Weeks before hearings had even begun to confirm Massachusetts Senator John Kerry as U.S. secretary of state, diplomacy watchers were writing opinion pieces about the Democratic lawmaker that started with the phrase “when John Kerry is confirmed” — rather than “if.”
And indeed, at his confirmation hearing on Jan. 24, in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he’s chaired for the past four years, Kerry received a warm welcome. His successor on that panel, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), at one point even slipped and referred to him as Mr. Secretary.
To many on both sides of the political aisle in Washington, Kerry was always a shoo-in for the post that Hillary Clinton is vacating. President Barack Obama said when he nominated Kerry to the top diplomatic position in December that “few individuals know as many presidents and prime ministers, or grasp our foreign policies, as firmly as John Kerry.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), an outspoken critic of Obama, supported the choice of Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate who entered the Senate in 1985.
Hillary Clinton called him an “excellent” choice, citing his “decades of service to our country and deep experience in international affairs.” Diplomacy, said the highly popular secretary of state, was in Kerry’s blood (his father was a Foreign Service officer).
Though he may lack Clinton’s star power, Kerry, 69, is a respected Senate statesman with a solid history of foreign policy achievements and a deep reservoir of contacts, both within the U.S. government and around the world.
That will come in handy because he’ll face many of the same issues that Clinton grappled with, including the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan; political instability in Pakistan; nuclear saber-rattling by North Korea and nuclear stonewalling from Iran; unrest and uncertainty in the Middle East, especially Syria; the long-running Israeli-Palestinian saga; African coups; and China’s expanding ambitions in Asia and, for that matter, Africa.
Kerry has given some clues as to the stance he’ll take on some issues and what his form of diplomacy will look like: talk to everyone, even if they’re not your cup of tea.
In fact, at his Senate confirmation hearing, Kerry vowed that as secretary of state, one of the first things he would do is invite members of the Foreign Relations Committee to “really dig in and talk” about the pressing global issues ahead — because, he stressed, political and fiscal dysfunction at home is the biggest threat to U.S. power abroad. “More than ever, foreign policy is economic policy,” he told the members, noting that “in many ways, the greatest challenge to America’s foreign policy will be in your hands, not mine.”
Interestingly, pundits have noted how much Kerry, who effortlessly glided through his confirmation hearing to Foggy Bottom, has in common with Obama’s pick for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, a former Senate colleague who’s expected to have a much rockier path to the Pentagon.
Both men volunteered to fight in the Vietnam War, both were decorated soldiers, and both came away scarred from the experience — and sober about the realities of war.
As such, many observers say Kerry and Hagel will complement Obama’s judicious, deliberate approach to foreign interventions, preferring diplomatic engagement and covert counterterrorism over the kind of costly, messy wars that tainted President George W. Bush’s expansive freedom agenda.
“Both will likely stand fully with Obama’s scaling-down of American military commitments abroad, and with his extreme stringency in applying U.S. military power in new crisis spots such as Libya and Syria,” wrote the National Journal’s Michael Hirsh. “For Obama’s second term, that suggests that any future ‘Obama doctrine’ will also be a Kerry-Hagel-Biden doctrine.”
That’s not to say Kerry is completely averse to military force — he supported a no-fly zone over Libya and Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan. Yet in a 2011 Senate hearing, he also said “there is no purely military victory to be had in Afghanistan. What we face is a political resolution…. Reconciliation is more promising in the long run, but it will not be fast and it won’t be a silver bullet.”
Likewise, at his January confirmation hearing, he stressed that diplomacy and development — not just military might — must play a critical role in U.S. foreign policy. “President Obama and every one of us here knows that American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone,” he said. “American foreign policy is also defined by food security and energy security, humanitarian assistance, the fight against disease and the push for development, as much as it is by any single counterterrorism initiative — and it must be…. It is defined by keeping faith with all that our troops have sacrificed to secure for Afghanistan.”
Kerry’s diplomatic chops will surely be called upon as U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan. A loyal Obama ally (who helped the president prep for his debates against Mitt Romney), Kerry was sent to Afghanistan in 2009 and reportedly spent 20 hours convincing the country’s prickly president, Hamid Karzai, to hold a runoff after a fraud-marred election.
A strong proponent of diplomatic dialogue — who’s said to have coveted the secretary of state job back in 2008 — Kerry does not shy away from direct dealings with controversial figures, including the leaders of what George W. Bush dubbed “rogue states.”
Notably, Kerry held talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad five times from 2009 to 2011. The aim was to promote peace between Syria and Israel, and a WikiLeaks cable of the talks between Kerry and the emir of Qatar in 2010 reveals that Kerry praised Assad as a Middle East leader who “wants to change.” Those talks were held before the Arab Spring uprisings spread to Syria, and before Assad began his heavy-handed assault on his own people in a bid to cling to power.
As soon as he was nominated to replace Clinton at the State Department, conservative media jumped on those talks with Assad and called Kerry’s relationship with the embattled Syrian leader “a bromance.” Though that may be a stretch, Kerry was way off in his prediction that “Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West.”
Since fighting broke out, however, he’s suggested that the United States should consider establishing a safe zone in Syria and arming the rebels. At his confirmation hearing, Kerry also defended his approach, saying Assad was cognizant of Syria’s restless youth population and knew he had to change. “That never happened. And it’s now moot, because he has made a set of judgments that are inexcusable,” Kerry said, concluding that the leader’s time is up, though he didn’t delve into how the United States should speed up his ouster.
On Iran, though Kerry has often spoken out in favor of greater dialogue, at his confirmation hearing he made it clear that U.S. policy was not containment but prevention, and a military strike remains on the table. But he also pointed out that tough sanctions against Iran have taken their toll and pledged that, “I will work to give diplomacy every effort to succeed. But no one should mistake our resolve to reduce the nuclear threat.”
While on the Hill, Kerry supported those sanctions against Iran, but he also voted against a bill designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, saying the move was unnecessarily provocative.
As for another nuclear problem child, Kerry has called for direct engagement with North Korea. In a 2011 opinion piece published in the Los Angeles Times, he also pressed for the progressive denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and a resumption of U.S. humanitarian aid to North Koreans.
“Achieving complete denuclearization will take time, but in the near term we should try to negotiate an end to the North’s enrichment of uranium, a moratorium on nuclear weapons and missile testing, the removal of fresh fuel rods capable of producing fissile material and the final dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor,” wrote Kerry, who’s well-versed in nonproliferation issues, having spearheaded the effort for Senate passage of the New Start nuclear reduction treaty with Russia.
“We should also resume carefully monitored U.S. food assistance to hungry North Korean children and other vulnerable populations,” he added — a point he echoed at his Senate hearing.
On that note, Kerry also stressed that despite the economic downturn, America’s foreign affairs budget — which makes up less than 1 percent of all federal spending — should be kept intact to preserve U.S. influence abroad.
Indeed, further crowding Kerry’s agenda will be brewing and chronic instability in Africa, where a litany of humanitarian crises has received scattered attention.
The most immediate challenge will be Mali, which is struggling to contain al-Qaeda-linked insurgents who seized the north of the country after a military coup last March. U.S. diplomatic personnel were also recently evacuated from the Central African Republic as a rebellion threatened to overthrow the regime of President François Bozizé, who himself came to power in a coup in 2003. Meanwhile, the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, is struggling to carve out a future for itself, free from the influence of Khartoum, which is still waging battles against rebels in Darfur and elsewhere. A low-level war is still roiling eastern Democratic Republic of Congo; the United States is mulling, as it has done for months, whether to name the Islamist Boko Haram group in Nigeria — a key U.S. ally and oil producer — a terrorist organization; and Somalia is inching ever so slowly away from years of lawlessness, war and famine.
The United States will also keep a watchful eye on parliamentary and presidential elections in Kenya in March. Some 1,200 people were killed and 600,000 displaced as violence raked the East African country after its 2007 elections.
Key elections are also coming up in Iran and Tunisia, both in June. Long before then, Kerry might have to deal with a post-Hugo Chávez Venezuela, where the United States has called for a transparent and fair process if the ailing leader is unable to take up office because of his battle with cancer.
Elsewhere in Latin America, there are voices calling for Kerry to place a greater focus on helping Mexico and its new leadership finally break the back of drug cartels.
“The United States should redouble rule of law and economic assistance to Mexico, with an emphasis on professionalizing the judicial sector and creating economic alternatives to a life of crime,” David Shirk, director of the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute, wrote in a special report for the Council on Foreign Relations about the country’s bloody drug wars, which have claimed more than 50,000 lives since Felipe Calderón took office in 2006.
The new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has questioned Calderón’s security-heavy strategy (backed by Washington) that targets the cartels, pledging to focus more on reducing violence against civilians.
But PolicyMic’s Tom McKay says it’s doubtful Kerry will deviate from longstanding U.S. drug policy and “would likely support aggressive overseas action to fight drug trafficking, as well as efforts to shore up Central and Latin American countries’ legal systems in pursuit of more effective anti-drug operations. However, there will be no real change to the status quo.”
Perhaps nowhere is the status quo more evident — and progress more elusive — than with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After an early push by Obama to curb Israel settlement growth, Hillary Clinton and special Mideast envoy George J. Mitchell made little headway in restarting peace negotiations. Now, with Israeli politics taking a hard right turn, Kerry’s chances of getting the Israelis and Palestinians to even talk to each other are bleak.
Haaretz has called Kerry “a staunch supporter of Israel” who “has repeatedly stood up against global anti-Semitism and believes in a muscular American posture against Iran’s nuclear designs.” During his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. presidency in 2004, Kerry’s campaign highlighted his unflinching support for Israel. In 2010, for instance, he said that Israel had “every right to defend itself” after the deadly attack on a Turkish aid flotilla bound for Gaza.
Others though have said Kerry is unreliable on the issue, while others still label him a realist. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he called on Israel to “freeze new settlement activity,” saying it would show a “commitment to peace.” He has also said that Israel should one day return the Golan Heights to Syria as a way to bring peace to the volatile Middle East, though that was months before Syria plunged into civil war.
In that same speech, he reiterated longstanding U.S. policy that the best possible way to ensure Israel’s future would be a two-state solution.
“The big question is how we get there,” he added.
From new conflicts to seemingly never-ending ones, it’s a lot on one person’s plate, but a secretary of state must not only deal with immediate crises, they must also tackle the long-term challenges to U.S. foreign policy.
Clinton left her stamp on the State Department by elevating the role of women in foreign policy and trying to streamline diplomacy and development initiatives. With Kerry at the helm, climate change might become a bigger priority at State.
Kerry, a long-time environmental advocate, “may be capable of redirecting the debate over … climate change,” speculated an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, calling Kerry one of “the most forward-thinking members of the U.S. Senate when it comes to understanding both the threats of and the practical responses to global warming.”
Although Clinton was lauded for effectively representing Obama’s foreign policy vision, she did not appear to have a major hand in shaping that vision. Likewise, it remains to be seen if Kerry will formulate policy or be a loyal foot soldier executing it.
The Foreign Policy’s James Traub thinks he will be the latter. “The big thinking in this administration comes from the Big Thinker in the White House, and a very small circle of aides. That is unlikely to change,” he wrote last November. “And Kerry, though deeply familiar with everything and everyone, poses no danger of trying to impose a worldview of his own. He is an implementer, not a thinker.”
That may be, but Kerry has shown in the past that he’s not afraid of racking up air miles like Clinton, or of standing up for what he believes in — even if it goes against what his boss, the U.S. president, thinks.
In 1986, shortly after entering the Senate, then President Ronald Reagan dispatched Kerry to the Philippines as an election observer of the hotly contested race between long-time ruler Ferdinand Marcos and Corazon Aquino, the widow of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr., who was assassinated in 1983.
Kerry and the other observers reported back to the Reagan administration that the voting in the Philippines had been “marred by deaths and violence and [Kerry] said he personally had seen signs of vote-buying and ballot rigging,” a February 1986 report by the Associated Press said.
According to the AP, Kerry said the White House “either totally ignored or dismissed out of hand” the observers’ reports and refused to drop its support for Marcos.
But the young Senator stuck to his guns and eventually brought the Reagan administration around: The United States stopped backing Marcos around three weeks after the contentious elections, Cory Aquino was declared the winner, and Marcos fled the country, a large entourage in tow.
Despite racking up a string of diplomatic victories over the years, Kerry has a lot to live up to when he follows in the footsteps of the immensely popular, tech-savvy and workaholic Clinton, who was chosen by Americans as their “most admired woman” for 11 years in a row and traveled to 112 countries in four years — more than any other U.S. secretary of state.
Kerry will move into a State Department that was pushed into the digital age by Clinton. But he’s unlikely to flounder in the midst of new technology and media. The Massachusetts senator has more than 57,000 followers on Twitter and has tweeted just over 500 times. It appears that @JohnKerry writes and sends the tweets himself, but the punishing schedule imposed by his new diplomatic duties will likely change that.
And while we don’t expect Kerry to be named “most admired woman,” he’s shown no aversion to travel and could beat the outgoing chief diplomat’s record for countries visited and controversial leaders dialogued with. “Speak softly, speak with everyone, and carry a smart phone so you can tweet” could well become his catchphrase.
About the Author
Karin Zeitvogel is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.