This week, John Kerry heads for his new Foggy Bottom office as the 68th U.S. Secretary of State. Kerry breezed through his nomination process, receiving near unanimous support from both the Senate and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Kerry had been a member for his entire 28-year Senate career, serving as chairman for the past four. He becomes the first nominee of President Obama's second-term cabinet to be confirmed.
While Kerry brings so much foreign policy experience and service to the United States that former Senator Gary Hart recently dubbed him "the congressional secretary of state," it is important to consider how Kerry's appointment could shape U.S. foreign policy, both in the short- and long-term. Moreover, how might Kerry's tenure in the State Department affect the relationship between the U.S. and international organizations like the United Nations?
Below are five things we could expect to see from Kerry during in his next four years as secretary of state.
1) A Profound Respect for U.S.-UN Relations
Nearly two years ago, Kerry spoke about the vital nature of U.S.-UN relations during the United Nations Association/UN Foundation Global Leadership Dinner at which he was honored. "Everything that we're here to fight for tonight with respect to the United Nations is the most serious work of our nation," Kerry said. "It's how we reach out to the world and lead, and how we will go forward to put an agenda in front of the American people that is real."
Kerry echoed these sentiments during his recent Senate confirmation hearing. When asked about U.S. participation within the UN, Kerry responded, "We have found that we are better able to actually protect against nefarious activity... if we're participating." Kerry then underscored the importance of the U.S. continuing to pay its UN dues. "And if we, you know, cease to pay the dues and so forth... and take a different attitude," Kerry explained, "we sort of lose the opportunity to protect our friends, which we want to have."
2) A Commitment to Diplomacy
Last Thursday, when outgoing Secretary of State State Hillary Clinton spoke with the Council on Foreign Relations, she said, "Remember what we faced in January 2009: Two wars. An economy in freefall. Traditional alliances fraying. Our diplomatic standing damaged." She added, "And around the world, people questioning America's commitment to core values and our ability to maintain our global leadership. That was my inbox on day one as secretary of state."
While Clinton and the Obama Administration spent much of the last four years focused on renewing diplomatic efforts and rebuilding America's alliances throughout the world, it could be argued that Kerry will face an equally full inbox from day one in his new office. From the outset, his diplomatic challenges will include global economic recovery, a hyper-militarized U.S. foreign policy, ending the war in Afghanistan by the target date of 2014, Iran's nuclear program, Syria's civil war, continued fallout from the Arab Spring, and China's rise to power, just to name a few.
Kerry has said time and again that he eschews unilateralism. He has already served as something of an unofficial ambassador during President Obama's first term, traveling to nations within the Middle East and Africa, meeting with welcoming leaders and dictators alike, and even facilitating runoff elections in Afghanistan. IIt stands to reason that he will follow in Clinton's footsteps, pursuing bilateral and multilateral diplomacy first and foremost in handling even the toughest challenges ahead.
3) Shared Foreign Policy Views with President Obama
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kerry's foreign policy views bear a great resemblance to those of President Obama. Yet in a Foreign Policy article last September, Kerry described a vision so deeply in keeping with the president's that the article read like an application letter for the job of secretary of state. Kerry criticized the recklessness of the Bush Administration for having its national security and foreign policy guided by "ideology without regard to economic cost or sufficient attention to the strain our ideological approach put on alliances and international relationships, as well as our military."
Kerry condemned the unilateralism and hubris that took the U.S. into a needless war with Iraq, which derailed U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and will ultimately cost over a trillion dollars, not to mention the lasting strain the war has had on U.S. alliances globally. "Our stalled effort in Afghanistan and our unnecessary and expensive effort in Iraq were coupled with a new and bellicose attitude toward friends and foes alike -- the old versus the new Europe; Mission Accomplished; bring it on; and you're either with us or against us," Kerry wrote, adding, "These were the slogans of an unfocused and at times reckless foreign policy."
Kerry then commended the Obama administration for effectively ending the war in Iraq and drawing down the war in Afghanistan. Although Kerry's approval of the president suggests he will continue to pursue a balanced approach to foreign affairs -- with policies that keep national interests at heart while finding regional solutions appropriate to each particular situation -- the question remains how much Secretary of State Kerry might utilize the UN in transitioning out of Afghanistan by 2014.
4) A Global Vision Regarding Climate Change
Kerry has long considered climate change a chief threat to national security. In addition, he has been outspoken in his criticism of Congress for failing to tackle this issue, particularly during President Obama's first term. On the Senate floor last summer, Kerry called the absence of earnest climate change discussion within the U.S. a "conspiracy of silence... that has brought us disastrously close to a climate change catastrophe."
In viewing climate change as a foreign policy issue and not merely a domestic one, Kerry could use his position as secretary of state to advocate for enhanced regulations that curb pollution and alleviate climate change's catastrophic impact.
Furthermore, Kerry has already shown the ability to transcend political divides, co-authoring climate change legislation with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and former Senator Joe Lieberman in 2009 and 2010. Such diplomatic skillfulness could prove necessary if Kerry embarks upon multilateral environmental negotiations.
In short, Kerry could make good on President Obama's inaugural address comment to start and "roll back the specter of a warming planet."
5) The Need to Build Upon Clinton's Legacy
As UN Dispatch Editor Mark Leon Goldberg noted last week, Hillary Clinton used her "rock star diplomat" status as secretary of state to empower women globally. She intertwined women's issues with foreign policy by establishing the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues. She pushed for gender equality and championed the rights of the LGBT community. And she worked to enhance both the quality of and access to women's health care through ambitious programs.
Through the Global Health Initiative and USAID, the State Department has helped resource-strapped nations improve reproductive health services, hospitals and medical facilities, thereby lowering maternal and infant mortality rates. Between those and many other health programs, Clinton used her role as secretary of state to effect radical change when it comes to investing in the lives of women and their families.
But if Clinton demonstrated how a secretary of state could help achieve the Millennium Development Goals regarding the health and welfare of women and girls, it could fall to Kerry to help ensure that women's rights take center stage in the post-2015 development framework. As Kerry already said during his confirmation, "America lives up to her values when we give voice to the voiceless."
(Cross-posted from The InterDependent.)
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