Politics of Poverty

What to look for in a Secretary of State

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State Department Headquarters in Washington, DC. (Photo: AP)

Will this central actor in the Trump Administration be a leader for peace, development, and fighting poverty?

Washington is abuzz with the Presidential transition.  Names emerge, rumors fly, and we all await definitive decisions on who will populate key positions in the incoming Trump Administration.  At the time of writing, Rudolph Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John Bolton and Senator Robert Corker are the leading candidates for Secretary of State, the post previously held by Hillary Clinton in the Obama Administration.

The Secretary of State is an extremely prestigious position, arguably the “first among equals” of cabinet officials.  Aside from the President himself, the Secretary of State is the face of the United States and engages with leaders around the world to advance US interests.

The Secretary of State is the nation’s chief diplomat, and a critical adviser to the President on matters of national interest, national security, war and peace.  The Constitution reserves the power to declare war for the Congress, but it is often the responsibility of the Secretary of State to make and preserve the peace.   The Secretary of State usually sits at negotiating tables, hammering out treaties, peace agreements and holding accountable both our allies and adversaries.

The Secretary of State represents one of the three pillars of US foreign affairs, known as the “3Ds”.  The second D is “defense”, our military which is an obvious but blunt tool to engage the world.

The third is “development”, which has, historically been much the neglected or diminished leg of the stool.  But development, which represents the cooperative, aspirational aspects of US engagement with the world has played a growing role over time.  This is partly because the leaders of the other “Ds” have recognized that development is a critical component of an overall strategy.   Under the Bush Administration, the US Defense Secretary argued for increased development aid, recognizing that aid and economic growth are bulwarks against extremism.  As Secretary of State, Colin Powell described humanitarians and aid NGOs as a “force multiplier”.

As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton supported the development pillar, almost to a fault.  She was deeply involved in the selection of the USAID Administrator and there were rumors that she wanted to consolidate USAID in form or in effect under the State Department.

The strategic vision and diplomatic competence of the next Secretary of State will be critically important.  But equally important will be his or her vision for the relative roles of the 3Ds.  Will the next Secretary of State support development, poverty reduction, and human rights as a core purpose of US foreign affairs?  Although Donald Trump hardly mentioned foreign aid and development in the campaign, he has hinted at his own views:

“Americans are the most generous people on earth. We are there responding to every disaster in every corner of the world with both private and U.S. government aid. America’s taxpayers deserve a reformed USAID and a multilateral engagement with organizations and foreign governments that are held accountable for results – measured in lives saved, poverty reduced, economic opportunities created, and diplomatic friendships made stronger.”

Oxfam and anti-poverty advocates have worked for years to promote a humanitarian purpose for our foreign aid.  To make aid about reducing poverty, improving governance, supporting human rights, promoting human dignity. Historically, the threat to aid comes from many directions – including from the Secretary of State who has pushed aid to be an instrument of US interests and diplomatic deal-making.  This statement from then-candidate Trump is not much, but it’s something – and it’s encouraging.  It points out that US foreign assistance has problems and inefficiencies. But it also recognizes aid’s fundamental – often life-saving – value.  It will be important to see if the Secretary of State agrees.

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