Hillary goes, China grows: The game plan for the next Secretary of State

By Ian Bremmer
December 10, 2012

In a country balanced on the precipice of a “fiscal cliff,” we sure are talking a lot about the next secretary of state. In his second term, President Barack Obama will also likely have to name a new treasury secretary, defense secretary, transportation secretary, Securities and Exchange Commission chairman and Central Intelligence Agency director, at the least. But, despite an imminent fiscal cliff, suffocating unemployment and a widening disparity of wealth across the United States, it is the anticipation of Hillary Clinton’s replacement that has sparked the most discussion.

Largely, this is because of Susan Rice. Rice, a longtime foreign policy adviser to Democrats, has been Obama’s United Nations ambassador for four years. Obama, reports suggest, would like to nominate her to be the new secretary of state. Republicans, reports are clear, are having none of it. Rice’s involvement in the administration’s initial confusion over the embassy attack in Libya — she repeated the administration’s misinformed talking points — has made her the target of withering critiques before she is even officially nominated.

So what is Obama to do? If he nominates Rice, he will have an unnecessary fight on his hands. No matter how competent she might be, it is not clear that she would be confirmed, which is what matters most. And in a moment when bipartisan negotiation is — at least ostensibly — the most important goal in Washington, launching a politicized candidate into a nomination battle may not fly.

Instead of Rice, Republicans are whispering that that they would prefer John Kerry. And of course they would. Kerry’s ascension would leave an open Senate spot in Massachusetts, inviting Scott Brown to try to regain his title as junior senator. That may be too big of a risk for the Obama administration.

It is very much in vogue to discuss “outside the box” candidates. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s pick, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, certainly qualifies as an unlikely choice — and for good reason. Duncan is an absurd suggestion, as he carries no experience in the two areas that will be most vital for Hillary’s successor. (Duncan was able to poke fun at the absurdity himself.)

What are these two vital areas? They are the hallmarks that define Hillary Clinton’s exemplary tenure as secretary of state. Being well-versed in these is a sort of prerequisite for a secretary of state nod:

1.) The pivot to Asia. Clinton and Obama recognized that the biggest threat to America is not the Middle East but China’s rising influence with its neighbors — and its emergence as a global economic powerhouse. All evidence suggests that China will continue to be a “frenemy” for the foreseeable future, and it is quite likely that relations will get worse. As China continues to grow (and as the U.S. finally disentangles itself from Afghanistan), China will become America’s No. 1 priority. Clinton has already started the preparations for that moment; the next secretary of state will have to further them.

2.) Economic statecraft. It is increasingly evident that America’s biggest threats are not in security — they’re in the global economy. As secretary, Hillary Clinton has devoted considerable time and effort to defining this shift. Especially as America continues its slow recovery, state capitalist governments are rivals for jobs and influence in a globalized economy. With this in mind, the next secretary of state will need to negotiate with other foreign leaders to limit state capitalism’s influence, secure investment for American companies and organize with allies to push back against state capitalist incursions into free-market societies (see: Huawei).

If we are looking for a dark horse candidate, there is another Obama appointment, one who received accolades at the time and proved enormously successful, who could step in. No one is more uniquely suited to excel on these two criteria than Jon Huntsman Jr.

Huntsman, remember, is Obama’s former ambassador to China, a former governor of Utah and a former chief executive oficer of his multibillion-dollar family business. The Chinese post is his most obvious qualification — he has an intimate understanding of Chinese diplomatic channels that could help him navigate the rocky relationship with a country that is both America’s largest creditor and “adversary.” On top of that, his time as a governor (more a CEO of a state than a president is of a country) and business executive qualify him to navigate a global economy that is not automatically friendly to the United States. That Huntsman is a Republican—albeit a different kind than most — also satisfies Obama’s old (and perhaps now outdated) promise to fill his cabinet with at least one Republican.

I am not predicting that Huntsman will get the job — just that he is wellequipped to excel in the role. Whoever replaces Clinton is going to follow a remarkably impressive act. There is no question that Clinton was Obama’s most effective appointee, projecting American leadership in a leaderless world. Either Rice or Kerry would both be a fine successor, but if the administration’s calculus makes them untenable, or if they decide to turn away from the conventional depth chart, they should pivot to Asia — and Jon Huntsman Jr.

This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman step off Air Force One as they arrive in Beijing, November 16, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young

7 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Interesting article. I agree with the suggestion of Jon Huntsman as the new potential Secretary of State. He is a knowledgeable, experienced politician and executive who has seen enormous success throughout his career.

However, I must say that his current position as a hardcore Republican is debatable. He announced in February that he thought the United States is going to have problems politically until a third party movement arises that can put forth new ideas. Moreover, he decided not to attend the Republican Convention for the first time since 1984, after the party reacted by denying his invitation to a Republican fundraising following his previous declaration.

More reasons to believe that Obama might want to appoint him as the new Secretary of State, except Huntsman might become a member of a soon-to-be-formed third party, which would challenge Obama’s promise.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Right after the election, Jon Huntsman resurfaced. Shortly thereafter, both David Axelrod and Jim Messina mentioned Huntsman as the Republican they had feared might be the nominee.
I’ve thought since then that Jon Huntsman would be the Sec. of State nominee.
He’d be excellent and it would really make the McCain-Graham hollering look even more foolish.

Posted by lavaliere | Report as abusive

I don’t get this infatuation with Clinton. The State department failed to deliver in Afghanistan after the military did its job. In Syria she will be remembered for failing to get Russia to work with the US in stopping the carnage.

Posted by MidWestSense | Report as abusive

This is great suggestion – it would really stick it to republicans like McCain.

Posted by injuntrouble | Report as abusive

Jon Huntsman & his family are highly respected by the Chinese, a great asset if we are sensible enough to recognize China’s inevitable economic superiority, five times larger than our economy.

Not only would he make an effective Secretary of State, but also a great President.

His aspirations for a third party are well founded, as both of our present parties DO NOT represent America’s interests.

Democrats & Republicans are both cronies, sold out for reelection funding & pocket money, to special interests & to multinational corporations that have no loyalty to any country & no interest in the welfare of the people.

And this is the root cause of our present predicament with a dysfunctional congress & government.

Posted by EthicsIntl | Report as abusive

Almost everybody respects Huntsman and considers him a fine candidate for any office. So, of course, he will not get elected or chosen to any office.

Posted by jwab | Report as abusive

Why do you think he will not get elected to any office?

Posted by JCRede | Report as abusive