US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Israel reopens the question: Who was America’s best secretary of state?

It is interesting to review the list of outstanding secretaries of state and see how almost every one of them had to deal with Russia. Only a few managed not to do so. The lesson for Israel: what is good for them is not always what is good for us.

Madeleine Albright had no chance of making the list of America’s ten greatest secretaries of state. Not because of mediocre performance, not because of unresolved crises, and not because the experts did not view her tenure favorably. Albright didn’t stand a chance because the referendum was conducted about a decade and a half before she was appointed secretary of state. The poll was conducted when Albright was still an expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center, from there she moved to Georgetown University.

Shortly before that she was a congressional liaison for the National Security Council during President Jimmy Carter’s presidency. After that she served as an adviser to the unsuccessful campaigns of vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, and presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis. In other words, she was engaged but not yet at the center of things. Not yet the first woman to serve as US secretary of state.

American Heritage magazine conducted the poll, and about 20 historians responded. Not exactly a representative sample of anything, but a cursory glance at the results allows us to assume that even a representative sample would have yielded similar results, but with one difference: If the same poll were conducted today, the name of another secretary of state would have been added. No, not Albright. The most prominent of all since the early days of  the Reagan administration to the present day was Secretary of State James Baker. If any one of all the secretaries of state who served after the poll was conducted might have been included in the top ten, it would likely be just him. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The historians’ list included mainly veteran – ancient – secretaries of state.

Regarding the first one, it is doubtful that there would be any argument. That would be John Quincy Adams who served as the sixth president, and his term of office does not receive high marks. But he was the eighth secretary of state, serving for eight years under President James Monroe. He outlined America’s foreign policy, including – and this is particularly significant – formulating the “Monroe Doctrine,” which defined the hegemony of the United States over the Americas – North, Central and South. It would certainly be interesting to have his thoughts on the current war between Russia and Ukraine.

Before serving as secretary of state he was the first American ambassador to Russia, and learned firsthand about Russia’s fears of invasion from the West. While sitting in the ambassador’s residence in St. Petersburg, he observed Napoleon’s army advance, and then stumble in the snow and mud. Good news? Adams and the Russian Czar had a common interest; both wanted the British to fight against Napoleon. The Czar – so that Napoleon wouldn’t have the strength to intensify his onslaught against Russia. Adams – so that the British would be busy with the French and would not send troops to fight in the war they were waging at that time in North America against the Americans.

It is interesting to review the list of outstanding secretaries of state, and see how almost all of them had to deal with Russia. Only a few escaped this fate. Adams was an ambassador there; William Seward, secretary of state during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, purchased Alaska from them. Incidentally, a fair number of Americans criticized this purchase and thought that America was paying way too much for a large and useless tract of ice-covered land, roughly $7 million. The president who approved the transaction, Andrew Johnson, who replaced the assassinated Lincoln, was not popular. And so, the purchase was also unpopular. It became known as “Seward’s Folly” and serves to remind all those who would judge the ministers and presidents to wait with their verdict, perhaps for several decades, perhaps even 100 or 200 years, before signing it and tossing it into the archives.

Those who ranked in 5th, 6th and 7th place on the list were three secretaries of state who served during the Cold War, which meant, of course, that they had no choice but to deal with Russia. George Marshall shaped the Truman Doctrine – containment vis-à-vis the Soviets. Dean Acheson, who succeeded Marshall, established NATO. Henry Kissinger, the only one on the top-ten list who many of us still remember being in office, and the only one who is still alive, played a mind game with the Russians that included a struggle for China’s friendship, and a transition to the compromise period, “détente,” accompanied by agreements on nuclear weapons control.

Kissinger was national security adviser, and later secretary of state, when Albright began her long journey to the top. Many alumni of that time took the same route, including Albright’s successor and the second woman to become secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, whose academic pursuits centered on Russia. When Kissinger more or less finished his career as a government official, Albright began working for Senator Ed Muskie. She then joined one of her university professors, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Her big leap came a decade and a half later, when she was appointed ambassador to the United Nations.

She passed away last week, in the midst of a crisis in which she had played a role in the processes that generated it: Albright served during the years when America seemed like an omnipotent empire upon whose will everything depended. To her credit – or not, depending on your point of view – one could list some of the more decisive moves to expand the NATO alliance to the east. We can assume that this was a combination of both professional interest and personal sentiment. Albright could speak Czech, Polish and Russian. She was the daughter of immigrants who hid their identity. A Jew by birth, her parents decided to raise her as a Catholic in order to save her from the fate of other European Jews. Only when she was at the peak of her power, as secretary of state, did she publicly acknowledge what she had previously suspected: the conclusions of the historical investigation that dispelled any doubt concerning the family’s true identity. Several dozen of her relatives had been sent to extermination.

A crisis to deal with

There have been numerous types of secretaries of state throughout the history of the United States and many personality types that were suited to this position. During Bill Clinton’s first term as president, when “the end of history” seemed at hand and the Cold War was visible in the rear-view mirror, Warren Christopher, a shrewd lawyer who always seemed a little too sleepy to perform the job, occupied the post of secretary of state. This was a dramatic change compared with the big ego, big mouth, and forceful presence of Jim Baker, who orchestrated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, and later on, formed the coalition in the first Gulf War against Iraq. Naturally, great secretaries of state need great events; it is impossible to excel in the job if nothing happens. Clinton complained about this fact at the end of his tenure. He knew that he would not be remembered among the first tier of presidents because he had not had to face a major crisis, such as a war, economic crisis, or national disaster. The main obstacle during his presidency was gossip from the White House that was a little too juicy, and which overshadowed more important things.

Albright, somewhat more than Christopher, had a crisis to deal with: first, as UN ambassador, she dealt with the horrifying massacres in Rwanda and clashed with the UN secretary-general who exhibited – in her opinion – helplessness. It was she who brought about the end of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali’s tenure. She made history as the first woman in the State Department. And because of her Ghali also made history: as the first secretary-general in the history of the United Nations not to win a second term of office. She thought he demonstrated weakness in the war in Rwanda and afterwards, in the Bosnian War. He thought the Americans were good at talking but weak in action. When American forces were attacked and wounded in Somalia – later known as the “Black Hawk Down” incident – Clinton quickly retreated and pulled out his troops. When the decision was made to stop the atrocities in Bosnia, the Americans refused to send ground forces. They were prepared to bomb from the air.

Albright also clashed over similar matters with then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. Immediately after that, he also made history: As America’s first Black secretary of state. After him came Rice, the first Black woman secretary of state. Here, we can already detect a kind of American pattern of conduct in recent decades. Secretaries of state who do not make foreign history, but rather make domestic history. Not a history of policy, but rather a history of identity. It is no coincidence that since Baker and until today, there is no one worthy of being considered for the list of the ten best ever. Not coincidentally, America no longer has an Adams, a Marshall, or a Kissinger (who was, it should be noted, the first Jewish secretary of state).

The current US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is more like Christopher than Albright. He is a player who quietly does the hard work, rather than a star who takes center stage. Albright was a woman of short stature, energetic and well-groomed. Upon first meeting with her it was almost surprising. On screen she was very charismatic; viewers had little idea of just how short she was. In real life she radiated the same charisma, and her short stature only added to the impression she made. So much energy in such a little body. Blinken is the other type, the type that you probably would not recognize on the street. Blinken visited Israel this week to meet with Prime Minister Bennett and Arab foreign ministers. It would have been interesting to see if anyone recognized him walking down Rothschild Blvd. in Tel Aviv or Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. Now think back to previous secretaries of state and try to recall which of them you would recognize more easily: Mike Pompeo, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Albright, Christopher, Baker, George Schultz?

Of all these, Powell was the most popular among the American public – a war hero, a general, a role model. As secretary of state these traits didn’t help him much. The public adored him; the George W. Bush administration, less so. When they needed his good services, his credibility, they sent him to present dubious intelligence information about Iraq’s unconventional weapons industry. When he gave advice, they ignored much of it. Powell was a high-profile secretary of state with little influence, but with an 86% approval rating. Christopher had 40%. Probably the reason  many barely remember him. Albright, Rice, and Clinton, the three women who served as secretaries of state, had almost identical popularity. It’s a bit strange but after checking I noticed the following statistic: just a bit more than 60% for each of them. Not every secretary of state has enjoyed that kind of support. The pretentious John Kerry, secretary of state during Obama’s second term, had an approval rating under 50%.

Blinken was not a general, nor a presidential candidate, nor has he made history in any way. He is a Jew, but not the first one to be secretary of state – again, that distinction belongs to Kissinger. Albright was also Jewish, at least somewhat. Blinken’s father was a diplomat, so was Albright’s father. His step-father was a Holocaust survivor. Albright’s parents also escaped the flames of Europe. In any event, it’s difficult to stand out, it’s hard to become part of the five or ten most prominent secretaries of state when you are already number 71.

Two types of surprises

As mentioned, the most notable served during the 19th century, when America was still young; or in the middle of the 20th century, when American was gripped by a fierce struggle against a rival empire. The current period is much less significant. America has receded from the world, and what remains for its secretaries of state is to play the role of lightning rod, absorbing complaints and remarks, absorbing the ridicule of those who think the superpower has lost its greatness, to explain why the president does not want this and does not want that.

Pompeo had to explain Trump’s conduct – and it was clear that he didn’t always desire to do so (Pompeo is among those already wondering, almost aloud, about the possibility of a presidential run as a Republican candidate, even against Trump). Kerry enthusiastically explained Obama’s behavior – even when his main achievement was an unsuccessful agreement with Iran and many unkept promises relating to Syria, the Palestinians, global warming and so on. Clinton was Clinton. In other words, she was secretary of state but she mainly thought about how to turn the job into a springboard for what she really wanted, that is, to be president (and in case you forgot, she didn’t win).

In 2016, Daniel Drezner, one of the smartest and most interesting authors on American foreign policy, placed her at the top of the list of outstanding secretaries of state. For a moment I was shocked – was Clinton the best? Afterwards, I looked at the title again: The best secretaries of state since the end of the Cold War. In other words, first in a field of six. In reality, Drezner ranked her before the others, but added a cautionary note: the possibility  that his assessment could change in a few years. He put Christopher in sixth place, and mentioned that it wasn‘t entirely his own fault. President Clinton had no real interest in foreign policy, at least during the first two years of his presidency (one exception, though I’m not sure it’s a positive one: the Oslo Accords). Powell ranked second to last on the list, serving under a president who did not trust him. Kerry placed fourth, and that’s despite having an achievement to his credit: Drezner supported the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) and gave Kerry credit for its signing.

Blinken will get less credit than Kerry if the JCPOA is signed a second time. First, because a second agreement rarely has the traction of a first one. Second, because the second agreement is being portrayed as even less successful than the first one, which was also not an achievement of American determination. Third, because Blinken is not the experienced secretary of state of a young president (the young Obama chose Clinton and Kerry, who were older, more experienced people). He is the secretary of state of an old president who has already seen it all, heard it all, and considers himself a great expert on foreign policy.

Biden entered the US Senate while Henry Kissinger was still in office. Fourth, because Kerry was busy cultivating his image. He was a politician who became a statesman, not a professional diplomat. Fifth, because Blinken has a lot of good qualities but prominence isn’t one of them. This will work against him in the games of ranking influential and decisive secretaries of state, and will work in his favor if the Biden administration is perceived as an ineffective government that signed a bad deal with Iran, failed to stop Putin, and fumbled in its handling of China. Of course, it is still too soon to predict any of these scenarios. And in the context of Russia, the administration has been surprisingly good, at least as much as Putin has been surprisingly bad.

Still, Blinken will not be the first to be surprised by the Russians, usually for the worse. The Americans have two types of surprises in this context. The first surprise: They are always amazed at the cynical reality of Russian leaders, and the fact that they are not really interested in considerations of morality or human rights. The second surprise: They are often also surprised by the Russians’ performance. Sometimes in favor of the Russians, but to the detriment of the world as the Americans would like it to be (in particular, the launching of the first astronaut into space), and sometimes, also, to the detriment of the Russians themselves, as is happening now in Ukraine, where the aggressive army faces severe difficulty against the determined fighters of Volodymyr Zelensky.

John Hay, who was secretary of state under two dominant presidents – William McKinley, who was murdered by an anarchist assassin’s bullet; and then his successor, Teddy Roosevelt – was surprised twice by the Russians because of their cynicism and their difficulty in carrying out their plans. That was a long time ago, but the story echoes in events happening today. The Russians wanted living space, not in the West but in the East. They wanted control of Manchuria. The Japanese were not pleased. After Manchuria came Korea, that is, a threat close to home. The Russo-Japanese war was brutal and ended, surprisingly, with a Japanese victory.

It was a cruel war – too cruel for Hay, who was not a novice in matters of war. Hay achieved his place in history as personal aide to President Lincoln, whom he accompanied through the days of the American Civil War, until his assassination. Some of the battles of the Russo-Japanese war were fought by more soldiers than in the greatest battles of the Civil War, such as Gettysburg. From the end of February until mid-March 1905, the Russians and Japanese fought in the Battle of Mukden. More than 600,000 soldiers, roughly 160,000 wounded. Many historians believe it was the largest battle in human history up to that point in time. A worthy introduction to what would came ten years later, in the First World War.

The Americans debated over how to act throughout this crisis, which, by the way, culminated with Roosevelt being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for brokering an agreement that ended the war. Secretary of State Hay sent protests to the Russians over their aggressive actions. The Russians responded with surprise mixed with insult. We were aggressive? Like Putin today, so the Russians were then. “It is very difficult and very complex to work with a government where lying is a science,” Hay complained to Roosevelt. He also wrote, “we – that is, the Americans – are not responsible for healing the Russian soul.”

The age difference between President Roosevelt and his secretary of state was 20 years. It wasn’t the first time, and certainly not the last, that a secretary of state was the stern-faced, experienced, cautious older individual advising a younger and more energetic president. After McKinley’s assassination, Hay offered Roosevelt his resignation, but the very young Roosevelt, who was the youngest president ever (he was 42 when he entered the White House), understood that he needed Hay by his side. He made a tremendous effort to retain Hay, and to befriend him. So much so that he read all ten volumes of the Lincoln biography Hay had written. The important biography about Hay himself is nearly 700 pages long, but a year later another book about Hay, no less interesting, was published: “Lincoln’s Boys,” a book that deals with how Hay and his colleague John Nicolay shaped Lincoln’s image after his murder.

Most books written by most secretaries of state aren’t worth reading. Some are nothing more than an attempt to glorify, in retrospect, what they did while in office. Most of them are packed with details that are of little interest just a short time after the end of their term. The most notable exceptions are the books by Kissinger, who knew how to think and to write better than most. Also, “Present at the Creation” by Dean Acheson. A little more than 700 pages, if you’re interested in giving it a try. You can read about the others in books written by other authors. Fred Kaplan on Adams, and more recently, two years ago, “The Man who Ran Washington,” about James Baker. Here is one thing I learned from it: as an undergraduate at Princeton Baker wrote his senior thesis on the British foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, which could also be considered a kind of introduction to his own career. He was a pragmatist, an outstanding negotiator, he wrote of Bevin, who “could not stand the dreamers,” who never “got lost in the maze of ideology,” and was always “extremely pragmatic.”

In Mandatory Israel, which was fighting for independence and immigration following the Holocaust, the leaders felt that Bevin was an antisemite. He was the main opponent of Jewish immigration and at one party conference claimed that the Americans “were attempting to help the Jews immigrate to Palestine because they don’t want them in New York.” Eventually, there would be those who made the same accusation against Baker after he quarreled with the government of Yitzhak Shamir, and spoke out strongly against Benjamin Netanyahu. Why is it worth repeating this? Because this is also an important lesson to learn when writing about the excellence of American secretaries of state: What’s good for them isn’t always also good for us.

Originally published in Hebrew by Maariv on April 2, 2022