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Clinton’s Secretary of State Shortlist Reveals Her Foreign Policy

Strobe Talbott greets Hillary Clinton before Brookings event, "Hillary Clinton addresses the Iran nuclear deal"

Former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, on the short list for Secretary of State in a potential Clinton administration, greets Hillary Clinton before a Brookings event


The Clinton transition team recently leaked its shortlist for Secretary of State. While media attention has solely focused on Vice President Joe Biden’s appearance on the list, the rest of the list reveals what a potential Clinton administration’s foreign policy might entail. Based on her shortlist, Clinton has Russian aggression and European stability on the front of her mind, with North Korea, the Middle East, and a long-term rebalance toward Asia also on the horizon. Each potential nominee possesses strong foreign policy credentials, including many with long track records as career diplomats. They all have internationalist mindsets in contrast to the protectionist bordering on isolationist electorate sentiments that have emerged during this election.

While Biden has said he has no plan to serve in a Clinton administration, in Washington, “never” doesn’t always mean “never.” Biden and Clinton disagreed on almost every major foreign policy decision of the Obama administration, from leaving troops in Iraq to the NATO bombing of Libya to arming rebels in Syria. Perhaps Clinton looks to Biden as a valuable adviser who will not be afraid of providing dissenting advice if she is looks to build a “team of rivals” cabinet. Biden’s popularity with world leaders could be an asset to Clinton, particularly if she plans on pursuing a more hawkish foreign policy that may ruffle some feathers.

In the end, floating Biden’s name shortly before the election probably has more to do with winning union voters in Scranton, Pennsylvania, than it does about Clinton’s foreign policy. Clinton is said to heavily favor Michéle Flournoy to be the first female Secretary of Defense. As a hawk who served under Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and has been praised by Republicans, tapping Flournoy denotes Clinton’s desire to exert American leadership in the world.

The media has largely shrugged off the rest of the Secretary of State shortlist in throwaway lines within an article. But, a deeper look into the six other potential nominees reveals much about Clinton’s foreign policy strategy. The following analysis will dive into the backgrounds of the potential nominees as well as their recent statements on world affairs.

The Best in the Diplomatic Business

Excluding Biden, Clinton’s shortlist of six largely draws from career diplomats. Four have served as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, a position that oversees the regional bureaus, or as Deputy Secretary of State, the right-hand person of the Secretary of State. Some served in both capacities.

Former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns is one of the most senior, experienced, and respected diplomats by both sides of the aisle. He served in three consecutive administrations of both parties under seven secretaries of state before heading the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was responsible for jumpstarting negotiations with Iran via a secret diplomatic effort through Oman. Burns has extensive experience in Russia and the Middle East, having served as Ambassador to Jordan under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs under Bush, where he worked on the elimination of Libya’s WMD program; Ambassador to Russia in 2005-2008 (before Russia invaded Georgia); and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs under both Bush and Obama.

Burns is renowned for being calm, steady, and informed. Former Secretary of State James Baker said Burns is “not ideological, calls it like he sees it, and everybody has confidence in him.” Burns currently views state fragility as the most important issue facing the US and a root cause “of much of today’s global disorder.” He also views China’s rise, Russian aggression, climate change, and terrorism as other pressing challenges. Burns also views closer ties with India of strategic importance to the US.

North Korea on the Docket

While Bill Burns started serious diplomatic efforts with Iran, former Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman finished the job. Sherman comes with a uniquely diverse background in foreign policy as well as politics. She served as Senator Mikulski’s campaign manager as well as the director of EMILY’S List before joining the Bill Clinton administration to serve as an adviser to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and as the policy coordinator on North Korea.

Her work in the Clinton administration, combined with holding together the P5+1 coalition in negotiations with Iran through Vienna in 2015, helped shape her views on how to deal with an increasing threat from North Korea. Sherman believes sanctions must be far more severe for North Korea than they were for Iran to bring them to the negotiating table, and she views China as vital to achieve this. She is also optimistic that China will increasingly view North Korean nuclear weapons and aggression as a threat to its own stability. She argues that is the reason China agreed to step up sanctions and inspections in March. Notably, she thinks that the US, regional allies, and China need to be prepared for regime collapse in North Korea, something Beijing refuses to acknowledge.

Four of North Korea’s five nuclear tests occurred during the Obama administration, and Pyongyang has warned of more to come. A Sherman nomination will signal Clinton’s desire to elevate North Korea on the priority list and pursue an Iran-style deal for de-nuclearization.

Dealing with Putin and Defending Europe

Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nick Burns also has extensive experience in dealing with Russia during the Bush administration. Nick Burns was Ambassador to Greece in the Clinton administration during the Kosovo intervention and aware of Russian concerns of US intervention in its perceived sphere of influence. He also served as US Ambassador to NATO from 2001-2005 during the critical time of the new combat NATO mission in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the expansion of seven new NATO members. A Nick Burns nomination sends a clear message to Moscow that Hillary Clinton is going to be playing hard ball and will ratchet up support for NATO allies and European partners.

Nick Burns predicts the top three challenges for the next president will be: 1) Seeing stable ground in Europe, 2) Navigating a volatile Middle East, and 3) Charting a course with China. When Estonia announced it is training 25,000 citizens to fight as a guerilla army against a possible Russia invasion, Nick Burns applauded their defense but also assured that the US would adhere to Article V of NATO for collective self-defense.

Former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott also possesses a strong background in Russian and Eurasian affairs. Talbott, the current president of the Brookings Institution, was once a Rhodes Scholar with Bill Clinton at Oxford, where he translated Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs into English. He served as Ambassador At-Large and managed the Soviet breakup during the first term of the Bill Clinton administration before becoming Deputy Secretary of State for the second term. Talbott was originally optimistic about the attempted “Russian reset” at the beginning of the Obama administration, but he was skeptical of tangible details for how Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the Russians were approaching the opportunity. Talbott believes that dealing with Putin takes one part containment and one part engagement with the parts of Russian society who do not wish to regress to the Soviet era. Talbott views German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a key asset in containing and understanding Putin and would presumably work with her closely. Talbott may approach Russian aggression in a more cautious, soft power way than a Nick Burns appointment, but Talbott nonetheless would signal that Hillary Clinton has her eyes first and foremost on Putin.

Retired Admiral James Stavridis, who is currently the dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University and was a potential vice presidential pick for Clinton, is also on the shortlist. Stavridis stands out as the only none career diplomat on the list, although he would provide useful defense knowledge if Clinton aims to better integrate US foreign policy planning and implementation between the Departments of State and Defense, particularly if Flournoy heads the Pentagon having never served in the armed forces.

Stavridis served as the commander of US Southern Command from 2006-2009 and US European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 2009-2013. He has long advocated for combining hard and soft power for a “smart power” approach to global conflicts. Stavridis published a four-point plan to deal with Russia in response to Putin’s “grand bargain” of negotiating with the West on Syria, ISIS, Ukraine, Crimea, NATO membership, and sanctions all at once. Stavridis recommends first reassuring NATO alliances, particularly Poland and the Baltics, through robust exercises and rotational stationing. Second, he notes the need to maintain sanctions as a leveraging point and, like Talbott, is impressed by Merkel’s ability to hold the EU together to achieve this. Third, he advocates for leveraging broader international support condemning Russia’s behavior and publicizing illegal actions such as cyber hacks or the doping of their Olympian team. Finally, he recognizes the need to keep channels of communication open to provide opportunities to cooperate when in our interests such as reducing the dangers of accidental military confrontation.

The Long Rebalance Toward Asia

Hillary Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell is the last one on the shortlist. Campbell’s nomination would gesture that Clinton is prioritizing a US pivot to Asia. His experience as the Deputy Special Counsel to President Clinton for NAFTA as well as his strong support for the Trans Pacific Partnership as “necessary for American leadership” already signals that Clinton may be supportive of Obama’s key trade legacy piece in contrast to her campaign rhetoric of opposition. Campbell also has an extensive military background, having served as a naval officer on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Campbell may be an unlikely choice if Flournoy is tapped for Secretary of Defense since the pair founded the Center for a New American Security think tank together. Clinton may prefer her two top cabinet nominees to have slightly more breathing room between them.

The Bottom Line of Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy

Clinton’s shortlist for Secretary of State gives us a number of clues to piece together what her foreign policy will entail.

First, Clinton’s foreign policy is probably going to be more internationalist and hawkish than her toned-down rhetoric on the campaign trail the last two years. Her shortlist is full of potential nominees who envision strong American leadership in the world as part of our vital interests.

Second, Russian aggression is at the forefront of her mind and her shortlist signals that she will be more firm in dealing with Putin than the failed reset button with Russia while she was Secretary of State. Ensuring containment or mitigating the threat of Russian aggression is high on her list of priorities.

Third, dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons may get a higher prioritization than previous administrations.

Fourth, Clinton is still looking for experience in Middle East and North Africa affairs. However, she is not intentionally drawing up a list that would signal her potential administration’s focus will be directed toward Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other critical regional issues. Their role more likely will be fitting as pieces inside a larger U.S. grand strategy.

Fifth, and perhaps most surprisingly, Clinton’s picks do not necessarily signal as strong of a rebalance toward Asia as one may have expected, considering this was a signature policy of Clinton’s State Department as evidenced by the TPP negotiations. Kurt Campbell is the only possible choice for Secretary of State who would strongly indicate that the Clinton administration would transform the currently quiet pivot to Asia as a much louder pivot.

Overall, the current shortlist demonstrates that Clinton is searching for someone who is extremely competent and a skillful diplomat, rather than aiming for someone the American public knows like Biden or a senator who touts foreign policy expertise.

More importantly, Clinton’s shortlist suggests she intends for the US to step back up on the world stage as an assertive leader after eight years of an idle Obama administration. While she obviously played a role in shaping the Obama administration’s foreign policy, it is worthwhile to note she was often pushing for far more internationalist and proactive approaches to conflicts than Obama was willing to take. A President Hillary Clinton would have much more leeway to pursue her more assertive foreign policy agenda than she did as Secretary of State during a time of global retreat following the George W. Bush administration.


Photo Credit | Brookings Institution