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On May 3, the day after an artful deal to end the diplomatic crisis over Chen Guangcheng, China's now-famous dissident, unraveled spectacularly, Hillary Rodham Clinton followed a scrum of Chinese ministers around an exhibition of clean cookstoves. These are safer, portable alternatives to the crude stoves used by hundreds of millions of women in the developing world. Not long after becoming secretary of state in 2009, Clinton took up the cookstove cause, one of what she describes as "smart power" issues - though sceptical veterans of American foreign policy tend to deride them as soft more than smart.
In September 2010, Clinton announced the creation of a partnership led by the United Nations Foundation to provide 100 million cleaner and more efficient stoves around the world by 2020, and she has since used every opportunity to implore world leaders to adopt policies to encourage their use. Among them was China's top foreign-policy official, Dai Bingguo, with whom she first raised the issue over lunch at the State Department in May 2011. After a year of discussion, Dai agreed to put it on the agenda for their annual meetings this year in Beijing, raising the prospect that China.
Then late at night on April 25, a week before Clinton was to arrive, she held an emergency conference call over secure lines with her top advisers at the State Department, arriving at a decision that put the entire visit at risk, not to mention years of effort to improve relations with China. Chen, a blind, self-taught lawyer who endured a prison term and ongoing harassment, had escaped house arrest in his village in Shandong Province and made his way to the outskirts of Beijing. An American diplomat secretly met with him there and reported back to Washington that he needed urgent medical treatment in the only safe place imaginable: the American Embassy in Beijing, where a doctor could examine him. Hours later, the Americans spirited him in. The next challenge was to resolve Chen's fate in a way that wouldn't scuttle essential Chinese cooperation on the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, the worsening conflict in Syria, the fighting between Sudan and South Sudan, cyberattacks emanating from China - and cookstoves. No one close to her would dare put it quite this way, but a question at the heart of her legacy is this: As important as the plight of Chen might be, what is it compared to the deaths of nearly two million people a year from toxic smoke in their kitchens?
What has been most striking about Clinton's tenure as secretary of state is at once how suited for the job she has proved to be and how improbable it once seemed, even to her. "Not in a million years, " she replied by email in November 2008 when her political aide Philippe Reines first told her that President-elect Barack Obama was considering her appointment, despite having derided her experience in foreign affairs as first lady during the campaign. It's true that Clinton lacked the foreign-policy experience of recent secretaries like Condoleezza Rice, Colin L Powell or Madeleine K Albright. Nor was she personally close to Obama in the way James A Baker III was to President George H W Bush. What she possessed was energy, the dogged loyalty she displayed campaigning for Obama after she lost and, not insignificant, her fame. Clinton vacillated for days, at one point deciding to decline. (Her aides say Obama would not take no for an answer;he avoided at least one phone call from her, the story goes, by having an aide explain he was in the bathroom. ) Ultimately, as the chief of protocol of the United States, Capricia Penavic Marshall, who has worked with Clinton since she was first lady, told me: "When asked to serve, she does. And her President asked. "
Obama and Clinton have instead led the least discordant national-security team in decades, despite enormous challenges on almost every front. They share a vision of diplomacy that is high-minded in its support for democratic rights (in Libya and elsewhere) but hardheaded when those values run up against American security interests (Egypt and Bahrain) or other limits of American power (Syria). They have handled crises with neither rancour nor, for the most part, public leaks intended to shape their private debates. Clinton set the tone from the start, enforcing respect for the man who bested her on the campaign trail.
Not that the two have agreed on everything. Clinton, for example, advocated keeping more troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a senior White House official. Publicly, though, she supported the President's determination to bring to an end America's increasingly unpopular wars, withdrawing the remaining American troops from Iraq last December and scheduling the withdrawals from Afghanistan by 2014.
Meantime, for all the world's crises, Clinton seems to be enjoying herself immensely, more relaxed as America's top diplomat than perhaps at any other time in her public life. At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in April - infamous now for the behaviour of Secret Service agents detailed to protect the President - she joined her staff for a birthday party at a nightclub called Cafe Havana, where she danced and tossed back beer. Around the same time, two communications specialists in Washington, Adam Smith and Stacy Lambe, created an internet meme with a black-and-white photo of Clinton in dark glasses, reading her Blackberry on the C-17 that took her to Libya last year. The two juxtaposed photographs of other officials and celebrities and imagined hilarious exchanges. "She's going to love the new Justin Bieber video!" one caption reads under a picture of Obama and Biden. "Back to work, boys, " Clinton texts back. Far from taking offense or ignoring it, as she might once have, Clinton submitted her own caption and met Smith and Lambe at the State Department. "ROFL @ ur tumblr! g2g - scrunchie time. ttyl?"
Clinton told me she had not yet made specific plans for her future, but then revealed some, or "pieces of things, " as she put it. She intends to write another book and to pursue philanthropy, championing women and girls, as ever. She hinted that people had floated some ideas already, "but there's too much to do. I can't stop and worry about what's next. " She sounds sincere when she says she simply wants a rest after four decades of public life. On a lovely spring evening in Rome last year, Clinton joined the traveling press corps for bellinis at Harry's Bar on Via Vittorio Veneto and was asked, again, what she intended to do next. She laughed it off as always, saying she would love to return and linger right there. "What sentient being wouldn't ?" she told me later. But it would be foolish to assume this is Clinton's last act.
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