The foreign-policy Christmas gift of the year may have been given by the president of the United States and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the new nominee for Clinton's job, Sen. John Kerry. The gift is not, however, Secretary Clinton's seventh-floor office at State Department headquarters in Foggy Bottom. It is instead related to what could actually someday be seen as the administration's most important international affairs legacy and Clinton's greatest contribution as secretary of state: the restoration of diplomacy to its proper place in U.S. international policy.
Over the past two decades, the role of the State Department has diminished. In part, this is because the White House has assumed a more central role in making policy. In part, this is because in a one-superpower world, we stopped thinking we needed to ask permission or gain support to take action internationally. In part, this is because of the elevation of the defense and intelligence communities in the so-called War on Terror. And in part, it is because the role of ambassadors and embassies has been marginalized due to new communications technologies and the ability (and inclination) of world leaders to go around lower-level functionaries at State and right to their bosses.
But a number of factors have produced what might be seen as a surprising reversal. Why surprising? Because the changes have come during an administration in which the White House has actively controlled policy formation (so give the president and his advisors credit for recognizing the need for the renaissance of diplomacy), while the technological trends mentioned above have only continued to reduce the role played by most ambassadors.
First, the president came into office with an openness to engagement that set the stage. Say what you will about Obama: He has at least resisted the unconstructive view that speaking to our enemies was a sign of weakness. Next, America's domestic economic problems, our wounds from Iraq and Afghanistan, and our consequent reluctance to get involved in major military operations overseas and the rise of other powers has made it increasingly important to be able to assemble coalitions to get anything done.
It was Clinton who played the vital role of seizing the moment and effectively putting diplomacy in action. Whether it was fashioning a next-generation coalition around the intervention in Libya, working to bring pressure on Iran with unprecedented sanctions, helping herd the cats of the international community into some action in Syria, the vital bilateral and multilateral groundwork that made the "pivot" to Asia a reality, or the renewed efforts to work effectively through the U.N. or other multilateral mechanisms, active diplomacy only grew more important over the past four years. Some of these efforts were clearly more effective than others. Some efforts -- like those to advance climate negotiations or the reset with Russia or efforts to stop the slaughter of Syrian innocents -- were frustratingly ineffective. Some -- like the embrace of emerging powers, raising the profile of groups like the Arctic Council, or the effort to negotiate a stop to Iran's nuclear program -- are clearly works in progress. But with troops being pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan and no public appetite for future comparable interventions, it is clear that the during the next four years, America's foreign policy will turn more centrally on the effectiveness of the diplomacy Kerry leads than perhaps any comparable period since the end of the Cold War.