The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Clinton’s women-centric approach to foreign policy could shape her campaign

Triza Lapani helps U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to put on a chitenje cloth, a type of traditional skirt, at Camp Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) run by the Peace Corps, in Lilongwe, Malawi, Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, on the first ever visit to Malawi by a U.S. Secretary of State. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

As Hillary Clinton continues her book tour and decides whether she will make another run for the White House, one question she will continue to get is what big ticket diplomatic achievements she can put on her mission accomplished list.

Republicans say, not much, even as Clinton has dedicated 600 pages to outlining the “hard choices” and complicated issues she faced in her four years at the State Department.

What is clear is that Clinton, should she run, will make the work she did in elevating the status of women and girls central to her platform and policy strengths. The final chapter of her book serves as a template for how she might run and frame her legacy at State and her vision in the White House. It is dedicated to global gender issues, what she calls the “unfinished business” of human rights, and her work in this area serves as a kind of anchor for the entire book as it is woven through almost every chapter.

Her former aides at the State Department say that the status of women and girls served a similar role in her approach to global affairs.

“The most important piece of the legacy and a really lasting piece of it is that she really built the evidence-based case rather than appealing on a moral basis or fairness argument,” said Jennifer Klein, who worked with Clinton at the State Department. “She built a business case for it and why it matters for security and the economy. And through her work at the State Department she really tried to make sure the work of the Office of Women and Girls was implemented across departments.”

In her book, Clinton paints herself as the lone woman standing strong against men across the globe–and in some cases administration officials–who had very different ideas about the place of women and girls in society and how that fit into larger questions about peace and prosperity. In her book, “Hard Choices,” she writes:

I can’t tell you how many times I sat across the table from some President or Prime Minister whose eyes glazed over whenever I raised the issue of women’s rights and opportunities in his country.  I quietly kept track of how many women leaders or advisors joined those meetings.  It wasn’t hard to do, because there were hardly any.

Throughout the book she praises other women leaders, describing how much she admires them, and how they too were party crashers, interlopers and outsiders, upending the staid world of international affairs.

“For all it’s vaunted progressivism on matters like health care and climate change, Europe can still feel like the world’s most venerable old boys’ club, and it was heartening to see Angela shaking things up,” she writes, referring to the German Chancellor.

She recounts attending the inauguration of Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first woman president, noting her “strong intellect and true grit,” as well as Chilean president, Michele Bachelet, casting her fellow women leaders as “allies and friends in the rights of women and girls.”

Clinton kicks off the last chapter by recalling her time as first lady, when she was prepping a speech before the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

Asked by then secretary of state, Madeleine Albright what she wanted to accomplish in her speech, Clinton replied: “I want to push the envelope as far as I can on behalf on women and girls.”  Once she arrived at the  State Department, she writes that she was “determined to put this ‘unfinished business,’ at the top of America’s to do list.”

Advocates say she did just that during her tenure, moving women and girls from the margins to the center.

“Hillary Clinton has been an undisputed leader in elevating gender and women’s issues as a matter of U.S. foreign policy, and she did so in an unprecedented manner when she served as Secretary of State,” said Sarah Degnan Kambou, president of the International Center for Research on Women. “She consistently raised the question of ‘what about women and girls’ in every policy arena, and in every geographic region.”

She appointed the first Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and developed a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, which emphasized putting a stop to rape and gender-based violence in conflict and post-conflict zones, and empowered women as peacekeepers.

Her goal was to “knit gender issues into every aspect of U.S. foreign policy,” she writes and to make sure it remained part of the fabric even after she left.

Yet, Kambou said that one opportunity that Clinton missed was on child marriage.  Throughout the developing world, 17 million girls are married off each year.  The practice is linked to sexual abuse, high rates of maternal and infant mortality as well as HIV infections.

“[Clinton] failed to take forward a national strategy that would mandate significant development and diplomatic energies be used in a concerted and coordinated effort to prevent and address this issue in global hotspots,” Kambou said. “We, along with a number of organizations, had been pushing the Secretary to put together a national strategy that would do just that, and although legislation was passed last year mandating that such a strategy be written by the Secretary of State, to date no such strategy exists.”

Clinton lays out a more case-by-case strategy to ending child marriage in her book.

In Saudia Arabia, soft diplomacy made the difference.  She learned of a case of an eight year old girl who wanted out of a marriage, but the courts refused her mother’s pleas:

Instead of calling a press conference to condemn the practice and demand action, I looked for a way to persuade the Saudis to do the right thing and still save face. Quietly reaching out through diplomatic channels, I offered a simple but firm message: “Fix this on your own and I won’t say a word.” The Saudis appointed a new judge who quickly granted a divorce.

She also recounts meeting with students and activists in Yemen, where she recognized a young woman named Nujood Ali, who had successfully fought for a divorce when she was 10.

“I suggested that Nujood’s story should inspire Yemen to end child marriage once and for all,” she writes.

Clinton aides noted that child marriage is now required to be listed on a country’s human rights report, and that Clinton brought a boldness to the issue that should not be discounted.

“The diplomacy piece can’t be overlooked,” said Rachel Vogelstein, director of women and girls programs at the Clinton Foundation.  “For the secretary of state to stand in Yemen next to a brave young girl who fought for divorce at 10 sends a really powerful message. She really took significant strides forward.”