meacham: What has surprised you most since becoming secretary of state?

Clinton: Well, probably the intensity of the work. It's just a 24/7 job. It sounds almost banal to say, [but] it's a really big world out there, and the United States has responsibilities practically everywhere. And the nature of the challenges we're facing are not only bilateral and multilateral, but they are transnational. One of the biggest challenges for me personally is to keep trying to present an affirmative agenda, not a reactive one, because you could end up being kind of an inbox secretary of state. You are never off duty. Because you land, you begin to work, and you go the next place and you land and begin to work. When you come back, your inbox is a foot high.


Kissinger: That is very comparable to my experience. I had been national-security adviser before I became secretary of state. So I saw the issues that reach the White House and the issues that reach the secretary. The issues that reach the White House are most frequently strategic, while as secretary of state, as Hillary has pointed out, there are as many constituencies as there are countries with which we have relationships. So at the end of every day you almost have to make a decision—whom are you going to insult by not dealing with his or her problems? [Clinton laughs.] Because there's no possible way you could get through. It's a job that requires 24-hour attention.

One of the problems of government is to separate the urgent from the important and make sure you're dealing with the important and don't let the urgent drive out the important. Another challenge one has as secretary is that I think it's the best staff in town, but it's also the most individualistic staff …

Clinton: Mm-hmm.

Kissinger: … in town. With so many constituencies, to get them to work toward a coherent goal is a huge assignment for the secretary.

Clinton: It is.

Kissinger: Even though I had been in the White House for four years before, I didn't realize the magnitude of it until I actually got to the seventh floor [of the State Department].

Clinton: I would add to what Henry said that in addition to the urgent and the important, you try to keep your eye on the long-term trend lines because what is neither urgent nor important today might become one or the other by next year or the year after. And that's a whole different set of skills that is required. I'm always reaching down into the building and saying, "What are we doing on energy security and independence? What are we doing to work with Europe so that they will come up with a common policy through the EU on their own energy needs? What are we doing on food security?" There were riots last year. You look at changing climate patterns, migration patterns. Food is going to become more and more of an issue. What are we doing on pandemic disease with the H1N1 danger, with the problems that global health presents? An area that we're beginning to pay attention to, which is not in the headlines, is the Arctic. With the melting of the ice, with sea lanes opening that were never there before, or only-seasonal lanes becoming more all-weather, with five countries ringing the Arctic, which is an ocean, not a land mass like Antarctica. With Russia saying that they are going to have an expedition next year to plant their flag on the North Pole. With Canada saying, "No, you'd better not." This is an area that we have to pay real attention to, but it's not an area that I get called about by reporters or have to answer questions about at the White House yet.

So there's a matrix of issues. It is exactly how I think about it: the urgent, the important, and then the long term.

Meacham:How important is the relationship between the secretary and the president?



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