The Quiet Americans

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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John Kerry and Chuck Hagel want their legacies in office to be associated with the foreign policy giants of another era. They must first look back and learn from their predecessors. By Kenneth Weisbrode

Observers of Beltway trends may be forgiven for indulging in an especially tempting one of late. The shift in public attention to the State Department is marked. Secretary of State John Kerry has been in the headlines almost from the day he took office. As indicated by David Rohde’s recent profile in these pages, his recent experience in Geneva may be only the first of what he must hope will be several triumphs in a brilliant and long overdue diplomatic career.

No other major figure compares at the moment: not Joe Biden, not Susan Rice, not Samantha Power, not Jacob Lew and certainly not Chuck Hagel. This is how it should be, according to some traditionalists, including both of Hagel’s two predecessors at the Pentagon.

By tradition, the Secretary of State is, or ought to be, primus inter pares. Budgets notwithstanding, he or she should be the most familiar face of foreign policy. Of the three skill areas that matter most for success in that job—negotiation, management and communication—it is the final one that leaves the longest legacy, at least in the public mind.

No Secretary of State can succeed there without a close partnership with the president. Secretaries Marshall, Acheson, Kissinger, Shultz and Baker would have left much smaller legacies had they not been, or had they not been seen to be, the chief executive’s right hand man. This, we presume, is the company Kerry wishes to join.

The difficulty for him is that this president may not share that particular ambition. Kerry’s zeal—a quality normally discouraged by diplomats—recalls a different breed: Richard Holbrooke, Madeleine Albright, Alexander Haig and, most of all, John Foster Dulles, who served loyally but taxingly as Eisenhower’s Cold War “bad cop.”

Invoking the name of Eisenhower raises another point; but not about Kerry. It is a Washington commonplace that the 34th president is much admired by his fellow Midwesterner, Hagel. The affinity is not just geographic or temperamental. It is also historical. There is a line of Republican internationalists going back to the McKinley administration to which Hagel adheres. It began with Secretary of State John Hay and the Secretary of War (and later State) Elihu Root, then passed to such notables as Henry Stimson, John McCloy, Robert Lovett and, ultimately, to Brent Scowcroft and Stephen Hadley.

Root was the most formidable member of this group. An industrious and imaginative corporate lawyer, he more or less created the modern War Department (as it was then called) and the beginnings of the twentieth century U.S. Army. His tenure there saw the establishment of a new general staff, a war college and numerous reforms in training, doctrine, promotion, education and organization. Later he also won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Most of all, he enshrined a certain style of conservative, cautious, quiet and collaborative leadership in power which persists to this day. Before Root, Wall Street lawyers were not known for their devotion to public service. He may not have been the first to move back and forth between government and business, but the example he set for high-minded yet discreet, “behind the scenes,” competence in both sectors was there. 

Hagel’s physical resemblance to Root is striking. Of such things role models are sometimes made. Or not. Hagel is much too busy now to spend time studying the example of Elihu Root. But if he manages to do half as much as Root did to improve the efficiency, capacity and integrity of his department, he will have accomplished at least as much for his country as his ebullient counterpart over in Foggy Bottom now appears to be doing.

Kenneth Weisbrode is a writer and historian. His most recent book is Churchill and the King.

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