"You mean a man can be secretary of state?" my son said, sounding genuinely surprised.
My 14-year-old son and I were watching the Democratic National Convention this past summer when John Kerry came on. My son asked who he was; I responded that he had run for president in 2004, that he was an important senator and that if President Obama were re-elected, Kerry might become secretary of state.
"You mean a man can be secretary of state?" my son said, sounding genuinely surprised.
It makes sense that he assumed that men didn't have a shot at the job. Three of the past four secretaries of state have been women, and that trend could continue if Obama nominates and the Senate confirms U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton. In fact, I've been asked recently whether we are turning secretary of state into a woman's job.
Women of my generation remember well how big a step it was for Madeleine Albright to break the secretary of state glass ceiling in 1997. Just a decade later, by 2008, Carol Jenkins, then president of the Women's Media Center, was noting that "secretary of state has become the women's spot - a safe expected place for women to be."
I'm not so sure about that. A recent news report quoted a "longtime foreign-policy expert who has worked for Democratic administrations" as saying that Rice's voice "is always right on the edge of a screech," reminding us that sexist caricatures of strong women as witches - or a word that rhymes with that - still abound.
As someone who worked in Clinton's State Department - and has written frequently about the importance of having more women in high foreign policy positions and the difference that can make to the substance as well as the style of U.S. foreign policy - I think the question of whether women are particularly well-suited to nurturing relationships, marshaling cooperation and conducting tough negotiations around the world is worth asking.
In some ways, the answer is yes. Back in the 1980s, Joseph Nye coined the term "soft power," meaning the power of attraction rather than the power of coercion. (And by attraction, I mean the lure of a nation's culture and values, not its diplomats' looks.) But soft power really took off when Nye argued in 2005 that it was the means to success in world politics. He argued that the United States succeeds when we can persuade the rest of the world to want what we want, rather than imposing our will. Given that women are far less likely to be able to use coercive power than men are, we have been skilled for centuries at getting others to want what we want.
Moreover, I think many women take more readily to the "smart power" approach to foreign policy that Clinton has pioneered. In a nutshell, this entails using a wide spectrum of tools in addition to the hard power of military and economic might to address global problems.
International relations traditionally divides national security (guns and bombs) and international political economy (money). These are the arenas of "high politics" - the diplomatic and financial crises that produce high-stakes poker games. Clinton and her female predecessors proved repeatedly that they could manage high politics with ease. Clinton's handling of the Chen Guangcheng crisis with China, the Libya intervention and the recent Gaza cease-fire proves that she can deal with such situations with aplomb and a spine of steel. And remember Albright during the wars in the Balkans, asking Colin Powell what the point was of having such a great military if we were not willing to use it?
As has often been noted, Clinton is equally enthusiastic about a range of broader issues: food security, water management, global health, climate, energy security, technology, and empowering women and girls. These have traditionally been relegated to the catch-all basket of "global issues," decidedly lower on the foreign policy hierarchy than guns, bombs and money. Indeed, for a long time they were not considered part of foreign policy but instead the province of development.
As Clinton said at her Senate confirmation hearing, she came into office determined to elevate development to an equal pillar of our foreign policy, alongside diplomacy and defense. And a critical part of her legacy will be that, when she and her deputies talked to foreign governments, they raised health, water, food, women's rights and other issues to the level of high politics. Focusing on these concerns before they reach a crisis point is smart long-term policy, the proverbial ounce of prevention worth a pond of cure.
But what does all of this have to do with gender? It is an open secret in Washington that national security meetings in government or think tanks are overwhelmingly male; development meetings are at least 50 percent female. For whatever reasons, men focus more on state-to-state issues, while women pay a great deal of attention to broader social matters. It is thus not unreasonable to think that a female secretary of state would be more adept at handling the full portfolio.
Call it multitasking foreign policy: the ability to look at what is happening across the Middle East, for example, and to recognize that addressing unemployment, resource scarcity and the oppression of women is just as important for the safeguarding of U.S. interests as monitoring geopolitical rivalries between Shiite and Sunni states.
Moreover, as long as the White House remains the foreign policy boys' club that it has been during the first Obama administration, it is all the more important to have a woman (and many women beneath her) at the State Department.
The men in the president's inner foreign policy circle are certainly talented and qualified; many are friends of mine. But consider Foreign Policy magazine's recent list of the 50 most important Democrats in foreign policy. The top 20 include four men from the White House: national security adviser Tom Donilon, his deputies Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes, and Vice President Joe Biden's chief foreign policy adviser, Tony Blinken. The rest of the list includes two more male White House insiders, deputy national security adviser Mike Froman and National Security Council Chief of Staff Brian McKeon. The only woman from the White House on the list is National Security Council senior director Samantha Power, who came in at No. 44.
However, the answer to whether secretary of state is a "woman's job" has to be no. To begin with, plenty of men, even if not a majority, care deeply about the many issues that Clinton has prioritized. If a male secretary of state built on her development legacy (and that of Condoleezza Rice before her), he could make an important move toward taking "softer" issues out of the gender ghetto once and for all.
To take one example, when men focus on women's empowerment, as USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah and his deputy, Donald Steinberg, have done, these issues gain more legitimacy as part of a mainstream foreign policy agenda. And why not shuffle the deck and put the first female Democrat at the president's right hand as national security adviser, a position that has hard power and high politics built into its very name?
The last thing we need is to typecast Cabinet members the way law partners used to be. When I interviewed at Wall Street firms in the 1980s, they always trotted out two female partners, one of whom was always in trusts and estates - the theory was that they were good at holding widows' hands - and the other often in family law. And for a long time in medicine, women were relegated to pediatrics and gynecology. Let's simply recognize that anyone following Clinton will have very big pumps to fill, but that a man could fill them just as well, as many great male secretaries of state have proved.
Of course, there could be another reason we've had a string of female secretaries of state. Shifting cultural expectations and 21st-century politics mean it is important to have a woman in one of the "big three" Cabinet positions: state, defense or Treasury. Perhaps the State Department keeps going to a woman because of a reluctance to appoint a woman as secretary of defense or Treasury. If this is the reason for putting women in this role, it's a bad one.
Interestingly, the French are ahead of us on both counts: Christine Lagarde was the French finance minister before she became the first female director of the International Monetary Fund, and Michele Alliot-Marie recently finished a term as France's first female foreign minister. Neither Britain nor Germany has had a woman in these positions, but they have both had women in the government's top job.
At least a couple of very talented women are in line for both defense and Treasury; I hope they find their way to the top in the next four years. But all told, I've got a radical proposal. Let's go gender-blind. If that results in three men in these positions, fine. If it results in three women in these positions, so be it. None is inherently a "man's" or a "woman's" role. They are all tough jobs, and we need the best people we can find.
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Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, served as director of policy planning for the State Department from 2009 to 2011.
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