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Hillary Clinton’s overseas diplomacy versus other secretaries of state

at 06:00 AM ET, 01/09/2013


(Matt Rourke/AP)

“Mrs. Clinton holds the record for the most countries visited by a secretary of state, 112, though her total of 956,733 air miles will fall short of the 1.06 million logged by her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice.”

— New York Times, Jan. 4, 2013

The New York Times came up with a nifty phrase earlier this week in an article about Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health — that she is the “most widely traveled” secretary of state. That refers to the fact that she has visited more countries than any previous secretary of state.

The Fact Checker is as guilty as anyone in using travel as a metric for grading a secretary of state, having written an article as The Post’s diplomatic correspondent that negatively assessed Colin L. Powell’s travel record as secretary of state, based on records maintained by the State Department historian’s office.

Counting countries is another way to do it, though it might also suggest the secretary lacks a clear focus or agenda. The records show that most other secretaries racked up the miles while trying to achieve peace in the Middle East. Clinton earned her country points by hitting all three Baltic states, lots of ‘stans, much of the former Yugoslavia and countries not visited by a secretary of state in more than five decades (Laos) or ever (Togo).

But Clinton made only five visits to Israel — the least of any full-term secretary of state since William Rogers, who served in the Nixon administration. By contrast, Condoleezza Rice visited Israel 25 times, Warren Christopher 34 times and Henry A. Kissinger 36 times.

Now that the State Department has announced that Clinton will no longer travel during her tenure, we thought it would be worth updating the statistics to see where she ranks in terms of what we call “days on the road” — in other words, conducting actual diplomacy and meeting with foreign officials overseas.

Under this method, we ignore the often-useless hours (or days) spent in the air flying to far-flung locations. It is the only fair way to compare different secretaries of state, given the way the records are kept and differences in aircraft.

Total air miles, for instance, is only shown for Rice and Clinton on the State Department Web site; the State Department stopped listing air miles for Powell midway through his tenure, and it does not show such figures for other secretaries.

The State Department historian’s office, however, does list every meeting held with a foreign official overseas, and so that is a useful gauge for comparing different secretaries over time.

We present the following list with some caveats, as we noticed some errors in the records based on our experience in covering the State Department for nine years. During the Powell years, for instance, the State Department appeared to count a day as part of diplomatic travel if Powell briefed reporters on his plane, even if he did not meet with foreign officials. Where possible, we tried to adjust the data for such mistakes, but we have no idea what errors might lurk in earlier years. (We also did not count vacation travel, which is listed for some secretaries.)

In double-checking the records, there was one surprise — the most traveled secretary of state turns out to be George P. Shultz, largely because he served for more than six years.

Condoleezza Rice certainly wins the prize for a four-year term, but Kissinger (who served for only 39 months) probably would have bested everyone if he had just been able to serve for full 48 months. Shultz also benefited from the fact that Ronald Reagan traveled at a rather leisurely pace, allowing him to rack up the days when he accompanied the president on his overseas travel.

The following list only includes secretaries of state who served more than three years. Two, Kissinger and Cyrus Vance, served less than a full term and Shultz served for longer than a full term. (Baker served slightly less than four years.)

Secretary of state travel (engaged in diplomacy overseas)

George P. Shultz**: 357 days

Condoleezza Rice: 326 days

Henry Kissinger* : 313 days

Madeleine Albright: 310 days

Hillary Rodham Clinton: 306 days

James A. Baker: 283 days

Warren Christopher: 270 days

Colin L. Powell: 220 days

Cyrus Vance* 186 days

*less than a four-year term

**more than a four-year term

Clinton, of course, might have done better in the rankings if she had not broken her elbow in 2009, which kept her from traveling for a few weeks, or suffered a concussion recently. Still, cracking into the 300-day club ought to count for something.

Addendum: other fun facts from our research.

Longest trip: Henry Kissinger, 30 days. April 28-May 29, 1974. He started in Switzerland, with a meeting with the Soviet foreign minister, and then bounced between Egypt, Israel, Syria and Jordan in shuttle negotiations in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War.

Runner-up, longest trip: James A. Baker, 21 days, July 15-Aug. 5, 1991. In an effort to build support for a Middle East peace conference, he traveled to London, Damascus, Cairo, Alexandria, Jiddah, Amman, Jerusalem, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), Moscow, Jerusalem, Amman, Rabat, Tunis and Algiers.

Most trips in a year: Condoleezza Rice, 29 trips, 116 days on the road, in 2008. Eleven of these trips were focused on the Middle East, as she unsuccessfully struggled to reach a peace deal in her final year as secretary.

Runners-up, most annual trips: Other recent secretaries, such as Clinton and Albright had more than 20 trips a year. It is striking how diplomatic trips used to be much longer, and apparently more leisurely, in contrast to the rapid-fire trips of today’s diplomats.

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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