As Hillary Clinton prepares to step down as secretary of state, the general consensus among the punditocracy is that she was successful in helping to restore America's image in the world: A "rockstar diplomat," Clinton was willing to put in the frequent flyer miles to help repair or rebuild frayed ties between Washington and many other countries. However, she is not viewed as a transformational figure for U.S. diplomacy, nor can she point to a particularly dramatic event, such as a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement, as a result of her tenure in office. Some of the comments in this vein imply that had someone else occupied the executive suite at Foggy Bottom, things might have turned out differently.
Of course, the effectiveness of any secretary of state is enhanced if he or she has a close personal relationship with the president and is perceived by foreign leaders to be speaking for the White House. In this regard, Condoleezza Rice, who many saw as George W. Bush's personal emissary, may have had an advantage over Clinton. It also helps if the secretary of state emerges as the primus inter pares of the foreign policymaking process. Henry Kissinger, for instance, chose not to relinquish the post of national security adviser when he became Richard Nixon’s secretary of state precisely to hold onto that role.
But the reality nowadays is that there are multiple centers of gravity in any administration, and for foreign governments seeking to deal with Washington, the secretary of state is just one of several options. National security advisers have, in recent years, taken on the role of "fixers," able to undertake quiet diplomacy and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, often with their foreign counterparts. Other key Cabinet positions surrounding the U.S. president have also built up their foreign affairs portfolios, including the secretary of defense, but also the vice president and secretary of the treasury, as we have seen when it comes to the all-important and sensitive U.S.-China bilateral relationship.