Can Trump's Pick for Secretary of State Pass the "Togo Test"?

Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives in Abuja, Nigeria. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of State

Visiting one African state—or not—can reveal a lot about the diplomatic agenda.

After a wide-ranging selection process, President-elect Donald Trump will reportedly name his secretary of state in the next week or so. As soon as America’s top diplomat is revealed, pundits will undoubtedly pillage through his past, looking for clues that may augur the country’s foreign policy future. There is, however, an even simpler way to determine how the likely sixty-ninth secretary of state will set his agenda: Does he plan to visit Togo or not?

It is an odd question, but one which the sixty-seventh secretary of state answered easily. In January 2012, Secretary Hillary Clinton did visit Togo, the nation of seven million wedged between Ghana and Benin in West Africa. In the capital, Lomé, she toured the modernist, multimillion-dollar, Chinese-built presidential palace with President Faure Gnassingbé. As Clinton pointed out later, “No secretary of state had ever been to Togo before.” In fact, no secretary of state has ever been to as many countries as Clinton, before or since. Her successor, John Kerry, is at the moment a full twenty-one stops short of her total 112.

To reach that record, Clinton had to visit a number of places usually skipped by U.S. secretaries of state. Between 2009 and 2013, her travels took her to the Cook Islands and Timor Leste, to Angola and Cote d'Ivoire, to Uzbekistan and Mongolia, and to Papua New Guinea and Uruguay. She visited Cape Verde a couple of times. Of course, the relevance of these countries to America’s immediate national interest is somewhere between nearly and entirely nonexistent. Nonetheless, there was intention behind this wild itinerary.

Clinton’s jetting to every corner of the world complemented her open-ended foreign policy strategy. In this strategy, marquee headings such as “Pivot to Asia” and “Reset with Russia” became catch-alls for an assortment of small-bore achievements and slow-rolling plans across many countries. Everything from stationing a few dozen U.S. troops in Australia’s remote north to negotiating trade concessions from Japanese rice farmers could be labeled as part of the pivot. Essentially, these agendas were always developing, always ongoing, never completed, and in that indeterminate state much more difficult to pin down as successes or failures. With Clinton at State, America was permanently pivoting and resetting, and every action great and small was fitted into that narrative.

Now, compare Clinton with Kerry, who has taken a very different approach. Kerry’s more limited travel history seems stuck in a loop — Paris, London, Tel Aviv, Vienna, Rome, repeat. He has not been to Togo. Contra Clinton, the current secretary of state has focused on just a few issues, in a few places, and has largely seen them through to completion. The Iran nuclear deal, the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba and the Paris climate accord all come to mind. Even when diplomatic issues have stalled, as with the Syrian civil war and with talks between Israelis and Palestinians, he has remained dogged. Kerry has visited Israel fourteen times as secretary of state compared to Clinton’s five, and he has had more than 375 phone calls, totaling 130 hours, with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Importantly, he has also staked his reputation on the results. The sharpest critics of the Iran deal will agree with its supporters on this point: Kerry owns it. His legacy is inextricably tied to the nuclear agreement. For better or worse, it will be a line in his obituary. The same can be said of the new U.S. embassy in Havana. It’s difficult, however, to say the same of any single issue pursued by Clinton, who went to pains during the presidential campaign to distance herself from everything up to and including the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The First Big Decision

Modernity has made the job of secretary of state especially grueling. It is rare for America’s top diplomat to last more than one presidential term. Time is scarce. The next secretary of state’s starting point, then, is to decided right away whether to focus on a few big issues in a few places, à la Kerry, or to pursue a hodgepodge of ongoing policies across the globe, à la Clinton. Clinton would argue — indeed, she did argue — that paying attention to small places yields surprising results. “Going there, making the personal investment, has a real strategic purpose," she said about visiting Togo and the Cook Islands. But Kerry, in comparing the final negotiations of the Paris climate agreement with the final negotiations of the Iran nuclear deal, cautioned against such itinerancy. It is much better, he explained, to finish what was started where it started. “If you’re not present, bad things can happen,” he said. “If you’re not there, there can be a sudden shift in the negotiations and you can lose everything if you’re not ready to head it off at the pass.”