A couple of months ago, Senator John Kerry showed up more than an hour late for a reception at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. An aide whispered that Kerry’s flight home from Dubai had been delayed.
No one knew that Kerry had traveled to Dubai, and no announcement was made afterward. All that is known, even unofficially, is that he was on a private diplomatic mission for President Obama. He has made many of these.
In some parts of the world, especially in the volatile region that stretches from the Persian Gulf to Central Asia, Kerry is already a familiar figure in the corridors of power. He has also established an evidently strong working relationship with Obama. Even the fact that his friends in the Senate brutally crushed his main rival for the job, Susan Rice, who is one of Obama’s close and trusted advisers, was not enough to sour the president on his nomination.
One fundamental aspect of American foreign policy making will not change as Kerry takes over the job Hillary Clinton has held for the last four years. Major policy decisions will be made in the White House, not at the State Department – and the secretary of state may not even be in the room when they are made.
Nonetheless, Kerry will be a key figure as the United States confronts the crises of the moment. His most encouraging credential is that he truly believes diplomacy is preferable to war – hardly a unanimous view in Washington. Whether this will result in a serious change in America’s approach to the world, however, is far from certain.
The first test will be Iran. Kerry is less prone than some others in Washington to throw around threats about war being an option that is “on the table”, and it is hard to imagine him blithely reminding Iranians, as Clinton did, that the United States has the power “to totally obliterate them”. Yet, the essence of American policy toward Iran – shaped around threats, sanctions, and demands that Iran submit to western power without expecting much in return – is unlikely to change.
Kerry will also be unable, and quite possibly unwilling, to rein in the ever-expanding US drone war, which is not run by the State Department but feeds the anti-Americanism that will make his job ever more difficult. Nor is there much prospect that he will be able to calm the fundamentalist radicalism that is surging through Egypt, Syria, and Israel.
The area in which Kerry may be able to have the greatest impact is redefining the meaning of national security for Americans. He recognizes that the main threats to the United States no longer come from foreign armies or what George W Bush liked to call “evil-doers”. His most encouraging statements are those that suggest he recognizes the enormous security challenges posed by climate change, global energy politics, and economic troubles at home.
Kerry’s greatest challenge may be persuading Americans that their long-term interests are best served by a less activist, more restrained foreign policy. Even if he believes this, which is unclear, he will find many in Washington still determined to try reshaping the world.
Kerry himself has hardly been immune to the interventionist temptation. In 2011, he and Senator John McCain introduced a Senate resolution aimed – successfully, as it turned out – at pushing the Obama administration into military action in Libya. Kerry went so far as to argue that if the United States attacked Libya, “our own security will be strengthened immeasurably.”
Like all military interventions, the one in Libya set off a cascade of unexpected consequences. The worst is the new crisis in Mali, which began after heavily-armed ethnic Tuaregs from the defeated Libyan army fled home to Mali, following the overthrow and killing of Muammar Gaddafi. Kerry’s prediction that the Libya operation would strengthen American security now sounds like a tragic misjudgment.
Kerry can hardly avoid realizing that he, McCain, and Obama helped create the grave crisis in Mali. Perhaps this realization will sober him. Just as likely, however, is that he will shrug it off as a bad call or a set of circumstances no one could have predicted, and continue on his interventionist way.
The combination of Kerry at the State Department and Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense – presuming he is confirmed – opens intriguing possibilities. Perhaps one or the other will dare to suggest that the United States does not need more than 700 military bases around the world, or 50,000 soldiers in Germany, or 11 aircraft carrier groups when no other country has more than one, or staggeringly expensive weapons systems like the F-35 fighter jet.
The United States has very few truly vital interests. It must defend its access to global sea lanes, assure that weapons of mass destruction are not used against the United States, and prevent wars elsewhere from spreading onto American soil. Very little beyond that is really worth fighting over.
The world will soon find out whether Kerry agrees with this, or clings to a more expansive definition of “vital interests”. If he can persuade Americans that it is in their interest to do less in the world, he will be remembered as a truly transformational figure.