President Barack Obama is assembling his new national security team, with Sen. John Kerry possibly heading for the Pentagon and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice the perceived front-runner to become secretary of state. Kerry is an excellent choice for defense. I don’t know Rice at all, so I have no opinion on her fitness for the job, but I think the contrived flap over her Libya comments certainly shouldn’t disqualify her. That said, my own nominee for secretary of state would be the current education secretary, Arne Duncan.
Yes, yes, I know. Duncan is not seeking the job and is not the least bit likely to get it. But I’m nominating him because I think this is an important time to ask the question of not just who should be secretary of state, but what should the secretary of state be in the 21st century?
Let’s start with the obvious. A big part of the job is negotiating. Well, anyone who has negotiated with the Chicago Teachers Union, as Duncan did when he was superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, would find negotiating with the Russians and Chinese a day at the beach. A big part of being secretary of education (and secretary of state) is getting allies and adversaries to agree on things they normally wouldn’t – and making them think that it was all their idea. Trust me, if you can cut such deals with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, you can do them with Vladimir Putin and Bibi Netanyahu.
A big part of the job of secretary of state is also finding common ground between multiple constituencies: Congress, foreign countries, big business, the White House, the Pentagon and the diplomats. The same is true for a school superintendent, but the constituencies between which they have to forge common ground are so much more intimidating: They’re called “parents,” “teachers,” “students” and “school boards.”
There is a deeper point here: The biggest issue in the world today is growth, and, in this information age, improving educational outcomes for more young people is now the most important lever for increasing economic growth and narrowing income inequality. In other words, education is now the key to sustainable power. To have a secretary of state who is one of the world’s leading authorities on education, well, everyone would want to talk to him. For instance, it would be very helpful to have a secretary of state who can start a negotiating session with Hamas leaders by asking: “Do you know how far behind your kids are?” That might actually work better than: “Why don’t you recognize Israel?”
Indeed, Islam is one of the world’s great monotheistic faiths, but it is not the answer to Arab development today. Math is the answer. Education is the answer. Getting the Middle East to focus on that would do more to further our interests and their prosperity than anything else. As we are seeing in Egypt, suddenly creating a mass democracy without improving mass education is highly unstable.
At the same time, as our foreign budget shrinks, more and more of it will have to be converted from traditional grants to “Races to the Top,” which Duncan’s Education Department pioneered in U.S. school reform. We will have to tell needy countries that whoever comes up with the best ideas for educating their young women and girls or incentivizing start-ups or strengthening their rule of law will get our scarce foreign aid dollars.
Finally, there’s a reason that since the end of the Cold War our secretaries of state have racked up more miles than they’ve made history. Before 1995, the job involved ending or avoiding superpower conflicts and signing big arms control treaties. Those were the stuff of heroic diplomacy. Fortunately, today there are fewer big wars to end, and the big treaties now focus more on trade and the environment than nukes – and they’re very hard to achieve. Also, today’s secretary of state has to deal with so many more failed or failing states. Secretary Hillary Clinton practically had to forge the Syrian opposition groups into a coherent collective, as a necessary precursor to persuading them to do the right things.
In short, we’re still indispensable, but the problems are much more intractable. Our allies are not what they used to be and neither are our enemies, who are less superpowers and more superempowered angry men and women. A lot of countries will need to go back to the blackboard, back to the basics of human capacity building, before they can partner with us on anything. So while we’re not likely to shift our secretary of education to secretary of state, let’s at least understand why it is not such a preposterous idea.