The Man Who Ruled Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III, a recent book by journalists Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, is not just great read. it couldn’t be more relevant or timely. The book shows a time – and a Washington – when political compromises and agreements between Republicans and Democrats were not only possible but also desirable. With that in mind, it also tells the story of a great Secretary of State who last presided, when the United States was respected, admired, and even feared in the world.
This world is gone. Whether it can come back – whether a Baker- or Henry Kissinger-like character will ever walk the corridors of Foggy Bottom – is unlikely. But the answer may not be important, or at least not as important as many people think. As President-elect Joe Biden and Antony Blinken, his election as Secretary of State, prepare to operate in the cruel and unforgiving world they will inherit, it is worth remembering what makes a great Secretary of State and why – paradoxically and coincidental – these challenging times may not require a baker or kisser to do great things. Instead, a chief diplomat talented and determined to help America regain its diplomatic groove can be all the country needs.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s miserable tenure has highlighted the gap between the best and the worst. Two state secretaries have been at the helm for the past half century. Three essential elements defined their excellence.
First, both Kissinger and Baker not only had the respect and trust of their presidents; Their bosses knew foreign policy and were able to steer and validate the strategy and respect themselves. Baker’s lifelong friendship with President George HW Bush was closer than any pairing in history. When one of us interviewed the late president in 2006, he made it clear that choosing Baker, whom he described as a “tough trader,” was like a “gimme” in golf – the right decision that was only taken for granted. Kissinger’s relationship with President Richard Nixon was more complex and competitive. But he gave Kissinger enormous authority; Indeed, after Watergate, particularly in the post-1973 Middle East shuttle diplomacy period, Kissinger effectively carried out U.S. foreign policy with Nixon’s blessing. This ensured that the United States was not viewed as weakened by the domestic scandal. It takes about five minutes for America’s allies and adversaries to find out if there is daylight between the president and the secretary of state – that is, if the secretary of state speaks significantly for the president. If there is any shimmer at all, you might as well hang a sign saying “Closed for the season” on Foggy Bottom.
Second, the nation’s top diplomat must have the mindset and skills of a negotiator. Kissinger and Baker saw how the pieces fit together and had an intuitive sense of how to flatter, convince, and flatter one another. They were both adept at understanding the positions of their negotiating partners and their political needs, weaknesses and the vital interests of their countries. It was equally important that the negotiations succeed once both sides were convinced they had won. Effective state secretaries cannot be ideologues whose view of a negotiation is “my way or something else”.
When Kissinger and Baker sensed that a deal was possible, their tenacity to pursue him became legendary. Baker made nine trips to put together the Madrid Peace Conference. Kissinger held shuttle talks for more than 30 days to finalize the 1974 Israeli-Syrian withdrawal agreement. They also understood when to leave, as Baker demonstrated when he slammed his notebook and threatened to leave in the middle of a meeting with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. or in 1975, when Kissinger threatened to reassess relations with Israel to persuade Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to come to an agreement.
Third, and there is no other way to put it, Kissinger and Baker got lucky too. No matter how impressive their diplomatic skills were, without a major crisis or opportunity they could not have succeeded. Let’s call it luck. Egypt’s attack on Israel in 1973 offered Kissinger his moment in the Middle East; The 1991 invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gave Bush and Baker the opportunity to organize the Madrid Summit to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East. The collapse of the former Soviet Union that same year facilitated Baker’s success in tackling German reunification without a crisis. The point, however, is when their moments came they knew how to seize the opportunity.
When we both worked in the State Department’s planning office for George P. Shultz, who is also a senior secretary of state, he often likened his role to “maintaining the diplomatic garden.” He used this metaphor to describe the tireless and sometimes ungrateful (or fruitless) efforts to forge productive relationships with overseas to advance U.S. interests. Like Kissinger and Baker, Shultz understood that effective diplomacy depends on building trust, building negotiating capital with foreign leaders, knowing when and how to use levers, and understanding how culture, history, geography, ideology and national narratives affect the Drive leaders’ ambitions.
As he prepares to join the Biden government, Blinken has to cultivate many gardens at once to get his first job: keeping the United States out of trouble abroad so that the new president will have all his time, energy, and political capital can focus on fixing America’s problems at home. For this overarching mission, the new foreign minister does not have to be a brilliant strategist or conceptualizer – or have the stature, gravity or charisma of a kissinger or a baker. It must be highly competent, understand the deliberation process, have experience of navigating Washington and the world, and reflect the president’s deep commitment to restoring America’s reputation abroad.
The good news on this front is that Blinken possesses many of these properties – and properties that its predecessor, Pompeo, lacked. He has a pragmatic and prudent attitude and good interpersonal and consensus building skills. These help him keep problems out of Biden’s plate and avoid the danger of handing over dictations to the other side and then refusing to negotiate and compromise when the other person understandably refuses to submit to your ultimatums. In other words, Blinken won’t be a “our way or the highway” negotiator like Pompeo was – and he’ll know when the perfect outcome shouldn’t be the enemy of one good enough.
For Blinken, however, it may be bad news that a tour of the horizon offers few opportunities for heroic diplomacy and transformational outcomes. The problems separating the United States from China and Russia are too ingrained to be resolved by quick resets or big bargains. They can only be managed through a framework, as scientist Robert Manning recently pointed out on these pages, to achieve “competitive coexistence” to avoid the worst results that would detract from Biden’s domestic priorities. Advances in global warming and pandemic response will require skillful diplomatic work, but former Secretary of State John Kerry, the new climate gazar, will own the climate change portfolio and other agencies will take the lead in improving international Play cooperation in global health. A quick breakthrough in US-North Korea relations is highly unlikely. At best, he can hope to begin the process of building mutual trust in order to lay a longer-term basis for arms control agreements and measures to improve security on the Korean peninsula.
So what’s left for blinking? The State Department has been eroded and morale has improved. As a former Deputy Secretary of State, he is the right person to begin the monumental task of rebuilding and reforming the institution. He has to be on the right track to fix diplomatic fences and he is bombarded with travel requests. But instead of taking a listening tour to show that “America is back,” he should focus his travels on key European and Asia Pacific relationships that need nurturing while delegating other overseas trips to subordinates. The new Secretary of State will almost certainly make considerable progress on the important goal of rebuilding and maintaining US alliance relations and restoring trust in the United States and its image abroad through measures such as the resumption of the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization and the Deepening ties are being taken with our NATO allies, Japan and South Korea.
Really consistent state secretaries naturally take responsibility for important foreign policy issues and improve them. Reaching a nuclear deal with Iran, while extremely complicated and politically charged, may offer one such opportunity: there is an existing framework that can form the basis for a new nuclear deal. The sanctions that the United States and others have imposed on Iran provide some negotiating leverage when there are further negotiations on other issues. And there will be a deep bank of experience and expertise that will help Blinken navigate the treacherous swarms of a multi-dimensional diplomatic and geopolitical chess game that is played out in delicate negotiations between government, Congress, European allies, China and Russia. and the United States’s Israeli, Saudi and Emirati partners.
The risks are quite high, but so are the chances: failure to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is the only problem that literally and figuratively blow up the government and inflict serious collateral damage on the president’s national agenda early on could be his tenure. Given the fate of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, trying to reach another is likely a bad deed that will not be punished. But what are great or good state secretaries for?