Next to guessing whom Mitt Romney will pick as his running mate, there’s no more delicious fruit on Washington’s tree of gossip than the identity of the next secretary of state. It remains a position of transcendent importance, especially in a new world where everyone seems to live and throw garbage in everyone else’s backyard. The prospects generally lack the public presence and star power of most Foggy Bottom occupants—Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, and Condi Rice, for example. And they certainly don’t rival Hillary Clinton, who is determined both to stay until January and not be a lame duck. Doubt not that she has the will, standing abroad, and popularity at home to walk from office with head high.
The contenders for both President Obama and Romney are basically inside professionals, very well known and respected by peers and foreign leaders. But they lack the stage presence of their immediate predecessors.
Obama’s list centers on John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice; and National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon. According to insiders, Obama is thinking Kerry would travel a lot and successfully, and interfere least with policymaking. Susan Rice’s blend of soft and hard line sits well in the Oval Office. Donilon is regarded as the wisest policy and political head.
The Republican contingent is somewhat elusive, because Romney’s attention has been on the primaries, and because his international experience mainly revolved around his key role in the 2002 Winter Olympics held in exotic Mormon Utah. In other words, he is not intimate with the foreign-policy crowd, even compared with Obama four years ago, who at least sat for two years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Almost certainly, however, Romney’s possibles include Robert Zoellick, the outgoing president of the World Bank; Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to George W. Bush; and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (an organization familiar to this author). All held senior jobs in recent Republican administrations.
Don’t count out two big surprises, neither identified with a political party: William Burns, the current deputy secretary of state; and Nicholas Burns, who held the No. 3 job at State under Condi Rice. Bill and Nick—both Irish, but unrelated—have impressive skills.
The competition for this storied position follows carefully established informal rules. It takes place in whispers, careful put-downs (larger ones might get back to the prospect), and considered maneuvers. It is said (notice the circumlocution) that Donilon suggested to Obama naming Susan Rice to replace Zoellick at the World Bank. It was a justifiable move, given America’s difficulties in holding onto the bank’s presidency. But it would also have removed Rice, perhaps Clinton’s likeliest successor at this point, from the race. Hadley is taking the route above party politics. He’s serving on Clinton’s policy advisory board and not attaching his name to partisan attacks on Obama. But his Republican credentials are so solid that he is widely regarded as Romney’s likeliest choice. John Kerry has adopted a low profile to avoid controversy.
For all the attention paid to who will be the next president’s face in foreign affairs, being secretary of state isn’t what it used to be. Frightening problems still flourish. There’s always the danger of being sucked into hellholes like Iran, Syria, and North Korea. The Middle East seems more explosive than ever. China now looms as the challenging superpower.
At seminal moments in American history, the secretary of state stepped forward to formulate the nation’s strategic path. The memorable strategists include George Marshall for President Truman, Henry Kissinger for Nixon, James Baker for George H.W. Bush. But for almost two decades now, policymaking power has been concentrated increasingly in the White House–under George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney and today very much in the controlling hands of Barack Obama. The secretaries do the diplomacy and the execution, but the policy is made in a very centralized manner in the Oval Office.
In fact, the American cognoscenti should be focusing much more on who will be the next treasury secretary than next secretary of state. In 21st-century international affairs, GDP counts more than military might in most situations. Clinton has been acutely aware of this and is endeavoring to frame a new foreign economic policy for her successor. Old habits, however, die hard, and the most influential lips in Washington still whisper about the next Hillary rather than the next Tim Geithner.