Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 21:25 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 21:25 | SYDNEY

What to do? Where to go?


Graeme Dobell

6 January 2010 15:17

The problem with having your own jet is everyone wants you to visit. The US Secretary of State doesn't need sympathy in most areas, but the flying miles required are astounding.

Sam's post (What to do, what to do?) links nicely to a conversation Newsweek has just published between Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger. Doing an interview/conversation involving two superstars is always a fraught journalistic endeavour. The two stars can collide and create a black hole from which no light emerges. Or they can spend so much time on ego projection/protection that the two orbits never meet. The Kissinger-Clinton effort evades those traps and is as illuminating as can be expected from two such professionals.

Diplomacy is always about people as much as it is about politics and policy, and Clinton illuminates that reality by citing the travel burden as one of the toughest issues she confronts.

What I have found hardest to balance is the amount of travel that is expected today. One would think that in an era where communication is instantaneous, you would not have to get on an airplane and go sit in a meeting. But, in fact, it's almost as though people are more desirous of seeing someone in person...People sit around in capitals all over the world reading tea leaves, trying to make sense of what we're doing. We have to go and meet and talk and listen, and it is a challenge to manage all of the relationships you have to manage when you're on an airplane as much as I am these days.

The Secretary of State can get a lot done jetting around on the jumbo. But as Colin Powell found, one thing it is hard to do while airborne is protect your back from the other big beasts still sitting in Washington. That is part of the subtext to the Kissinger-Clinton discussion about dealing with the most important constituent of all – the occupant of the White House. Or to paraphrase Kissinger, if a secretary of state can't create an 'extraordinarily close' relationship with the president, then the SoS quickly becomes a burnt sausage.

Kissinger is probably as guilty as any holder of the office for the creation of the personal jet dilemma. His shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East set the model for the fly-in SoS. And, of course, his briefings to the accompanying US reporters while airborne created one of the great journalistic sourcing descriptions: 'sources at the front of the plane.'

The tensions confronting the travelling SoS is that between building diplomatic capital and getting a demonstrable outcome, as Kissinger noted: 'When you travel as secretary, one problem you have is that the press comes with you and wants an immediate result because it justifies their trip. And sometimes the best result is that you don't try to get a result but try to get an understanding for the next time you go to them.'

An interesting element of such an interview/conversation exercise is to see what gets a focus beyond the headlines and how they are ranked. To the usual tensions between what is urgent and what is important, Clinton added another category: the 'long-term trend lines'. The trend issues she listed were:

  • Energy security and independence (and a common energy policy with Europe)
  • Food security and food riots.
  • Climate and migration patterns.
  • Pandemics and global health.
  • If the melting of the Arctic creates permanent rather than seasonal shipping, how will Russia and the other four countries ringing the 'Arctic Ocean' respond?

Photo courtesy of the US State Department.