That struggle also included smaller regional conflicts, most notably in Vietnam, where Dean Rusk, John F. Kennedy’s secretary of state, was initially reluctant to intervene. He was eventually moved to defend the United States’ interference in the country’s affairs.
For many, the swashbuckling realpolitik image of the role was fashioned by Henry Kissinger, the German-born diplomat who as secretary of state to Richard Nixon steered the United States toward rapprochement with China.
But experts we spoke to were conflicted about whether Mr. Kissinger deserved that credit. He was acknowledged as being seen as a top foreign policy mind, but some argued that he had helped to destroy domestic good will toward American foreign policy during his time in the office. (He is also held in low regard by many on the left, who accuse of him of being a war criminal.)
George P. Shultz and the Soviet Union
The experts we interviewed instead selected George P. Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s longest-serving secretary of state, as perhaps the most effective of the Cold War secretaries.
Steve Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview this week that Mr. Shultz was the last secretary of state to really dominate U.S. foreign policy, managing an ever-shifting relationship with the Soviet Union while also tending to policy in East Asia, Latin America and southern Africa.
“Shultz was secretary of state for six and a half years and the difference showed,” Mr. Sestanovich said. “He had an authority and a kind of impact on issues that’s much harder to have in the short term.”
When the Soviet Union struck a belligerent pose in the early 1980s, Mr. Shultz worked to keep Western European countries unified against the threat. Later in the decade, he succeeded in bringing about perhaps his greatest achievement, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a pact signed by Mr. Reagan and the Soviet Union leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1987 that reduced the size of each country’s nuclear arsenal.
Walter LaFeber, a professor emeritus of American history at Cornell University, said that Mr. Shultz was able to offer the United States a sense of continuity when Ronald Reagan began to slip intellectually, and he did so without alienating the president or his wife, Nancy Reagan, a key power broker within his administration.
Mr. Shultz “was dealing with a president that was not fully versed on foreign policy,” Professor LaFeber said. Reagan trusted Shultz.”
Madeleine Albright and the Multi-Polar World
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States found itself in a position it had never previously held, as the world’s sole superpower.
Tensions with the Soviets had informed the country’s foreign policy since the end of World War II. Secretaries of state had to reshape that policy in a world in which it could not define itself against an “evil empire.” Furthermore, the information revolution was beginning to bring what were once far-flung nations closer together.
Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argued that this combination of a multipolar world and new communications technology meant that the secretary of state was now charged with both producing a coherent vision that could advance the country’s interests while managing inside the department even more — which also meant more air travel than ever before.
But she and others said that Madeleine K. Albright, Bill Clinton’s second secretary of state and the first woman to hold the post, largely succeeded in managing this new world.
“Albright understood that in the post-Cold War world, what she needed to do was project the U.S. as the arbiter of the free world in a very different way,” Ms. Kleinfeld said. “Human rights, democracy, rule of law, these were the organizing principles that would allow the U.S. to keep an alliance system in a world where the old order had broken down.”
Ms. Albright was able to project U.S. power, by couching that power in values that could be pitched as having won the war. But she was not a woolly liberal, Ms. Kleinfeld said. She interfered in other countries’ affairs, promoting human rights in China. She set up military exercises in the former Soviet Union and encouraged former Soviet engineers to work for the United States. She even visited North Korea in 2000 to attempt to persuade the Kim regime to end its missile tests.
“She did very specific things to make the world safer by using the banner of liberal values,” Ms. Kleinfeld said.
It was in this era that the secretary of state found herself contending with the heads of other agencies that had increasing had their own interests overseas. That competition within the cabinet has only increased in the last 20 years.
Powell, Rice, Clinton and Kerry
Under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, secretaries of state found themselves jockeying for control of policy with the heads of other agencies, including the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury and the Pentagon, as well as the White House itself.
Those agencies’ involvement in overseas decision-making only deepened after Sept. 11, which drove home the risks of nonstate actors like Al Qaeda and prompted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Military issues form a larger part of the foreign policy portfolio,” Mr. Sestanovich said of this period. “And that means the secretary of state is not exactly playing catch-up but always needs to reassert the important of diplomacy.”
Asked about Mr. Bush’s two secretaries, Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice, and Mr. Obama’s, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Mr. Sestanovich said, “You have to say that these are all secretaries of state that had some trouble getting control of policy for themselves.”
Even Mr. Powell, whom Ms. Kleinfeld said may have been the strongest of the four, was betrayed by conflicting interests within the executive branch when he delivered a detailed description of Iraqi weapons programs that did not exist to the United Nations in 2003. The speech relied on information that some intelligence agents knew was unreliable. Mr. Powell, a former general and the first African-American to hold the post, later described the speech as a “blot” on his record.
Mr. Tillerson’s tensions with Mr. Trump can be seen as a part of that lineage. But Professor LaFeber emphasized that the public mistrust between the two was an anomaly. He could think of only one other example in American history of a similar relationship, between Abraham Lincoln and his secretary of state, William H. Seward.
“Seward’s view of Lincoln is like Tillerson’s view of Trump,” Mr. LaFeber said. “When he called Trump a moron, I think that was from the heart.”
He said that that was Mr. Seward had initially thought of President Lincoln, “not a moron, but a person unversed in foreign policy.”
Still, Mr. LaFeber warned, even that historical precedent did not quite help to illuminate Mr. Trump’s relationship with his first secretary of state.
While Mr. Tillerson was thought by many to have mismanaged the State Department and contributed to his own irrelevance within the administration, Professor LaFeber said that he had been actively trying to remedy problems that the United States was confronting, problems that Mr. Trump was exacerbating.
“If you evaluate presidents, you have to evaluate the first 44 and put Trump into another category entirely,” he said. “He’s so different, so ignorant of so many issues, particularly foreign policy. And Tillerson is a victim of that.”
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