Diplomatic challenges await for Kerry
John Kerry: "on top of his brief and highly capable" but we should perhaps expect no major breakthroughs. photograph: alex wong/getty images
ANALYSIS:The experienced senator aims to draw the US back from its military role
Sworn in yesterday as the top US diplomat, John Kerry, after 28 years in the Senate, faces challenges across many fronts as US President Barack Obama’s new secretary of state.
The 2004 Democratic presidential candidate and successor to Hillary Clinton comes well qualified; he served as the chairman of the powerful Senate foreign relations committee for four years.
Furthermore, his standing as the seventh most senior member of the Senate arms him with years of steady experience.
Kerry could take his own advice that he gave the Senate in his 50-minute farewell address on Wednesday.
He urged the bitterly bipartisan Congress to learn from its long history of compromise, though this may be difficult to reach in the diplomatic world as the US treads the line between global enforcer and peacekeeper.
At his confirmation hearing earlier this week, Kerry set out his stall, aiming to draw the US back from the military role “thrust upon us” by the September 2001 attacks.
“We cannot afford a diplomacy that is defined by troops or drones or confrontations,” he said, in line with Obama’s inaugural sentiments earlier this month.
The US government is seeking to wind down the unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to find a diplomatic solution to mounting tensions between Israel and Iran, as well as preventing a civil war in Syria from escalating into a regional conflict drawing in the country’s neighbours.
After more than 10 years of conflict, Kerry wants to turn to the soft power he believes the US can wield, pointing to the country’s efforts to promote human rights, tackle disease and help the world’s poor.
“We cannot allow the extraordinary good we do to save and change lives to be eclipsed entirely,” said Kerry.
The absence of any fresh diplomatic strategy, however, was notable at his confirmation hearing last week.
“John Kerry is on top of his brief and highly capable but doesn’t appear to have new ideas for how to deal with the toughest problems America faces: Iran, Pakistan, maritime security in Asia,” says Thomas Wright, a fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington DC.
“We should expect steadiness but no major breakthroughs.”
In Obama’s second term Kerry must attempt to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions, handle an erratic nuclear power in North Korea, work with the economic might of China and broker an end to the Syrian conflict.
“The US has stayed out of the Syrian civil war till now but Kerry will have to deal with the future of Syria once Assad is gone,” says Wright.
“A post-Assad Syria will pose incredibly difficult challenges: how to stop mass killings of minorities, preventing a wider war that draws in the region and destabilises Jordan, and denying terrorists access to chemical weapons.
“He will need to work with Russia and western Europe, and convince the president to engage more than he has to date.”
Kerry must also address the growing threat from militants and the emergence of al-Qaeda-linked groups in north Africa, now armed with the former Libyan weaponry dispersed across the region after the fall of Gadafy.
This week the US signed an agreement with Niger, allowing the country to run US troops out of that country and opening another large diplomatic front for Kerry.
Hillary Clinton’s record as secretary of state was mixed, despite a gruelling workload of almost a million miles travelled and 112 countries visited in four years.
Given the weakened influence of the US abroad after more than a decade of war, Clinton’s successor will struggle to score any major diplomatic victories as Kerry tries to fulfil Obama’s second-term goal of steering the US away from “perpetual war”.