Christopher also gave top priority to supporting reform in Russia and expanding U.S. economic ties to Asia.
While Christopher often preferred a behind-the-scenes role, he also made news as deputy secretary of state in the Carter administration, conducting the tedious negotiations that gained the release in 1981 of 52 American hostages in Iran.
President Jimmy Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. "The best public servant I ever knew," Carter wrote in his memoirs.
In private life, Christopher also served. Among many other things, he chaired a commission that proposed reforms of the Los Angeles Police Department in the aftermath of the videotaped beating by police of motorist Rodney King in 1991. When four officers arrested for beating King were acquitted of most charges the following year Los Angeles erupted in days of deadly rioting.
In examining years of police records following the riots, the Christopher Commission found "a significant number of officers" routinely used excessive force.
"The department not only failed to deal with the problem group of officers but it often rewarded them with positive evaluations and promotions," according to the report.
Numerous reforms were eventually put in place, including limiting the police chief to two five-year terms and having the chief appointed and supervised by a civilian commission.
Christopher's calm intervention amid political turmoil prompted the Republicans to turn to an elder statesman of their own, James A. Baker III, to represent Bush in the election dispute.
Accepting Christopher's resignation as the nation's top diplomat, President Bill Clinton said Christopher "left the mark of his hand on history."
As Clinton considered a successor, Christopher offered the criteria he would apply if the choice was up to him.
"It would be somebody who has the capacity to provide forceful leadership, someone who has great tenacity, someone who has endurance and a lot of stamina," he said.