On Sunday, Hillary Rodham Clinton completed her first overseas trip as secretary of state. Although her stops in Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China were introductory, they melded an effective mix of personality and substance.
There were signs that she was effective in public and in private, although the results will take time to assess.
Mrs. Clinton arrived with an array of assets. First, she is the emissary of Barack Obama, a popular president from whom big things are expected from America's friends and foes overseas. Second, Mrs. Clinton has her own appeal as a politician and an intellect -- from her past service in the Senate, the capital she accumulated as a presidential candidate last year and being the wife of a former president who is still respected around the world.
The trip did not produce any ground-breaking news, but Mrs. Clinton did set a precedent by talking openly about the succession in North Korea -- who will take the place of an ailing Kim Jong Il? She coupled a policy of continued concern over North Korea's nuclear program with the carrot of improved relations if the country showed itself to be reasonable. She perpetuated the conservative approach of dealing with it through a special envoy, as opposed to opening an embassy in the North Korean capital, which could be potentially more useful.
By visiting Indonesia she showed important interest in that huge, predominantly Muslim country, where Mr. Obama lived part of his life. U.S. relations with Indonesia sometimes have had less than high priority, in spite of its size and importance. In Japan Mrs. Clinton showed sympathy and understanding for the country's economic situation, which is spiraling downward like America's, partly as a result of America's.
Her approach in China made it clear that administration policy would be based at this point on Mr. Obama's emphasis on economic matters. Mrs. Clinton did not dwell in public on what is sometimes a favorite subject of Americans -- China's less-than-savory human rights record. Whether she did in private with Chinese leaders is unknown, although no one should have missed the fact that she attended church on Sunday.
Overall, the trip was a positive start to Secretary Clinton's role as America's top diplomat. She is at ease, she is fluent in public and we will assume that she is strong and effective in private. Next stop for her will be the Middle East. She may be able to profit from a letter from Palestinian Hamas to Mr. Obama, passed to Sen. John Kerry last week during a visit to Gaza, as a way to attack the barrier to a U.S. peace-seeking role in the tormented region.
First published on February 24, 2009