From France to Pakistan to China, many have voiced expectations that John Kerry's vast experience and diplomatic skill will be a boon to dealing with international crises and issues.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Mexico City; Beijing; Jerusalem; Istanbul; and Islamabad, Pakistan
Her successor, John Kerry, who was approved unanimously by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and confirmed by the Senate today as the new US secretary of State, might not have the same widespread clout. However, he comes with nearly 30 years of foreign policy experience and among his peers is largely considered one of the most capable US politicians for the job.
The son of a US diplomat who grew up living and traveling across Europe and speaks fluent French, Senator Kerry lost his bid for the presidency in 2004 to George W. Bush. But he became well known across the globe for his work on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, which he has chaired for four years and served on for 28.
In facing the globe’s most intractable problems, the world is hopeful that Kerry is well poised for the position. “He is seen as the embodiment of traditional foreign policy,” says Ian Lesser, the executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Office.
Whether that is good or bad is subjective, but from Europe to Pakistan to China, many have voiced expectations that his vast experience and diplomatic skill will be a boon to dealing with international crises and issues.
Among the immediate challenges that Kerry faces is the US relationship with Pakistan as NATO withdraws from Afghanistan. To ensure the stability of that process, Pakistan – which shares a border with Afghanistan, is known for militant activity, and whose security establishment has been accused of maintaining close ties with the Afghan Taliban – is considered a key player.
Insiders there have expressed hope that Kerry can navigate a complicated relationship.
"John Kerry, I personally feel, is more mature and positive in terms of looking at Pakistan and Afghanistan,” says a Pakistani security official who is not permitted to speak on the record. "He has a lot of goodwill among the foreign office people and the military. I think it is going to break a lot of ice, and move the process forward in terms of Pakistan and Afghanistan."
Kerry led a successful mission to Kabul in 2009, leading Hamid Karzai to agree to second-round presidential elections. Kerry has frequently spoken of the need for a more conciliatory approach to Pakistan, speaking out against cutting foreign aid to the country and saying that it has not gotten enough credit for killing Osama bin Laden.
"The biggest thing with Kerry is that he knows Pakistan. He's seen the ups and downs of policy here. So that's a huge plus,” says Raza Rumi, director of the Jinnah Institute in Pakistan. “He's not a hardliner. In fact, he's viewed as a friend of Pakistan by many circles in the country."
Kerry is a five-term senator from Massachusetts, who attended the elite schools and universities of the East coast and is one of the country’s wealthiest politicians – now married to Teresa Heinz Kerry.
He has French relatives and speaks the language perfectly, but that is not something that served him well during his 2004 presidential bid. Critics dismissed him as an out-of-touch Francophone, ridiculing him as “Monsieur Kerry.”
But if that hurt him in middle America, it is a leg-up in Europe.
“What plays against him in the US plays 150 percent for him in France,” says Steven Ekovich, who teaches American foreign policy at the American University of Paris and wrote a book on John Kerry in French in 2004 called “Qui est John Kerry?” or “Who is John Kerry.” He says the French are delighted to have a man with an affinity for Europe, and especially for France, as the face of US diplomacy.
Kerry’s French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, congratulated him upon his appointment and acknowledged “how personally committed he is to Franco-American friendship.”
Still, Kerry takes the position at a time when the “pivot to Asia” has triggered anxiety in European corners. “One of his biggest challenges will be convincing Europeans that Europe still matters politically in Washington,” says Mr. Lesser.
He says the US turns to Europe as the natural partner on key questions, most recently conflict in Mali, as well as nuclear arms in Iran, and questions about energy and climate. And despite the focus on Asia, trade between the US and Europe is still dominant in global terms, he says.
It is unclear, whether Kerry will maintain the same focus on Asia as did his predecessor. His first international crisis may surface in the region, as North Korea threatens an imminent nuclear test in yet another act of defiance of the international community.
But aside from having fought in Vietnam and made the foreign trips that are standard for all senior members of the US foreign policy establishment, Kerry has no particular Asia expertise.
“Clinton made rebalancing [US foreign policy toward Asia] her legacy,” says Bonnie Glaser, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Kerry may want to choose another issue for his legacy.”
As a result, Ms. Glaser adds, despite the “Asia Pivot,” “many countries in the region are preparing themselves for a diminished level of US attention. There’s a fear the US won’t have the staying power to sustain the interest we have seen over the past four years.”
The new secretary of State is not likely to ignore Washington’s relationship with treaty ally Japan, especially in light of Tokyo’s dangerous dispute with Beijing over ownership of islands in the East China Sea.
As he manages that relationship, Kerry “will have to keep a delicate balance” between ties with Japan and ties with China, warns Tao Wenzhao, a US-watcher at the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences.
And Chinese analysts say they expect smoother diplomatic relations under Kerry. “I think Kerry may do more to ease China’s uneasiness over the pivot to Asia,” says Liu Feitao, an expert on US affairs at the China Institute for International Studies, a think tank linked to the Foreign Ministry. “I think we will see less of the conflict and friction we saw under Hillary Clinton.”
Kerry, who cautioned in his Senate confirmation hearings that the US should be careful “about not creating a threat when there isn’t one” and against “overreacting” to China’s military buildup, “is more diplomatic minded” than his predecessor, believes Shen Dingli, a foreign policy adviser to the Chinese government.
Iran and its nuclear program will inevitably be near the top of Kerry's agenda, continuing a trajectory of growing importance and urgency over Iran that has bedeviled his predecessors.
Kerry has inherited a standoff between Iran and the US and its allies marked by ever-increasing sanctions, stalled nuclear talks, and a covert war that has included assassinations, mysterious explosions, and computer viruses.
Rarely in the past three decades has Iran been seen as such a challenge to Washington. So, for Kerry as secretary of State, critical decisions may determine an outcome of peace or war.
Kerry told Senators last week: "We will do what we must do to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and I repeat here today, our policy is not containment. It is prevention, and the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance."
Kerry's instinct appears to mirror Obama's own: to err on the side of diplomacy, and avoid a military conflict that strategists and Iran experts say would have uncertain chances of success and a host of negative consequences.
He said sanctions have succeeded in strangling Iran's economy, though they have caused no reevaluation in Tehran of its nuclear program, which Iran says is limited to peaceful power production.
A host of American and European measures target its lifeblood, oil exports, and central bank transactions, along with four sets of sanctions imposed on Iran by the UN.
"Iranians need to understand that there's no other agenda here," Kerry said during his confirmation hearings. "If their program is peaceful, they can prove it. And that's what we are seeking."
Kerry might face a better climate when it comes to the stalled and failing peace negotiations in the Middle East.
Kerry said in his confirmation hearing that President Obama is “deeply committed” to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. He also warned that, “if we can't be successful that the door … to the possibility of a two-state solution could shut on everybody and that would be disastrous in my judgment.”
In 2012, Israel approved four times more new housing projects in East Jerusalem and the West Bank than in the previous year, raising concerns that it may soon become too difficult to piece together a viable Palestinian state. Meanwhile, the rise of Hamas in Gaza could compromise Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s ability to secure a peace deal that’s acceptable to his people.
Kerry is reportedly planning a trip in February to gauge the willingness of both sides to renew negotiations. It is a delicate time, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faring poorly in recent elections and the next government not expected to be firmly in place for at least a month. But once the dust settles, the situation might be riper for negotiations than when Secretary Clinton took office.
“I think he’s coming to a much more level playing field than we had in the last few years,” says Alon Liel, a veteran diplomat, citing Obama’s election victory and the Palestinian success in getting recognized as a state at the United Nations.
“We have stronger and more independent American president we have a weaker Israeli prime minister, and we have a stronger [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] after the UN vote,” says Mr. Liel.
Other key issues that Kerry is likely to face: Israeli pressure to strike Iran and working with Israel to prevent Syria’s chemical weapons from falling into the wrong hands.
In Latin America, hopes are not high that the US under Kerry will pay more attention to the region than did Obama with Clinton. Some point to the scant reference to the region during Kerry’s confirmation hearing as evidence.
In response to Kerry’s comment in his opening statement at the confirmation hearing – “More than ever, foreign policy is economic policy” – Mr. Oppenheimer writes: “Nobody in his right mind will argue that Iran’s nuclear program, or al-Qaida’s cells in North Africa, should not be at the center of US foreign policy concerns.”
But, Oppenheimer writes, “if US foreign policy is increasingly about economic policy, and if the United States needs to increase its declining share of global trade and investment, as Kerry said, it should definitely seek greater economic ties with Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Chile, and other fast-growing Western Hemisphere neighbors.”
Overall Kerry has less appeal in the region than did Clinton, says Analicia Ruiz, an expert on US-Mexico relations at Anáhuac University in Mexico City.
“People don’t know who he is,” Ms. Ruiz says. “They had an affinity for Clinton because she broke a paradigm. She was a woman, the wife of the ex-president [Bill Clinton],” Ruiz says. Kerry, on the other hand, is considered a member of the “old boys” network of Washington.
And on the issues that matter most to Mexicans, she says, the secretary of State position is not crucial. “Whether we actually get a comprehensive immigration reform depends on the internal politics of the US,” Ruiz says.
In fact, expectations are high across the globe for Obama's second term, and his new secretary of State might see his first challenge “expectation management,” says Lesser in Brussels.
Blazer agrees, pointing to the possibility of Chinese hopes not being fulfilled. “It’s the president who sets policy,” she says. “The Chinese have inflated expectations of how much US policy might change.”