In trying to explain the role of a secretary of state, George Shultz likens it to the more mundane occupation of gardening. Shultz, who served as Ronald Reagan's top diplomat, says the job entails working every day to keep our alliances healthy, pulling the weeds before they rage out of control, and combating the dangerous pests that want to steal or destroy the fruit. The gardening analogy captures much of what U.S. foreign policy actually is -- the pursuit of America's interests abroad through the constant nurturing of a complex array of actors, interests and goals. Every secretary of state in memory, in his or her own way, has tried to stick to it.
Shultz's former Stanford University colleague and pupil, current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, wants to try something different. What's striking about her first three months in office is that she has articulated a role for herself and her department that goes far beyond the mere maintenance of diplomacy. She wants State to lead the reshaping of America's role in the world. She describes this as "transformational diplomacy," not just accepting the world as it is, but trying to change it. Rice's ambition is not just to be a gardener -- she wants to be a landscape architect.
Judged by her first months in office, Rice just might succeed. She has received a surprisingly warm welcome from the State Department professionals who were sad to see Colin Powell go and were fearful about what might come next. She has surrounded herself with a team of skilled bureaucratic players, including one of President Bush's closest advisers, Karen Hughes. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have praised her choices for key diplomatic posts. Inside the bureaucracy, excitement has shifted away from the White House and Defense Department and toward the State Department; after four years of beleaguered isolation, State's now a place where people want to go because that's where they believe the action is. And on Rice's recent whirlwind trips through Europe and Asia, she got rave reviews for her diplomatic skill -- as well as her fashion sense -- from some very tough audiences.
Part of her early success can be attributed to the usual honeymoon that every secretary of state enjoys -- especially those who had some degree of celebrity before moving to Foggy Bottom. Powell also rode into office on a tremendous wave of attention, excitement and glowing press. But as soon as he tried to assert himself, he proved out of step with his president and ineffective at fighting internal struggles. By this point four years ago, Powell's honeymoon had been shattered, as he found himself in public disagreement with Bush about whether the United States should engage North Korea in talks. (He favored doing so; Bush did not.) In many ways, he never recovered, leaving a legacy of dashed expectations.
Rice possesses one key asset that should prevent her from suffering the same fate. Like Powell, she has a powerful personal story and is a compelling and charming communicator with a politician's touch with people -- skills that lead some to ponder whether she might run for office, even the presidency, in the future. Unlike Powell, she's been at Bush's side from the time he decided to run for president through his first term as he formulated his approach toward the world and its problems.
Rice's tremendous loyalty to the president -- and in turn, his undeniable trust in her -- places her in a position that is as unique as it is obvious. This is the core of her strength -- and why she has the potential to be a very consequential secretary of state. Rice might have changed addresses, but so far there is little sign that she will cease to be a dominant presence inside the Oval Office.
The only other national security adviser to jump from the West Wing to Foggy Bottom, Henry Kissinger, observed that the State Department's influence flows "from the personal confidence between the President and the Secretary." Like so much else about bureaucratic politics, Kissinger mastered this. Yet Rice is not a neo-Kissinger; she does not have to connive and plot her way into the president's good graces at the expense of others. She's already there. Her relationship frees her to act, and she claims to want to do just that.
Her situation is more reminiscent of another secretary of state to another President Bush. Secretary of State James A. Baker, as a longtime friend of, political adviser to, and fixer for President George H.W. Bush, possessed authority that was beyond question. In Baker's dealings with foreign leaders, members of Congress, other Cabinet officials or the press, no one doubted that he spoke for the president. Through him, the State Department played the central role in foreign policy.
Rice clearly understands and wants to emulate the Baker model. Her deputy, Robert Zoellick, was one of Baker's most trusted aides, and through Karen Hughes and aides such as former White House personnel director Dina Powell and communications guru Jim Wilkinson, she will stay closely attuned to the president's political ambitions. She has already shown what an asset her strong personal relationship to the president can be, both in Washington and around the world. And she is off to a fast start -- she has made more foreign trips and visited more countries at this point in her tenure than any secretary since Baker.
Of course, a strong beginning does not equal lasting success. In a March interview with The Washington Post, Rice explained that international politics "is not like a satellite that comes over and takes a snapshot and takes a snapshot and takes a snapshot. It's a process." The same can be said of how to judge her as secretary. All we've seen so far is a snapshot -- a promising snapshot -- yet the measure of diplomatic success is performance over time. She has not yet been tested, either by an intense bureaucratic fight or an international crisis.
For example, we are still waiting to see how the influence of Rice and her team will measure up against that of the two other dominant forces inside the president's tight national security circle, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. As Bush's national security adviser, Rice had the responsibility of coordinating the policymaking process and prepare the president for decisions. Some have grumbled that she didn't do this particularly well, explaining that she was often overpowered by her more experienced colleagues. Moreover, the interagency decision-making machinery, which rarely grinds smoothly, was thrown out of kilter by Cheney aides who were unafraid to throw their weight around.
But being secretary of state is a different role, which comes with a different set of expectations. Rather than managing a process -- a difficult task that has been left to her nearly invisible former deputy, Stephen Hadley, who does not seem to aspire to a major policy role -- Rice is now a full player in it.
This is where her greatest challenge lies. Because even if she proves to be an effective bureaucratic warrior, capable of beating back Cheney and Rumsfeld from Foggy Bottom in a way she never did from the White House, the most important question that still lingers over Rice is what policies she will push. After all, "transformational diplomacy" is a means, not an end. It is an expression of how she wants to do things. But what we need to know is what specifically she wants to do.
Amazingly, despite a well-known biography, including an academic career, four years in the White House and almost three months as secretary of State, what Rice stands for is essentially still a mystery.
Her background itself is a study in contrasts: She was a graduate student of Josef Korbel, Madeleine Albright's father, and tells associates that her role model is her former boss, Brent Scowcroft, who has emerged as a sharp critic of the Bush administration's policies, especially toward Iraq, Iran and Israel. During the 2000 presidential campaign, she articulated a classic "realpolitik" critique of the Clinton administration, belittling its efforts at nation-building and arguing that it had misused U.S. power and undermined relationships with "great powers" and close allies alike. Now many consider her a neo-conservative, fully committed to the spread of freedom around the world and dedicated to values rather than interests, even if it means straining America's relationships with many of its oldest friends. She told the 2000 Republican National Convention that America's military cannot be the "world's 911" and must not allow itself to become overstretched, but she has since helped preside over the most significant deployment of the armed forces in a generation and the most ambitious program of nation-building since the end of World War II.
Even when it comes to Rice's area of expertise -- Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union -- her position is unclear. Five years ago she criticized the Clinton administration for having a "romantic" view of Russia, suggesting that it placed too much emphasis on strong relations with Moscow's leaders at the expense of interests like political and economic reform. Yet this is exactly the problem with the Bush administration's approach toward Russia today. U.S. officials occasionally tut-tut over Russia's derailed reforms, while doing little to remedy America's single greatest vulnerability: poorly safeguarded nuclear weapons and material that could fall into jihadist hands.
Rice's statements since becoming secretary have done little to make sense of such confusions. So far she has been long on bold rhetoric but short on specifics. She has talked repeatedly about how the "time for diplomacy is now," sprinkling her statements with earnest references to the Truman administration's leadership after World War II and its efforts to shape the strategy to fight the Cold War. She has echoed President Bush's commitment to the spread of freedom and democratic values, comparing the challenges before her to those that faced her most distinguished recent predecessors, Dean Acheson and George Marshall, whose portrait hangs in her office.
It's hard to quarrel with these lofty goals. Since the end of the Cold War, every incoming secretary of state has uttered them, and few have resisted invoking Marshall and Acheson. But America's greatest diplomats are not remembered for their inspirational words alone. They are remembered for what they did. Marshall helped create a plan to rebuild Europe. Acheson worked to establish NATO. Kissinger invented Middle East shuttle diplomacy. And Baker pulled together the coalition to fight the 1991 Gulf war.
What will Rice's legacy be? Will she break the logjams over U.S. policy toward North Korea and Iran? Might she put her energies into achieving a lasting peace in the Middle East after four years of neglect that have transformed Palestine into a recruiting card for al Qaeda? Can she find a way to address the many challenges posed by a rising India and China? Will she get allies to join, rather than leave, the effort in Iraq? Will she prod the administration to end what her own department has declared is a genocide raging in Sudan's Darfur region?
Right now, the most one can say is that Rice has shown that she has many of the tools -- powerful communication skills, a solid team around her and, most important, the trust and confidence of the president -- to become a fine secretary of state. She aspires to do more than diplomatic gardening, and something more is what's needed. But to transform the landscape, she must first decide what she wants its features to look like.
Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Derek Chollet is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He was foreign policy adviser to Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) from 2002 to 2004, and has assisted in the research and writing of memoirs by former secretaries of state James A. Baker and Warren Christopher.