As Winston Churchill is once said to have told a naive young MP, excited about going eyeball-to-eyeball with the enemy across the Commons chamber: “That is the opposition in front the enemy is behind us”. Hilary Clinton stood alongside Barack Obama as she was named his nominee for Secretary of State yesterday, in the culmination of one of those stories that the modern news cycle transforms from being astonishing to inevitable in a matter of days.
President-elect Obama has been praised for his bravery in selecting such an obvious rival to such a prominent position, but he is certainly not alone in the world. Gordon Brown felt the need to counter the growing buzz around David Miliband (remember, this was pre-Bananagate) by installing him at the Foreign Office. In Israel, the outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also decided to place his probable (and, it turns out, actual) successor as Kadima leader, Tzipi Livni, in the same position. Chief rival to foreign minister is a well-worn reshuffle tactic.
But why do they do it? What makes leaders place their greatest rivals in the heavyweight, camera-friendly role of foreign secretary? Perhaps it is just that these leaders have simply selected the best people for the job. All three of the decisions referred to above were regarded, at the time, as largely positive appointments, good for their respected nations’ standing in the world.
A more cynical reading suggests that sending potential challengers gadding off around the world takes some of the pressure off their leaders. It gets them out of the way, preventing them from courting party and media support in the insular national political bubble. It also keeps them out of the news for long swathes of time, barring the odd summit or crisis. A more compelling case is this.
The last British Foreign Secretary (ignoring John Major, who served a very brief caretaker stint in the 1980s) to become PM was Jim Callaghan. The last US Secretary of State to become President was James Buchanan, all the way back in 1857. (The Israeli case is different, given both the more prominent role of foreign affairs in daily political life, and the fluid nature of political fortunes in that part of the world). Simply put, the past tells us that a country’s chief diplomat rarely gets to become its leader.
If there’s one thing that Gordon Brown and Barack Obama share, it’s their understanding of, and love for, history.