One of the first major tasks performed on becoming secretary of state was managing Washington’s “reset” with Moscow. In March 2009, at a meeting in Zurich with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, she had the idea of symbolising the moment with a gift: a red plastic button set in a yellow box the two diplomats could press together.
Hillary Clinton speech to attack Donald Trump's 'dangerous' foreign policy plans
The button was meant to be labelled with the Russian word for “reset”, but the state department did not get the translation quite right. The Russian word they chose, , actually meant “overcharged”.
Lavrov was quick to point out the error. “You got it wrong,” he told her bluntly, relishing the Americans’ embarrassment.
The pictures of Clinton and Lavrov holding a mislabelled toy button have since been used by the administration’s critics to illustrate its alleged naivety in trying to cuddle up to the Russian bear.
Over the course of the US presidential election campaign, Donald Trump has repeatedly pointed to the handling of the Russian relationship as an example of Clinton’s missteps in office. Unable to deny her wealth of foreign policy experience, Trump has instead sought to denigrate it as “bad experience”.
Clinton has argued that her tireless globetrotting in her four years as secretary of state rescued the US from the diplomatic pit the country had dug for itself with the Iraq invasion and the unilateral spirit of the George W Bush administration.
Her years as secretary of state do not provide a transparent guide to how a President Hillary Clinton would act – the presidency is a very different job, with much greater powers and burdens.
Interviews with former aides, senior officials and her foreign counterparts paint a complex picture of Clinton the diplomat that defies easy categorisation as “hawk” or “dove”.
But Clinton’s distinctive way of mixing soft and hard US power, her awareness of her nation’s exceptional might and her instincts for how and when to use it are likely to follow her to the Oval Office.
The story of the toy button has several layers. Though it fell to Clinton to make the gesture, she was among the most sceptical in Barack Obama’s administration over the prospects for a rapprochement with Russia.
“Everything we did to reach out to the Russians, she would make sure that we were bolstering relations with Poland and strengthening Nato and not overlooking human rights,” said Philip Gordon, who was Clinton’s undersecretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. “People forget that the reset had those two halves and she was really the guardian of the latter half.”
Her role has certainly not been forgotten by Moscow. Under Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has not hidden its preference for Donald Trump, and has sought – through cyber-attacks and leaks aimed at embarrassing the Democratic party – to help his campaign.
As Trump has faltered, Russia has hurried to use the remaining months of the Obama administration to achieve its military aims in Syria. , leaving an incoming president little or nothing to defend, and paltry options in the rest of Syria.
There is much in Clinton’s record as secretary of state to suggest Putin has reason to hurry. When it came to some of the most critical foreign policy decisions made during her four years at Foggy Bottom, Clinton was consistently on the more hawkish side of the argument, frequently taking a more forceful line than her president.
In , she helped convince a reluctant Obama to take part in a military intervention being championed by European and Arab states. On Iran, she had ridiculed him during the primary campaign for saying he would meet the Islamic Republic’s leader unconditionally. It was “reckless and naive”, she had said.
Once she arrived at the state department, she took the lead in building a high wall of sanctions around Tehran, playing “bad cop” to the outstretched hand of Obama’s “good cop”.
And towards the end of her time as secretary of state, as the Syrian civil war grew ever more horrific, Clinton advocated a robust train-and-equip policy in support of the armed opposition, although she eventually lost that argument with the White House.
Those instincts were on clear display when it came to the biggest foreign and security dilemma facing the Obama administration in its first year in office: what to do about the US entanglement in .
In 2009, the defence secretary, Robert Gates, and the US generals were calling for a surge in troop levels aimed at pushing the Taliban back and stabilising the security situation before the government of President Hamid Karzai could be left to stand on its own.
Ranged against them were the vice-president, Joseph Biden, and Obama’s inner circle, who doubted the value of yet more deployments, arguing for a much smaller military presence to conduct counter-terrorist operations against al-Qaida, rather than counter-insurgency against the Taliban. Clinton sided with the generals.
“Clearly she had very good relations with Secretary Gates and the senior military leadership at the time and so was inclined to support their arguments,” said Derek Chollet, who served as principal deputy director of Clinton’s policy planning staff.
Clinton had appointed a veteran diplomat and one of her most fervent supporters, Richard Holbrooke, as her envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He had a memorably acerbic, hard-charging manner but on this argument he was a dove, dubious of the generals’ faith in quick military fixes. Clinton stayed personally loyal to Holbrooke – but she did not follow his advice.
“The American military and the White House campaigned to get Holbrooke fired,” a former western diplomat said. “On two occasions she saved Holbrooke, but she didn’t back him much beyond that, and in particular she backed the American military against Holbrooke’s advice. She was consistently hawkish.”
On Holbrooke’s advice, she helped persuade Congress to be more generous to Pakistan, in a bid to placate its fears of being abandoned and so hopefully moderate its support of the Taliban.
But in the midst of that effort, when US and Pakistani military leaders were on the brink of carrying out major joint counter-insurgency operations, disaster struck. In November 2011, US gunships mistakenly opened fire on a Pakistani border post, killing 24 Pakistani soldiers and plunging bilateral relations into crisis.
and, with the US military determined not to admit a mistake, Washington refused to publicly apologise.
Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s foreign minister at the time, credits Clinton with slowly persuading the US government to compromise after Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, arranged an informal meeting in the foyer of an Istanbul hotel where all three women were attending an international conference.
“The two governments had completely stopped talking to each other,” Khar recalls. “The US was just showing this arrogance in dealing with countries that are less powerful.”
Khar had only ever dealt with Clinton in formal meetings where the two sides would read their prepared talking points to each other. But in Istanbul both women spoke frankly for more than 20 minutes.
“I told her that the US stance was just throwing us to the extremists, whose voices were only growing,” Khar recalled. The exchange would eventually help persuade Clinton to acknowledge the US error publicly – and .
“After that I was convinced she had wisdom that was missing in many parts of the world, where there is too much bravado,” Khar said. “She could step back from the US position because she understood the long-term repercussions. She had a much more realistic perspective.”
David Miliband, who as UK foreign secretary overlapped with Clinton for her first 16 months at secretary of state, called her “the best listener in politics” and argued that her mix of personal skills and beliefs defy easy categorisation.
“I don’t think ‘hawk’ does justice to her world view,” said Miliband, now president of the International Rescue Committee. “The fact that she is willing to use force – and sees the value of the threat of using force – doesn’t make it the only tool in her kitbag.”
“In fact, I would say she has a lot of commitment to diplomacy and development, lubricated by personal relationships, which are sometimes called dovish – which shows that the hawk versus dove is not a very satisfactory set of boxes to put people in,” Miliband said.
Clinton’s faith in the power of personal diplomacy is demonstrated by the nearly one million miles she travelled while secretary of state, to a total of 112 countries. John Kerry recently surpassed her mileage, but has not so far broken Clinton’s record for countries visited. That, her supporters say, is testament to her commitment to addressing diplomatic challenges that do not regularly make the front pages.
She spent a great deal of effort in the autumn of 2009 trying to help heal one of the deepest wounds in the Caucasus: the historic rift between Turkey and Armenia, which had not had diplomatic relations since Armenian independence in 1991.
After a year of talks, both sides had settled on an accord designed to normalise relations and open their shared border. On 10 October, with prodding from Clinton, the two countries’ foreign ministers, Ahmet Davutoglu and Eduard Nalbandian, flew to Zurich to sign the document.
Lavrov, his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, and the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and other dignitaries from around Europe were gathered at Zurich University to witness the event. But at the last minute, Nalbandian balked.
The Armenian foreign minister had heard that Davutoglu was going to lard his speech with a distinctly Turkish spin on the two nations’ painful history.
He went to consult Clinton and she sought to repair the rift from the back seat of her official black BMW, calling Davutoglu and Nalbandian alternately. For three hours neither foreign minister budged.
Back at the university hall, the other foreign ministers had taken to watching football on television. Lavrov threatened to walk out.
In the end, Clinton clinched a deal by which neither Davutoglu nor Nalbandian would deliver remarks, leaving Clinton to do the talking. Nalbandian still seemed nervous, so to ensure he did not try to bolt the Americans drove to the venue with him wedged between Clinton and her undersecretary, Gordon.
Despite all preparation and the frantic effort in Zurich, the accord was never ratified by either country as Turkish-Armenian relations were once again soured by conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. But for Gordon, the episode demonstrated Clinton’s strategic patience.
“The illustrative point is: even though this was a long and complicated trip and she had gone the extra mile to be there, she didn’t get mad. She didn’t blame her staff. She didn’t blame the parties. She rolled up her sleeves and said: all right, how can we fix this?” he said.
Over four years at the vast state department headquarters in Washington, Clinton won the loyalty of her staff by the same attention to detail. She ordered showers installed, for example, after a chance encounter with a young female diplomat who cycled to work each day.
“It would have been completely easier for her to say forget it. It’s too far beneath me,” a former state department legal adviser, Harold Koh,said. “But she checked in on it and made sure it happened.”
Clinton left the state department in January 2013 as the most popular member of the administration, though without any dramatic achievements to her name. The chronic foreign policy problems remained unsolved and unchanged.
“She did an extraordinarily good job of making the world like America again,” a former senior European diplomat said. “She was sky high in terms of popularity and air miles, but we all knew at the time that the tricky policy issues were still there. When Kerry came charging in, trying to settle all these issues, it was a reminder that she had rather stayed above the fray.”
Clinton’s supporters say that is an unfair assessment. Kerry’s signature achievement, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, benefited from good timing. Any such agreement would have been impossible until the reformist Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, came to office in June 2013 – five months after Clinton had left.
With the new international crises thrown up by the upheaval in the Arab world, Clinton was very much in the fray, though the question of whether she took the right approach in dealing with them – and in particular the chronic foreign policy dilemma of whether and when to conduct humanitarian interventions – is still fiercely debated.
In Libya, Clinton’s decision to back military intervention was largely influenced by her meetings with opposition figures, and European leaders, and she only made up her mind after meeting G8 and Arab League ministers, as well as Libyan opposition leaders, in Paris in March 2011.
“It was awkward for the United States to go to this G8 meeting. Usually the US speaks first but we didn’t have a policy from the White House yet and she had been in listening mode, listening to the French, the Italians and Brits, saying we have to act and … that I think that had an impact on her and led her to support action,” Gordon said.
At the UN, Clinton and the US permanent representative, Susan Rice, were able to secure a Russian abstention to a UN security council resolution that allowed “all necessary measures” to protect civilians from their own leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
The population in question in the spring of 2011 were the civilians in rebel-held Benghazi, threatened with extermination by Gaddafi. Led by France, coalition aircraft struck Libyan government columns as they approached the eastern city. The problem then was when to stop bombing in a situation where a government offensive arguably represented a potential threat to civilians.
“It was about protecting civilians and looking for a solution but over time as that solution didn’t materialise, it was kind of clear where this was going to end,” Gordon said.
According to former aides, Clinton herself described the Libyan intervention as a limited humanitarian action in the first few weeks, and only changed her use of vocabulary as the conflict entered a stalemate in the early summer of 2011.
To some in the administration, however, it seemed self-evident from the start that the logic of defending civilians would ultimately draw the US and its allies into an ever deeper conflict that could only end with Gaddafi’s removal.
The idea of it being a limited humanitarian operation was a genuine one but it was a naive one,” Jeremy Shapiro, who served as an adviser on north Africa and the Levant on Clinton’s policy planning staff.
“The idea that you are going to intervene in a civil war to save a bunch of people and then walk away whilethe civil war goes on and while a genocidal mass murderer still has the upper hand in armaments seems untenable. We tried that once before in walking away from Iraq after the first Gulf war and it was a disaster politically and operationally.”
With the fall of Tripoli and then the death of Gaddafi in October 2011, American, British and French leaders were initially hailed as liberators. It was only when the precarious post-revolutionary peace imploded into factional strife – culminating in the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in September 2012 – that the conventional wisdom in Washington on the intervention changed from triumph to disaster.
Clinton came under sustained attack in Congress for the failure to provide adequate security for her diplomats, but broader questions were raised as well about the intervention as a whole and the handling of its aftermath.
Former aides deny that her attention drifted elsewhere, saying that new authorities in Libya either spurned offers of help or were not sufficiently organised to take advantage of them. Some have also argued that Libya’s chaos should be measured against the humanitarian catastrophe of , in which the US opted not to play a significant part militarily. The death toll, estimated to be approaching half a million, reflects the costs of non-intervention.
In her last year at the state department, Clinton developed a plan with the then CIA director, David Petraeus, to arm Syrian rebels, as a means of holding both the Assad regime and the jihadists at bay. The scheme was initially rebuffed by the White House but then taken up after she left on a very small scale.
Clinton supporters argue that if the administration had taken her suggested route, a vacuum would not have been created on the opposition side, into which Gulf-funded extremists have poured in. The vacuum left by the absence of US leadership, they say, has also allowed Russia to intervene on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s regime with murderous consequences.
“There were many of us who early on thought we should have done more than we did on train-and-equip,” said Wendy Sherman, who was Clinton’s undersecretary of state for political affairs. “That said, I understand the president’s reluctance, not least because the American people were reluctant but because it is a slippery slope, and you don’t know where it will lead. I understand why the decisions were so hard. I think we had a moment some years ago where it might have made a substantial difference.”
The no-fly zone Clinton has advocated in her presidential campaign as a means of saving civilian lives, is widely seen as unfeasible given the heavy Russian air presence and the high likelihood that it would lead to head-on US-Russian confrontation. The time for a no-fly zone was while Clinton was at the state department, her critics say.
Some of her former officials say they could not recall the option being seriously discussed, but Sherman insists it was properly considered.
“It was absolutely seriously discussed,” she said.
Even if the “hawk” epithet does not do justice to Clinton’s worldview, her record as secretary of state leaves little doubt that if elected, she will be more at ease in deploying US military might than her predecessor.
But in the nearly four years since she left the state department, the world has changed rapidly, and arguably not in US interests. Broadly speaking, US allies have grown weaker and its enemies stronger. Those adversaries are now acting with some haste to make sure that, by the time she does arrive in the Oval Office, her room for manoeuvre has shrunk further still.
- This article was amended on 24 October 2016. Because of an editing error, a misplaced quote of Wendy Sherman’s made it unclear what Hillary Clinton’s undersecretary of state for political affairs said might have made a “substantial difference” in Syria. She was speaking about train-and-equip, not a no-fly zone.