Susan B. Glasser is editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat down on a plush yellow couch at the J.W. Marriott late on a Saturday morning in early May. The Beijing skyline sparkled, uncharacteristically sunny and smog-free, out the window of her 23rd-floor suite, and she was wearing sunglasses even though we were indoors, "an eye infection," she said apologetically. Clinton seemed surprisingly upbeat, especially considering that just a day earlier, she had come uncomfortably close to a major public rebuff by the Chinese — much closer, in fact, than anyone yet realized. "It was a standoff," she told me, "for 24 difficult hours."
Until our conversation, Clinton had said virtually nothing publicly about the case of Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident whose fate had become the object of a week of frenetic negotiations when his escape from village house arrest to the U.S. Embassy collided with a visit to Beijing by Clinton herself. Amid the unfolding drama, the secretary had smiled and nodded her way through elaborately choreographed high-level annual talks and a variety of photo ops at which she gamely recited paeans to constructive dialogue and plugged cut-rate cookstoves for the developing world.
But Clinton had in fact spent the last few days in hard-nosed deal-making with the Chinese that nearly ended in an embarrassing failure, until she personally intervened, twice, with her counterpart, Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo: the first time to reassure Dai about a deal to allow Chen to stay in China and study law; then, when Chen balked at that, to secure agreement that he and his family could leave for the United States. "We were in a very difficult position because we had pushed their system just about to the breaking point," recalled a senior official who was present. "We knew it, they knew it, and they knew we knew it."
Her final encounter with Dai came, at her request, in an early-morning session in a room at the Diaoyutai compound where, 40 years earlier, Nixon had stayed when he famously met Mao to reopen U.S.-China relations. It was just hours before the close of the formal Strategic and Economic Dialogue that was the ostensible purpose of Clinton's trip; if Clinton had no agreement by then, they both knew it would open a rift in their relationship and create a political disaster back in Washington, where the secretary and her team were being accused of fumbling an important human rights case by delivering the sick dissident to a Beijing hospital and right back into the hands of his persecutors.
Still, the Chinese did not give in. At one point, an advisor who was present recalled, Clinton finally seemed to catch their attention by mentioning what a political circus the case had become — with Chen even dialing in to a U.S. congressional hearing that Thursday by cell phone from his hospital bed to say he feared for his safety if he remained in China. The Chinese team was visibly surprised. Eventually, Dai agreed at least to let the negotiations proceed. A few hours later, exhausted U.S. officials announced a deal.
By the next morning when we met, it was already clear this had been the most intense high-stakes diplomacy of Clinton's tenure as secretary of state. She had worked hard to rescue Chen without blowing up the American relationship with China, but it was not yet obvious whether she had accomplished either goal. The Chinese were furious about the embarrassing attention to their human rights abuses. Clinton and her aides were being pilloried at home by everyone from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to the human rights community for abandoning Chen at the hospital. And the secretary was still worried about the deal. "Until he's actually out and up with his family," she told me, "it's still touch and go."
Listening to Clinton recount the episode, it was hard not to think of her own journey from idealistic human rights crusader to hardheaded global diplomat. Back in 1995, on her first trip to Beijing as first lady, Clinton's impassioned speech declaring "women's rights are human rights" was so inflammatory the Chinese blacked out the broadcast. By 2009, when she made her first visit as secretary of state, she was determined to avoid that kind of controversy — so determined, in fact, that she created one by declaring that human rights was just one of many issues she would raise with her Chinese counterparts.
"There's a whole symphony of different notes that can be played and need to be played, depending on what you're trying to achieve," Clinton told me when I asked her about the 2009 incident, the shadow of this latest China imbroglio hanging over the conversation. The talk-show hosts back home were clamoring for a dramatic gesture, for her to whisk Chen away to freedom in her Boeing 757, but Clinton had no intention of doing any such thing.
And so what? she said: "I'm very outcomes-oriented — what's the best way to get there? Sometimes it's being diplomatic, and sometimes it's being harsh. Some people criticize me for saying that Russia and China's veto on Syria was despicable. Well, I think it got their attention. So you just have to calibrate and figure out what is the end state you're trying to get to, because there are times when being podium-pounding and bully-pulpiting are on their own worthwhile or as part of a larger plan, other times when it would be counterproductive. It depends upon what you're trying to achieve."
BY THE TIME WE SPOKE in Beijing, Clinton had been President Barack Obama's secretary of state for nearly three and a half years, and it was clear she sees her job as a nearly endless series of such negotiations, not only like those over Chen's fate but between what she wants to get done — and what she can do. Nearly every person I spoke with called Clinton a pragmatist, a doer, a person who likes to make things happen. "We are a can-do country," Wendy Sherman, her undersecretary for political affairs, told me. "And the secretary is absolutely a can-do person."
Diplomacy is not always a great fit for such people. Grand sweeping deals that change the world with the stroke of a fountain pen are in short supply these days. It has been 40 years since Henry Kissinger secretly flew into Beijing to open talks with the Chinese, and besides, as Clinton herself noted recently, can you imagine Kissinger today getting away with covertly leaving Pakistan for China and simply disappearing from the public radar for two days? It's just not possible in the age of Twitter.
And it's certainly not possible for Clinton, who, in her whirlwind final year on the job, has become not only a contender for the most globe-trotting secretary of state ever but also the most popular national politician in America, with approval ratings standing in the high 60s. She is, quite simply, inescapable in American public life after more than two decades in the spotlight, increasingly celebrated as a class act who has managed to reinvent herself, yet again, from losing presidential aspirant to world-class problem-solver. Few secretaries of state have had to worry about paparazzi — did anybody really care what Warren Christopher wore to the office? — but Clinton is such a celebrity that the tabloids still put her on the front pages when she changes her hairstyle — again! — or takes her staff out for a beer in Colombia. A bad-ass photo of her in sunglasses in Time magazine, wielding her BlackBerry like a power tool, recently went viral on the Internet. The picture even spawned a Tumblr site of what purported to be "Texts from Hillary," in which the putative secretary of state offered snappy, imagined comments on photos of other famous people. (Romney asking, "Any advice?" Clinton replying: "Drink.") The old Hillary wouldn't have known what Tumblr was, or would have feared she was being mocked by it. The new Hillary submitted a joke text of her own to the site's twentysomething creators, signing it, "Thanks for the many LOLZ Hillary 'Hillz.'"
All this publicity has inevitably given rise to a new round of the old Clinton parlor game: Will she run in 2016? Although Clinton will turn 69 on the eve of the next presidential election and has said she's leaving the State Department exhausted and ready for her daughter Chelsea to make her a grandmother, no denial is likely to put such speculation to rest, and many Democratic insiders told me they believe the nomination is hers for the taking. Clinton, as her longtime aide Andrew Shapiro, now the assistant secretary for political-military affairs, put it, will be an object of presidential curiosity "literally until the day that somebody clinches enough delegates to get the nomination."
But there's a paradox about this latest Hillary hoopla: Few Americans have any idea what Clinton has actually been up to as secretary of state, or even what a secretary of state is supposed to do in this day and age. In the rarefied circles of the Washington foreign-policy establishment, where they've been paying closer attention, Clinton gets big points for style and for taking her brand of "people to people" diplomacy international at a time when America desperately needed just her kind of star power to revive an image tarnished by a near decade of George W. Bush's cowboy unilateralism. Aside from that, as one of the city's mandarins put it to me recently in one of numerous nearly identical conversations, "What has she done?" The poohbah reeled off a long string of Important Global Issues, from Middle East peace to negotiating a political end to the long-running war in Afghanistan, from which Clinton appears to have been sidelined by the Obama White House or is simply out of the picture. To those traditionalists, Clinton is something of a puzzle; clearly, she's a success in the "soft power" department, a relentless cheerleader for Brand America. But they can't help disdaining her focus on issues such as women's rights and development economics — surely not the stuff of real diplomacy — and see her attention to them as proof of how marginalized she's been by the Obama White House on the geopolitics that count. "That's the rap," sighed one Clinton booster.
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