Handicapping the race to become the next top diplomat of the United States

Regardless of whether U.S. president Barack Obama or former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney wins next Tuesday’s presidential election, the United States — and the world — will nonetheless be preparing for new leadership at Foggy Bottom. 

Although Suffragio focuses on the politics of countries outside the United States, the U.S. secretary of state is the chief U.S. diplomat and historically — from George Marshall to Dean Acheson to Henry Kissinger to Madeleine Albright to Condoleezza Rice — the secretary of state has played a major role in setting U.S. foreign policy.  As such, the decision will have an immeasurable effect on U.S. foreign policy and, accordingly, world politics.

Obama’s current secretary of state, former New York senator Hillary Clinton, a former presidential candidate and wife of former U.S. president Bill Clinton, has said she will step down after four years, even if Obama wins reelection (perhaps in advance of another presidential campaign in 2016), though there’s an unlikely chance she’ll remain at State for a few months longer due to the recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

In those four years, the United States withdrew troops from Iraq, set a timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, has engaged an ever-more-powerful China, and adjusted to rapidly changing conditions in the Middle East after the ‘Arab Spring’ tumult, including assisting in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

U.S. senator John Kerry (pictured above, middle) and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice (pictured above, top) are routinely thought to be the top two choices in a second Obama term.  Former World Bank president Robert Zoellick (pictured above, bottom) is likewise the favorite in a Romney administration.  In some ways, Romney will have a broader choice — whether to signal in his secretary of state a more establishment, realist, moderate Republican foreign policy or a more hawkish neoconservative foreign policy.

So who’s likely to get the job under either Obama or Romney?  And more importantly, how would each potential candidate guide foreign policy?

Massachusetts senator John Kerry (pictured above, top).  Kerry, the Democratic party’s nominee in the 2004 presidential election against George W. Bush, is currently viewed as a favorite in a second Obama term.  Despite coming within 120,000 votes of winning the presidency in 2004, Kerry’s reputation as a politician is less than stellar — his 2008 presidential hopes were dashed with some inartful remarks in 2006 to some students that if they didn’t study, they would ‘get stuck in Iraq.’

Kerry has served since 2009 as the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, but throughout his career, he’s been at the center of U.S. foreign affairs. He served in Vietnam, but came home to become one of the most effective voices against the U.S. war in southeast Asia; later, as a senator in the 1990s, he worked with Republican senator John McCain to normalize U.S. relations with Vietnam.  As a young senator in the 1980s, he played a pivotal role in exposing the ‘Iran Contra’ scandal (during which the Reagan administration sold arms to Iran in order to finance clandestine aid to the anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua), and he’s been one of the Obama administration’s most effective envoys, in particular to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Despite a fateful vote in 2003 in favor of military intervention in Iraq, Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign was largely based on criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq and the potentially misleading information about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction that led the United States into the Iraq War.  Interestingly, Kerry was among a minority of senators to vote against the first Bush administration’s 1991 intervention in Iraq to liberate Kuwait.

Nonetheless, Kerry’s mainstream center-left viewpoint would mesh well with the Obama administration’s relatively hawkish foreign policy (hawkish, at least, for a presidency that began as an antiwar candidacy).  Kerry’s very interested in the position by all accounts, and he would bring the kind of gravitas that his predecessor also brought to the State Department.  One wrinkle relates to domestic politics — his appointment would necessitate a special election to fill his seat.  If Republican senator Scott Brown, who’s in a tough fight for reelection this Tuesday, loses to Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren, Brown would likely be the favorite to win any special election.  Moreover, if the Democrats hold the Senate by just one or two seats, it may make more strategic sense, as a political matter, for Kerry to remain in the Senate.  But Obama’s made a similar tough decision before — he drafted Arizona governor Janet Napolitano as secretary of homeland security in 2009, notwithstanding the elevation of Republican Jan Brewer as Arizona’s governor, where she’s been a thorn in the Obama administration’s side ever since.

UN ambassador Susan Rice (pictured above, middle).  Rice (no relation to George W. Bush’s secretary of state,  Condoleezza Rice) has long been, along with Kerry, one of the two frontrunners to succeed Clinton.  Rice served in the (Bill) Clinton administration in the 1990s, focusing on peacekeeping and African affairs, ultimately becoming Assistant Secretary for African Affairs under Albright from 1997 to 2001.

Rice joined the Obama campaign as a top policy advisor and has served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations since 2009.  Recently, she’s met considerable criticism over the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that resulted in four deaths, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens. Republicans and others have accused Rice and the Obama administration more generally of covering up the fact that the attack was a premeditated terrorist attack, not a spontaneous demonstration gone awry.  Fair or not, that criticism may make it hard for Rice’s appointment to be confirmed by the Senate.  Kerry himself publicly defended Rice, although it may have been a sneaky way of keeping Rice’s troubles in the news and edging Kerry’s chances higher.

Despite her considerable experience, Rice would probably be the least well-known secretary of state since Warren Christopher in the first term of the Clinton administration.  Rice would be perhaps even less dovish than Kerry — she is an Albright protegé, and Albright certainly had no qualms with intervening in the Balkans on behalf of Kosovo.  Rice herself strongly favored intervention in Libya, and she’s said that the U.S. failure (partly on her watch) in 1994 to intervene to save Rwandan lives during that country’s genocide has informed her subsequent policy decisions, including in Libya.

National security advisor Thomas Donilon. Donilon has served as national security advisor since 2010, when he replaced retired general James Jones.  Previously, Donilon served as assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the first term of the Clinton administration, where he worked on the 1995 Dayton peace accords with respect to Bosnia and Herzegovina and NATO expansion.  Donilon is very close to vice president Joseph Biden — himself a former chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations — and Chicago mayor and former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.  Increasingly, Donilon has taken a key role in diplomatic matters this year with Obama focused on reelection.

He’s still less well-known than Rice, and he’s known to have less than stellar relations with top military brass.  Furthermore, he’s under suspicion of leaking security information to the press and his ties to Fannie Mae (where he worked for six years) would make his Senate confirmation tricky.  Nonetheless, Donilon’s background as a political tactician makes him something like a Democratic version of James Baker lite, and Donilon would likely bring the canniest political acumen of the three most discussed contenders.

Notably, current treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, too, has said he will not likely stay on for a second Obama term.  Jacob Lew, chief of staff and former Clinton and Obama administration budget director, seems likely to succeed him, and it’s expected that no matter who Obama would appoint to succeed Clinton, the West Wing and the Treasury will continue to have the more dominant role in formulating policy on global economic issues.

Former World Bank president Robert Zoellick (pictured above, bottom).  Zoellick seems certain to star as a central figure in a potential Romney administration, but it’s not quite sure whether Romney would tap Zoellick as his treasury secretary or his secretary of state, although he’s seen as by far the most likely choice for State.  But at either Treasury or State, however, Zoellick would certainly be the chief voice on international economics in the Romney administration and a Zoellick-led State department could well become an anchor of power in a Romney administration.

Zoellick’s resume is impressive — he started his career as an assistant to Baker, back when Baker was Ronald Reagan’s treasury secretary, then moved to State with Baker during the first Bush administration.  Under George W. Bush, Zoellick served as U.S. trade representative from 2001 to 2005, where he worked on bringing China into the World Trade Organization and helped negotiate free trade agreements in Jordan, Central America and elsewhere.  He served as deputy secretary of state from 2005 to 2006, where he was the Bush administration’s key policymaker on China and a troubleshooter on the Darfur crisis in Sudan, until his appointment to the World Bank.  Since his tenure at the World Bank ended earlier this year, Zoellick’s been a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Fun fact for potential European Union summits: Zoellick’s fluent in German.

During the 1990s, he was an executive vice president at Fannie Mae and also served as an adviser to Goldman Sachs, which could make Senate confirmation problematic.  Still, Democrats might well be relieved to see the relative moderate Zoellick at State, rather than strident neoconservative, so I doubt he would much trouble getting confirmed, regardless of which party controls the Senate.

Zoellick is somewhat of a throwback to the realist tradition that Baker exemplified, in contrast to the more activist/interventionist neoconservatism of the second Bush administration.  In fact, the more stridently right-wing elements of the Republican Party objected when Romney named Zoellick to head his national security transition team earlier this year.  In particular, neoconservatives have objected to Zoellick’s moderate stance on China — as deputy secretary, he coined the notion of China as a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in maintaining global security.

Former national security advisor Stephen Hadley.  If Zoellick does end up at Treasury, Hadley could well become a very complimentary choice for State.

As a former aide to Paul Wolfowitz at Defense under the first Bush administration, Hadley has somewhat more credibility with neoconservatives than Zoellick.  In the second Bush administration, Hadley worked very closely with Condoleezza Rice, first as deputy national security advisor, then as the national security advisor.

The obvious drawback is that he’s so closely associated with the Iraq war — even more so than Zoellick — which could make life as a diplomat tricky.


Deputy secretary of state William Burns. Although he’s currently Clinton’s deputy at State, Burns is a career diplomat with a sparkling background that’s set in bits and corners around the globe.  He’s fluent in Arabic, Russian and French, and has written a book on U.S. policy toward Egypt; he worked on Near East and South Asian affairs on the National Security Council Staff, served as ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 to 2005, and as ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008.  Burns’s selection would signal a monkish, professional diplomatic choice for Romney (or, perhaps, even Obama) — indeed, it would mark just the second time that a career diplomat has served as secretary of state, following Lawrence Eagleburger, who served from 1992 to 1993.

For further reading, his State department cable, ‘A Caucasus Wedding’, about a Dagestani wedding party, leaked last year by Wikileaks, is truly epic.

Former under secretary of state Nicholas Burns. The other Burns (no relation) is also a bit of a career diplomat — he started off as a Russian advisor in both the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration, then served as ambassador to Greece from 1997 to 2001.

In the second Bush administration, he served in Bush’s first term as the permanent representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and in the second term as under secretary of state for political affairs.  Like the other Burns, this Burns would also be a very moderate choice for a Republican administration.

Former UN ambassador John Negroponte.  Negroponte is a bit of a dark horse, and I’m surprised he’s not mentioned more often for State, as he’s played increasingly senior foreign policy roles in each of the last three Republican administrations.  In Reagan’s first term, he was ambassador to Honduras — at a time when U.S. policy in Central America topped the White House agenda, however controversially.  In Reagan’s second term, her served as an assistant secretary of state for environmental issues and as deputy assistant for national security affairs, where he helped plan what would become the Bush administration’s eventual overthrow of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega.  He was ambassador to Mexico from 1989 to 1993 (during much of the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations) and ambassador to the Philippines from 1993 to 1996.

During the second Bush administration, he returned as a bit of a fixer — he served as ambassador to the UN from 2001 to 2004, then as ambassador to Iraq from 2004 to 2005, as the first director of national intelligence from 2005 to 2007, and finally, as deputy secretary of state from 2007 to 2009.

In short, if Romney’s looking for a career Republican diplomat who’s very much in favor with the neoconservative crowd without terrifying the foreign policy establishment, and who (literally) knows where all the bodies are buried, Negroponte would be a strong choice.

Former UN ambassador John Bolton.  I mention Bolton only to note that there’s zero chance a Romney administration would nominate Bolton for State — or likely for any role.  The Romney campaign was allegedly ‘wigged out’ by Bolton’s attempts to indicate he was a Romney surrogate earlier this year.  Although Bolton’s long been a favorite of the neoconservative ranks, he’s the exact opposite of Zoellick and would be a diplomatic nightmare, and I’m sure Senate Democrats would filibuster his nomination anyway.

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman.  On the surface, it might seem that Huntsman would be a natural star at State.  He was a popular governor of Utah before the Obama administration tapped him to serve as its ambassador to China.  A former ambassador to Singapore, Huntsman is fluent in Mandarin, and strikes a better balance than anyone in U.S. policymaking with reasoned criticism of things like China’s human rights record, while also having a cooperative attitude about working with a country that will soon have the world’s largest economy.  Like Romney — and like former Utah governor and former Environmental Protection Agency director Mike Leavitt, who is leading Romney’s transition team and would likely be Romney’s chief of staff, Huntsman is a Mormon.  But Huntsman’s widely panned presidential bid probably did him more harm than good, he’s widely seen as too moderate and outside the mainstream of current Republican policy views, and he’s seen as having frosty relations with Romney.  For his part, Huntsman, a Romney supporter, has not always been the most enthusiastic surrogate.

Retiring Indiana senator Richard Lugar. This is a bit of a wild horse, but could conceivably be a future secretary of state in either an Obama or Romney administration.  Defeated in his Senate primary election by the more conservative Richard Mourdock earlier this year, Lugar will leave the Senate after having represented Indiana there since 1977.  The current ranking member on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he served as its chairman from 1985 to 1987 and from 2003 to 2007.

Long heralded as a senior statesman, Lugar’s chief accomplishments include a law aimed at deactivating nuclear weapons and limiting the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, co-sponsored with then-senator Obama. Lugar has long been a champion of narrowing nuclear proliferation.  He’s one of the few U.S. politicians to oppose sanctions on Cuba, and he was a vocal critic of the Bush administration’s military action in Iraq in 2007 as that country descended further into destabilizing sectarian violence.

At age 80, however, I’m not sure Lugar would be up for the grueling travel schedule that the job would demand.  But it would certainly be a statement of bipartisan and moderate diplomacy for either Obama or Romney.

4 thoughts on “Handicapping the race to become the next top diplomat of the United States”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *