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.

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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?

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.

In Afghanistan, we were all part of the lengthy analysis to determine the way forward. And on both the military and the civilian side there was a conclusion reached that military force alone would not be successful. Perhaps it's an obvious conclusion, but it is one that raises a lot of questions that then State and USAID have to answer. It is so much easier to get resources when you are in the Defense Department than it is when you are in the State Department and USAID. So a huge part of your budget becomes Iraq, Afghanistan, and then the civilian assistance going into Pakistan. In a time of budget constraint like we're facing now, it's just much more difficult for us to get the resources that we're expected to have, but the responsibilities still remain. So, it's the tension of the stress that comes with any kind of wartime situation, because when our young men and women in uniform are put in harm's way, increasingly so are our civilians because they are expected to go right out there with the military. If we say we're going to work on agriculture in Afghanistan, the agronomist is there the next day after the fighting stops. So it adds to the complexity and the sense of responsibility.

Kissinger: I would say the special experience of American wartime policy in the last 40 years, from Vietnam on, is that the war itself became controversial in the country and that the most important thing we need in the current situation is, whatever disagreements there may be on tactics, that the legitimacy of the war itself does not become a subject of controversy. We have to start with the assumption, obviously, that whatever administration is conducting a war wants to end it.

Clinton: Right.

Kissinger: Nobody has more at stake than the administration in office. But if you look at the debates we had on Vietnam, Iraq, and so forth, ending the war became defined as the withdrawal of forces and as the primary if not the exclusive exit strategy. But in fact the best exit strategy is victory. Another is diplomacy. Another is the war just dying out. But if you identify exit with withdrawal of American forces, you neglect the political objective. In such circumstances you trap yourself in a position in which the administration in office gets assaulted for insufficient dedication to ending the war, [and] it has to do things that can be against its better judgment. We often found ourselves there.

This is my attitude toward the administration on the war, whether I agree with every last detail or not. The second point that Hillary made is about the civilian side of it, and there is a third element, which is the war will have to find, at some point, a diplomatic outcome. There has to be something that recognizes what the outcome is, in the name of which it can be defended. The disaster after Vietnam was that we would not support what had been negotiated. Whatever emerges in Afghanistan has to be supported, and it needs a legal framework internationally, and that couldn't exist yet. I would think that it's a big challenge that the secretary faces. But the debate ought to be in that framework and not "Do we want to end the war? How quickly can we end the war?" I take it for granted that the administration wants to end it as quickly as is at all possible. Why would they not?

Meacham:In the popular mind, I think there's sometimes a sense that there's diplomacy and then there's mili­tary force. There's a hawk-dove simplicity. What would be the message you would want voters and Americans to have in their heads as they are evaluating Afghanistan, Iraq, the negotiations with Iran going forward?

Clinton: I want people to know we may be sending more troops [to Afghanistan], but we're also intensifying our diplomatic and political efforts and doing what we can alongside the people of Afghanistan to deliver results in terms of better services for them, all of which are part of our strategic view of how you reverse the momentum of the Taliban. So it's all connected. It's not either/or any longer.

Kissinger: Whenever one creates a diplomatic forum, one has to understand that there has to be a combination of rewards and penalties and that the other side will make its conclusions on the basis of benefits and risks. One has to be able to construct that, and one should never put a poor negotiator in the room and say, now you will start making compromises. Create the impression of endless willingness to compromise and you almost invite deadlines. That's the challenge we now have in North Korea and have had in North Korea for 10 years. In this sense, diplomacy and foreign policy and other elements of political activity have to be closely linked and have to be understood by the negotiators. That's why Hillary has the most exciting job in the government.

Clinton

:

But it's also more like a conductor than a soloist.

Jon Meacham is the editor of Newsweek and the author of American Lion and Franklin and Winston.

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