Every president has his own way of determining who would make his best secretary of state, but all commanders-in-chief tend to focus on how a candidate would carry out his or her boss's foreign policy. In reality, the position of secretary of state is perhaps the most complex in the Cabinet, because it requires its occupant to wear three hats at the same time.
In most government departments, the secretary is mainly the CEO. At State, he or she is also the country's chief diplomat -- or the COO -- as well as the president's chief foreign policy adviser. To be truly successful, the secretary of state must give each of these roles the time and attention they deserve, which is even more challenging when one has various crises to resolve around the world and a 24-hour news cycle.
Hillary Clinton understood that very well and aimed high from the beginning of her tenure at State nearly four years ago. She told me the example she followed in shaping her priorities as secretary was that of George Shultz, the last of her predecessors universally credited with juggling the three roles successfully -- much more so than the secretaries after Shultz and before Clinton. Shultz served during the Reagan administration, from 1982 to 1989.
"He was obviously essential to President Reagan's foreign policy, but he also really paid attention to what we call 'the building' -- the Foreign Service and Civil Service -- and I think you have to pay attention to the people that do the work," Clinton said in an interview. "I was very impressed that he got such high marks from everybody, because he could really manage and steward the resources of the Foreign Service and the Civil Service, but also be involved in all of the difficult issues of his time."
If confirmed, about which there is little doubt, John Kerry will be the first white male secretary of state in 16 years. How is he likely to fare in terms of wearing the three hats, compared to his four immediate predecessors?
Let's look at those four. Madeleine Albright had significant success as the chief U.S. diplomat and a major role in decision-making during the Clinton administration. But she focused on representing the United States abroad and was widely viewed by the Foreign Service as not paying enough attention to the institution, though she was hamstrung by very limited resources.
Colin Powell was much beloved by both the Foreign Service and the Civil Service for taking care of them and of the State Department as an agency. His efforts to increase the foreign affairs budget and provide meaningful training to employees after decades of neglect cannot be overstated, even though proper professional development for American diplomats still doesn't exist. As has been well-documented, however, Powell's role as the president's chief foreign policy adviser suffered due to constant infighting in the Bush administration, and a heavy emphasis on military action, rather than diplomacy, during Bush's first term.
In contrast, Condoleezza Rice was a trusted adviser to Bush with perhaps the strongest voice in policy-making than any secretary of state in decades, which made her a highly effective chief diplomat. At the same time, the Foreign Service was not very happy with her as CEO, even though she told me she did pay attention to management, because she liked doing it.
By most accounts, Clinton seems to have come closer to Shultz's success in juggling the three hats than those she succeeded. While she hasn't been as influential as Rice was in decision-making, she has played a major role nonetheless, aides to both Obama and Clinton told me. Her rock-star status around the world has helped make her a very successful representative of the United States. As CEO of the State Department, she has received very high marks from employees, some of whom have posted in their social media profiles what a great boss they have. She has secured the largest budget the department has ever had, and expanded the Foreign Service to a size never seen before, even though she aimed for a 25-percent increase but managed about 17 percent.
Kerry wouldn't have nearly Clinton's star power and recognition abroad, but his long experience in Washington and overseas could make him an excellent chief diplomat and policy adviser to Obama. He certainly has deeper knowledge and a stronger background in foreign affairs than Clinton did when she was nominated. In addition, his close work with the Foreign Service for decades -- both in Washington and overseas -- could lead him to dedicate a significant part of his time as secretary to improving the institution.
Although Clinton did a lot to bring the Foreign Service in the 21st century, American diplomacy has changed more dramatically in the last decade than the bureaucracy has been able to adapt. Proper training, sufficient resources and a fair, merit-based and transparent promotion system are just a few of the conditions U.S. diplomats need to address the ever-increasing demands on their profession in a complex and hostile world.