Eleni Kounalakis: Fiorina's claims that Hillary Clinton is without accomplishments is bogus. Her triumphs are numerous and historic
She says when Clinton stepped into secretary of state job, she revived world's esteem of U.S., rebuilt relationships around the globe
Editor’s Note: Eleni Kounalakis was United States ambassador to Hungary from 2010 to 2013. She is the author of “Madam Ambassador, Three Years of Diplomacy, Dinner and Democracy in Budapest,” published by The New Press. She is a senior adviser to the Albright Stonebridge Group.
In a recent opinion piece posted on CNN, Carly Fiorina launched a deeply unfair and profoundly inaccurate attack on Hillary Clinton’s record as secretary of state. Fiorina went so far as to insinuate that Hillary Clinton did not have even one single accomplishment in that role. She could not be more wrong. I should know; I served with her as U.S. ambassador to Hungary and watched her fight for the American people every day.
Her record of achievement is as diverse as it is historic. Clinton pushed hard for the United States to “pivot” to Asia. She established the tough sanctions against Iran that led to the recently signed nuclear agreement. She shined a light on the plight of Burmese political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, helping to orchestrate her release.
These are all historic achievements. But to name any one, single event of Clinton’s tenure is to overlook her most important contribution: rebuilding America’s relationships with friends, allies and partners around the world.
During the George W. Bush administration, America relied on ultimatum diplomacy: “Are you with us, or are you against us?”
President Bush demanded an answer to this question in order to build a coalition to invade Iraq. In a nation still reeling from the 9/11 attacks, there was overwhelming popular support here at home for the invasion. But many countries, including our close NATO allies France and Germany, had their doubts. Instead of serving as a check on the Bush administration’s faulty calculations, President Bush and his team rebuffed these reliable allies. Even countries that were “with us” felt bullied, and when the invasion started to reveal itself as a mistake, many of our allies felt betrayed.
It was into this environment that Clinton landed in 2009. She brought with her a network of personal, global relationships stretching back to her time as first lady. She leveraged her serious foreign policy chops developed during her years on the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services committee.
As a diplomat, she wielded the star power of one of the world’s most well-known female leaders. And finally, she had the right kind of work ethic, the right brand of wonkiness, to be embraced quickly by her 70,000 new employees at the State Department.
At her Senate confirmation hearing, Clinton said that “to create more friends and fewer enemies, we must find common ground and common purpose with other peoples and nations.” A simple statement. But to achieve it required a steady stream of cooperation, coordination, and sometimes good-natured cajoling, with nations around the world, on issues large and small. It’s not work that can be quantified by a single handshake, captured in a photo-op, or summed up in a single radio sound bite.
For three and a half years at my post in Budapest, I started my mornings reading Clinton’s daily schedule. Hillary Clinton traveled to more countries than any other secretary in the history of the department, logging nearly a million miles and visiting 112 nations. She visited countries that hadn’t had a U.S. secretary of state visit for up to five decades (Laos) or ever (Togo). After all, America can never have enough friends.
Wherever she went, Clinton was met as a peer by the world’s most powerful leaders. But she also got out of the capitals and into the countryside. Along the way, she regularly met with small business owners, community activists, students, home makers and other regular citizens.
I led Embassy Budapest during a challenging time in U.S.-Hungarian relations. During that time, Clinton came to Budapest for a day-long visit. Her engagement did not make headlines in the United States. Her work that day would strike few people as her “single most important accomplishment” in that office. But for many Hungarians and members of the European Union, her practical and nuanced diplomatic intervention in Hungary made obvious her clear-eyed leadership and America’s unparalleled strength.
In short, here is my answer to Fiorina’s question:
Diplomatically, without bluster or bullying, without stealing headlines or focusing on her own legacy, Hillary Clinton rebuilt the network of American relationships around the globe. This is certainly her most important legacy and fundamental to the future of American leadership in the world.