Hillary Clinton was in Papua New Guinea for only a few hours as secretary of State, but the experience stuck with her, for all the wrong reasons.
The country has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, so a reporter asked the then-prime minister about the problem as Clinton stood just a few feet away. The premier explained that sometimes men come home from work to find their dinner isn’t ready and need to show their displeasure. “Even the jaded American press corps was shocked,” Clinton recalled four years later, while speaking at the Simmons Leadership Conference in April.
She recited the anecdote jauntily (the prime minister was later ousted and his successor publicly apologized to the women of his country), but she said it was “one of the worst” experiences she’s had with a foreign leader during her tenure in public life.
By her own account, Clinton has been incessantly giggled at by Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe; had a fist waved at her by Slovakia’s former ex-boxer head of state; been treated as an “honorary man” in Persian Gulf states (and that’s better than the alternative); and watched even well-meaning world leaders’ “eyes glaze over … I can’t tell you how many times,” when she starts talking about the benefits of getting women involved in the economy.
When Clinton entered public life as first lady of Arkansas in 1983, there had been just a handful of female world leaders. Today, the Council of Women World Leaders, a group of current and former female presidents and prime ministers, has 49 members (several more have died), with 20 now serving as heads of state of democratic countries. That’s the most there have ever been at once, even though it’s a fraction of the number of male leaders.
While much has been made of the historic nature of a potential Clinton presidency, the impact of electing a woman to lead the United States would be felt far beyond America’s borders. If Clinton wins, she will find like-minded glass-ceiling breakers around the world with whom to forge alliances. Indeed, she’s already close friends with many of them.
“There are a lot of very impressive women leaders on the world scene in the last several years…. I find a lot of affinity with them,” Clinton said at Simmons. “I love seeing them, I love being with them, I love talking to them about the decisions they made to seek public office and how challenging it was.”
Clinton went around the world, praising some of those she’s known. There’s Michelle Bachelet, who in March was elected to a second term as Chile’s president; Park Geun-hye, elected last year as South Korea’s president; Joyce Banda, the women’s-rights advocate-cum-president of Malawi; and Dilma Rousseff, who has led Brazil’s government since 2011. That’s on top of better-known female leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (a former first lady and senator herself).
And that doesn’t include such women as Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, with whom Clinton shared a high five during a conference in New York City two months ago at the suggestion that Clinton could be president of the United States at the same time Lagarde is president of the European Commission.
Or Janet Yellen, who recently took the helm of the Federal Reserve Board, a job that makes her arguably the second-most-powerful woman in the world, after Merkel — whom, Clinton notes, “I’ve known for a long time.”
What would Clinton’s membership in this small club mean?
Laura Liswood, the secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders, says the leaders she works with generally enjoy the opportunity to get together. While they come from different cultures and may disagree on critical issues, they often have shared similar experiences and challenges, such as dealing with “over-scrutiny” from the press. “Irrespective of policies, there’s just sort of a natural affinity, if you will, between these women,” Liswood said.
Clinton, in an interview this week with ABC’s Robin Roberts, argued that “when more women are at the table, there’s a greater chance for sustainability” in peace accords and cease-fires.
Stephanie Schriock, the president of the Democratic group EMILY’s List, which has worked to promote a potential future “Madam President,” pointed to a precedent set in the U.S. Senate, where women were credited with ending the government shutdown last fall. “Those 20 senators get together on a quarterly basis over a meal and talk about what’s going on and try to find common ground to move the ball forward,” she said.
That’s not to say we should expect world peace to break out on Inauguration Day 2017 if Clinton wins. Rather, it’s that among all the myriad tools presidents have to conduct foreign policy, the potential to build personal relationships can be useful, even if only on the margins.