World Waits on Clinton's Successor, But What Will She do Next?

13/11/2012 15:38 GMT | Updated 12/01/2013 10:12 GMT

The dust hasn't yet settled on Barack Obama's victory over Mitt Romney, but the focus has already switched towards who will replace him as US President in four years time and most eyes - particularly in Europe and beyond - are firmly fixed on Hillary Clinton.

On the face of it, the battle between Obama and Romney was watched very closely in Downing Street, the German Chancellery, Kremlin and Beijing's Imperial Palace, but the real interest among the world's diplomatic community is what Clinton does next.

What we do know is that she will step down as secretary of state. In fact aides indicated that she had planned an elegant exit a few weeks ago until she was hung out to dry by the White House in the wake of the killing of the US ambassador to Libya. She defiantly stayed on despite the hopes of the Obama team that she would take one for the Democrats at a pivotal point in the presidential campaign.

What we also know is that her replacement at the state department will not have the same international profile nor will he or she come with such a political pedigree.

A US ambassador once explained that if Obama won a second term, he will spend most of the next four years outside of the US. With Congress all but deadlocked for at least two and bit years, he will focus his attention on foreign policy, creating an international legacy which will see him through the cold winters once he steps down. And he won't want to be competing with another Hillary Clinton on the world stage.

And here lies the unspoken tension, or some would say jealousy, of the past four years between Obama and Clinton. Once Obama had gained the Democratic nomination in 2008 over his rival, he soon realised he needed her onboard, or more specifically her husband. Hillary and Bill on the other hand knew that for her to have any chance of becoming president in the future, she needed to hitch herself to the Obama bandwagon.

But despite this unspoken pact and the public show of unity between the two, tensions remained, notably between State and the White House over who should take the lead on US foreign policy.

This pact began to unravel following the forced resignation of State Department spokesman PJ Crowley at the behest of the White House and was further inflamed by a number of other spats, notably over how to deal with the Middle East peace process, Arab Spring and Iran. The White House became increasingly frustrated with Hillary's 'soft diplomacy' and sought to take a tougher line.

This was no more evident than in the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the death of Ambassador John Christopher Stevens. The death of Bin Laden painted the perfect picture of Obama as a commander-in-chief and Clinton's State Department failed to receive any credit for obtaining the necessary intelligence to make the attack possible. Some in the State Department claim that the tip-off would not have happened without their diplomatic charm offensive in the region.

However, when Ambassador Steven was killed in Libya, the White House were quick to credit the State Department. The Obama team all but blamed State's approach to Libya for his death.

But the heart of the problem lays in the fact that despite an early foreign policy assault - reaching out unsuccessfully to the Arab world and rallying speeches across Europe - Obama became consumed by domestic policies such as the ailing economy and healthcare.

He allowed Hillary to carve out a successful global role for herself while he left his national security advisor and ambassadors to do his own bidding overseas. He even missed key summits in Europe and Asia much to the disgust of their leaders. Now he must spend the next four years travelling around the world apologising to those countries if he is to have any chance of creating an international legacy he can leave behind.

So what next for Hillary? In the short term we don't know, but in the long term she will run for President in 2016. This has always remained her ambition despite her 2008 defeat when she faced more than just a candidate. She lost out to an ideology, the hysteria, glitz and glamour. She and Bill know that she has the capability and financial backing to annihilate a Romney or McCain.

But she needs a strategy between now and the mid-term elections in two and a half years' time when she is expected to return to mainstream US politics in advance of a presidential assault.

Of course she will throw herself behind her husband's Clinton Foundation. But that is Bill's baby, not hers. She needs to create some distance with her husband over the next four years and create her own narrative. An obvious route for her would be a global role at the UN, but other than replacing Ban Ki Moon himself, there are few roles that would provide the necessary platform to keep her on the front pages.

So, if Obama does go on holiday for the next four years, then the most obvious strategy for her will be to write a bestseller, meddle a bit in domestic and international policy and do the chat show circuit, while waiting for the right launch pad towards becoming president in 2016. Watch this space.