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Columnists

Foreign currency

Paul Vallely

Vallely

Steadfast. Now there's an old-style Christian virtue that's much out of fashion these fly-by-night days. Yet, when you think about it, you realise that the quality is still there at the bedrock of the way we relate to one another. Indeed, of course, it has to be. It is just that, like so much else that's good in the modern world, it doesn't make the headlines.

Except occasionally. Hillary Clinton recently retired as US Secretary of States and a look back at her four years in the job emphasises the importance of this much-neglected quality in the contemporary age. When Mrs Clinton was first invited to become  the Secretary of State few doubted it was a clever political move by President Barack Obama. He gained a world ambassador of considerable stature who had been prominent in the international public spotlight for almost two decades. And simultaneously he removed from the Senate the woman who had fought fiercely with him in the primaries - and who could have become a powerful focus of internal opposition within the Democratic Party. But there were many who wondered if she was actually up to the job.

Four years on few can doubt that. Perhaps Mr Obama went over the top when he described her in their farewell interview on 60 Minutes as 'one of the finest secretaries of state' the USA has ever had. But Mrs Clinton's four years in office have been a solid if unspectacular success in almost every field. She leaves behind no great single publicity-grabbing triumph but the United States has become a safer place on her watch. Steadfastness has been a key component of that.

Those in search of shortcomings have to point to minor misjudgements like the time she told the Chinese that she would be limiting her concerns on human rights - when all she really meant to signal was that her previous role as a campaigner would now be augmented by wider concerns on economic issues, North Korea and much else. Even then she managed to secure the freedom of the blind activist Chen Guangcheng after he took refuge in the US embassy in Beijing - and did so without damaging the wider US relationship with China which she rebalanced, opposing Chinese bullying of other Asian nations and restoring the USA's reputation in the region.

She performed similar balancing acts elsewhere. She dragged relations with Pakistan back from the brink of disaster. She assiduously re-wooed Europe when it became disillusioned with an Obama presidency of which it had had such high hopes. In Afghanistan the US policy of more robust engagement with the Taliban avoided retreat looking too much like defeat.

So where does the steadfastness come in? Because Hillary Clinton achieved this through a combination of sharp intelligence and immensely hard work. Her peers say the routine thoroughness of her preparation meant she understood the constraints upon those with whom she negotiated. She did not make demands which the other side would find impossible. Nor did she let slip careless or ill-judged words which she later had to fudge or retract. She was a team player who did not allow any public space to emerge between her and her boss in the White House.

There is, I am told, a theology of deputising, though my instinct is that being a good deputy is rooted in temperament and psychology so much as theology. But there is a theology of duty in which Mrs Clinton, with her Methodist background - and her continued attendance at a Methodist church even after marrying Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist - is clearly grounded. By that I don't mean some kind of deontology that judges the morality of an action in absolute terms. Running the foreign policy of the world's greatest power requires a realpolitik which will almost inevitably be governed by a consequentialist ethic. But Hillary Clinton is clearly driven by a powerful sense of 'doing your duty', both as an individual and as a nation, which has brought a steady stability to a US foreign policy which seemed whimsical and quixotic and mercurial in the Bush era.

Much of that was unglamorous, like ploughing through the detail in the Association of South-East Asian Nations' Treaty of Amity and Co-operation before planning a trip to Jakarta to signal the USA's intention to join. But it was on such assiduity that the rebuilding of US standing in the world has begun in the Obama era.

Not everything has been a success. In the Middle East US policy on the Israel/Palestinian peace process has largely collapsed, though there it was Mr Obama rather than Mrs Clinton who placed their reputation on the line. Mrs Clinton played a key role, by contrast, in unpicking the central leadership of al-Qa'eda  and in the decision to support the Arab Spring rather than propping up old US allies like President Mubarak in Egypt. She was wise enough too to prevent Washington from repeating the mistakes of Iraq in Libya. And, thanks significantly to her, diplomacy is still being pursued on Iran rather than military action.  She has also understood the constraints that Russian support for President Assad places on US options in Syria.

It is, of course, too soon to judge the final product of her 800,000 miles of travel to 112 countries. History has yet to pronounce its verdict on US relations with China, Russia, Iran and Syria. But Hillary Clinton has undoubtedly done much to restore the credibility of the United States which took such an international battering in the Bush era. She leaves the USA stronger than when she came to office - and she leaves the job politically stronger herself than ever before. Those who are speculating that she will run for president in 2016 could well be proved right. She does not quit looking old, tired or vulnerable. She looks the model of steadfastness.

Paul Vallely