Welcome, Mr. Secretary

John Kerry faces hard tasks – but he’s the one to do them.

The United States needs a diplomat like it never has before. It faces no grave existential threat, yet somehow it feels as if the mighty hegemon is slipping. The answer is widespread diplomatic efforts, led by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Image courtesy of the US Department of State, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of the US Department of State, © 2013, some rights reserved.

As this publication has noted before, Kerry is immensely qualified to be Secretary of State. Contrary to Mr. Carroll’s argument, however, Kerry’s senatorial service made him the perfect pick for confirmation, much more so than the polarizing Ambassador Susan Rice. Indeed, Kerry has claimed that President Obama reached out to him before Rice withdrew her name from consideration.

It is not surprising that Kerry may have been Obama’s first choice. Democrats fought hard to kick Republican Scott Brown out of the Massachusetts Senatorial delegation this fall. Now that Kerry’s seat is open there is a risk of the Senate moving one seat closer to Republican control. Furthermore, the appointment engenders tension within Obama’s own party. Senator Bob Menendez has ascended to the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, which will create trouble for Obama on Iran. Menendez is known to be more hawkish than Obama, and continuing the balanced approach to Iran relations that the President has used thus far will be difficult under a Menendez chairmanship.

Hillary Rodham Clinton performed excellently as Secretary, particularly as diplomat-in-chief. She famously travelled to the most countries of any previous Secretary of State, and everywhere she went she was effective in the hard work of diplomacy. Not a grand strategist in the style of Kissinger, Clinton’s greatest success was securing the release of Chinese activist Chen Guancheng. This sort of diplomacy, focused in achieving small goals one piece at a time, within a broader framework of dialogue and standing up for American beliefs, is exactly what Kerry should emulate during his time as Secretary of State.

The State Department Kerry inherits from Clinton is an effectively functioning organization, but also one underfunded, underappreciated, and underutilised. The lack of funding for embassy security, and the State Department in general, is shameful. It has been noted that many of the problems in Iraqi reconstruction efforts were because of a disconnect between civilian and military approaches, and the fact that the Pentagon is so much better funded than the State Department most likely exacerbated that fact. Military solutions may be appropriate sometimes, but in general the United States should learn to appreciate the slow, methodical work done by Foreign Service Officers. Unfortunately, this work needs extensive funding to be best carried out.

Kerry is an excellent choice to help develop the role of the State Department within US foreign policy. As a long-time former Senator, he has the connections to argue for funding and a prominent placement in the DC hierarchy. The State Department is already looking at expanding its foreign policy role. Among other things, recent legislation has created a mandate for an expanded State Department intelligence capability. Kerry can help nurture these capabilities to build the State Department back into a powerhouse.

Ideology also makes Kerry an excellent fit for the White House, and indeed the US in general. The foreign policy decisions the United States faces are myriad, but choices regarding intervention, presence in the world, and the role of values in policy will be key. Kerry’s principled opinions on foreign policy thus far align superbly with Obama’s. A liberal who believes in advocating for human rights and doing what can be done to help others, Kerry is also a realist who got his start in politics arguing against the Vietnam War. He will most certainly work closely with Obama to determine when, if ever, it is appropriate for the US to intervene in the world. More importantly, he will continue the doctrine of allowing other nations to lead in world affairs and military efforts. These retrenching tactics, among others, will allow the US to assume a more measured role in the world, which will maintain US supremacy for generations.

Another of Kerry’s strengths is also a page borrowed from the Clinton playbook. At heart, Kerry is a consummate diplomat. He may be mocked for being boring, or bad at retail politics, but Kerry’s brand of politics was focused not on elections or sound-bites but on getting things done in the Senate. Kerry understands the value of working one-on-one with other leaders to accomplish his goals. As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was praised for travelling the world to truly understand his subject. He accomplished goals on his trips too; most famously getting President Karzai to agree to a runoff presidential election in Afghanistan, a win for democracy that was hard fought, if not long-lasting. At the core of Kerry’s strength as a diplomat is a willingness to listen to others. A notable moment from his confirmation hearings occurred when a woman yelled at him about US intervention in the Middle East from the back of the room. Kerry took it in stride, noting that he too had come to Washington to be heard. This is a man who knows the value of rights and self-expression, even when it opposes him. On the world stage this will continue to be useful, spreading US influence through dialogue.

The new Secretary of State’s unique talents and abilities belie the jokes about losing the 2004 election and bad oratory. A good match ideologically for Obama, Kerry will keep the US prominent on the world stage, while slowing down unnecessary commitments. He will be able to achieve this through his skill in executing measured and pragmatic objectives, both in Washington and around the world. John Kerry’s work could lay the foundation for a stronger America.