Whatever you think of John Kerry’s performance as Secretary of State – for example your view of the controversial interim nuclear agreement with Iran – it’s impossible to deny he’s been fearless as well as tireless. Not every one of his efforts has succeeded, of course. In fact, some would argue that his enormous investment of time and energy in trying to broker an understanding between the Israelis and Palestinians is a fool’s errand. But the agreement with Iran, along with several other done deals (or nearly so) in his first year as Secretary, including interceding to preclude the president from bombing Syria, reaching an agreement to destroy that country’s chemical weapons, and negotiating a (likely) long-term security arrangement with Afghanistan’s impossibly recalcitrant President, Hamid Karzai, is surely the start of what could turn out a remarkable record.
Now for the counterfactual: imagine that the incumbent Secretary of State is not a tall, imposing man by the name of John Kerry, but rather his immediate predecessor, a not so tall though similarly imposing woman by the name of Hillary Clinton. Would the administration’s record over the last year have been the same?
Nearly no one has argued that Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State was in any way remarkable. True, she logged countless miles on the nation’s behalf. True she visited no fewer than 95 different countries even before her final year. And true she promoted good causes, especially the welfare of women. But hanging around her neck is the albatross of Benghazi – four men were murdered on her watch, including the U. S ambassador to Libya – and she is unlikely to be remembered either for her strategic brilliance or for any particular program or policy.
So here is my question: Did the fact that Clinton is a woman inhibit her from undertaking the types of bold initiatives with which Kerry is already being associated? Would it be harder for a woman than for a man to negotiate with, for example, the Russians, or the Afghans, or the Iranians? This is not to say that no woman has ever before played poker with the big boys. In fact, a woman participated in the negotiations with the Iranians – Catherine Ashton, representing the European Union.* Rather it is to point out that historically the number of women at the highest levels of foreign policy has been woefully low. And it is to suggest that if only for this reason, being a woman in this role could be internalized as a handicap.
Ashton herself has not felt immune to gender bias. She once blasted the “latent sexism” in Brussels.