01/02/2013 11:42 am ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

From a Nation at War to a Nation of Diplomacy: The Wisdom of John Kerry's Nomination

Having been driven in a slow, meandering manner along the fiscal cliff, it may be tempting to cast a cold and suspicious eye on all of politics. Yet proclaiming a la Shakespeare, "a plague on all your houses" is to allow economic insecurity to heighten inter-national risk. A terror-plagued world does not become better informed and more secure merely because we are mired in domestic partisan paralysis. Nor is it enough that the Congress can be counted on to avoid the blunt edges of sequestration with budgetary maneuvers designed to maintain unprecedented levels of defense spending. It is important not to leave uniformed soldiers on the field of battle without adequate supply, but it is even more important that defense spending be re-oriented and fully understood as a means to specific, diplomatic ends, not as an alternative to diplomacy, itself.

The designation of Senator John Kerry (D-MA) as the next Secretary of State is for this reason one of the most positive and encouraging developments of the on-coming second term, short of the continued service of Hillary Clinton. Our thoughts and prayers remain with Mrs. Clinton, whose recovery from a nasty flu and concussion has in recent days become more complicated.
Secretary of State-designate John Kerry is a bright and able man fully aware that no one can replace Hillary Clinton any more than Jefferson could replace Franklin in Paris. Franklin, the essence of knowledge and wit was something of his own aphrodisiac. Dr. Franklin could not be eclipsed even by as handsome and formidable an intellect as Thomas Jefferson. When asked if he was there to replace Franklin, Jefferson tartly responded: "No one can replace Franklin, I merely follow him."

Mrs. Clinton's record at the Department of State is a formidable one, even with -- maybe even because of -- the recently highly critical assessment of the decision-making sclerosis that the Accountability Review Board found to aggravate the security risks in Benghazi. The report fingered mistakes made by veteran career diplomats. That a department notoriously protective of its own could be so publicly self-critical is a tribute to their own objectivity, but also to the respect Mrs. Clinton gave the career diplomat from the beginning.

The constructive harnessing of the State Department bureaucracy is no insignificant accomplishment. After all, more than a few very powerful political figures upon arrival on the 7th floor of Main State have been humbled, stymied and ridiculed by some members of the career foreign service who would not only not give their political colleagues the time of day, but would likely engage in some long-winded disquisition about time zone diplomacy of complete irrelevancy.

Mrs. Clinton came to State at a time when American diplomacy was at a very low ebb -- indeed, diplomacy had become less than a footnote to military intervention, and the cost of being part of America's "coalition(s) of the (un)willing" was as steep, if not steeper, for the European economies it overburdened as for our own. Moreover, more than a few heads of government paid for overly close U.S. "special relationships" with their own political fortunes.

What were the diplomatic successes? Even in an Obama presidency that relishes more team achievement than individual recognition, Mrs. Clinton would be seen as the "rock star" Secretary for the following reasons:

  • The president's own rhetorical efforts abroad were followed up by person-to-person diplomacy by Mrs. Clinton; her travel schedule in the last year alone tells the story;
  • The president deserves praise for the winding up of the Iraq war and our adherence to Afghan military timetable; it is the Secretary's diplomatic dampening of short term fires that often made these timetables practical;
  • The president exhibited important prudence in not widening militarily the north African conflicts, and certainly not doing so without tangible NATO buy-in; as difficult as creating workable democratic constitutions for Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt remains, Mrs. Clinton knew those prospects are seldom advanced by blood and destruction; The number of U.S. casualties (dead and wounded) in Iraq approaches 31,000. Iraq cost the taxpayer $10 billion per month; whereas, on paper at least, there were no U.S. casualties in the Libyan uprising and NATO will be reimbursing the U.S. over $200 million for U.S. support of the transitional national government in the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi.
  • The president is well-regarded for his commitment to equality and human rights; Mrs. Clinton attracted to the State Department intellectual leaders who were tenaciously committed to these aspects of "soft power" and who by their own careers represent the virtues of gender equality and its importance to economic development. I know few careerists in the department who would not single out for praiseworthy service -- notwithstanding some recent side criticism -- the likes of Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Cheryl Mills, Anne Marie Slaughter, and a good many more political appointees;
  • Mrs. Clinton began through the very clever mirroring of defense budgetary planning to validate the claim that spending on diplomacy ought to be enhanced as military need is reduced and enhancements in military spending should hinge on their diplomatic coherence and acceptability;
  • Yes, Syria remains a mess; Iran a constant worry, but thanks to ever-toughening sanctions and related classified steps, the world has been safeguarded for the moment from greater nuclear madness;
  • Our respect for the history and strength of the Israeli people still silences our voice too quickly, but Mrs. Clinton has breathed fairness and possibility into this tar patch allowing enough voices in her department to articulate when the human rights of Palestinians and genuine efforts at a "two-state" peace were being needlessly undermined by the domestic short-sightedness of some in Washington or Tel Aviv;
  • But in a world where means of communication -- and insult -- can travel at Mach-speed, Mrs. Clinton used her influence not to suppress dissent, but to promote Internet freedom; freeing a single Chinese dissident may seem inconsequential, except to him and his family, the hands-on negotiations of the Secretary in the midst of other sensitive discussions reaffirmed the correct ordering of U.S. priorities, even to the nation that holds much of our debt.

Yes, Mrs. Clinton will be followed, not replaced. And in this, John Kerry's nomination is an inspired continuation of ongoing work, and because of his unique "truth to power" style, the policy distortion that sees solely the arrows in the eagle's talons can be freshly addressed. The rivalry between the Departments of Defense and State is longstanding; it has been lopsidedly in DOD's favor -- more for instrumental reasons, such as the monetizing cost and source of munitions being too often rare and sole-sourced. No more. Secretary-designate Kerry knows that the 21st century belongs to diplomacy, not military might, but he also knows that defense of diplomatic endeavor must be made foremost in the military mindset, and for that to be true, the on-the-ground defense of embassies must be strengthened without obstructing their mission.

To bring it down to a case that means a great deal to the career and political diplomats alike: John Kerry understands that Benghazi is as much a State Department failure as a Department of Defense one, and it needs immediate attention and correction. He is known even outside his respected senatorial work to be a person of principle and character. It is by this standard that he measures himself, and others.

Continuing the work of a respected predecessor does not mean there won't be unique matters of Kerry attention: climate change, for example, where international agreement continues to elude. This is of special concern to the Secretary-designate, and should be.

One suspects that a former Senator Kerry will use his considerable influence in the legislature to move America out front as a means to agreement, not as a pre-condition to one; in addition, while the Asian perspective of the Obama-Clinton State Department is likely to continue, it is likely to have a different focus promoting a greater knowledge and sensitivity to where the Chinese are investing heavily, and our own need to spur competitive private U.S. investment in places that to date are overlooked markets (viz., north Africa).

Finally, it is in John Kerry's nature to find greater ways to partner with Europe, including being a necessary resource creatively addressing migratory patterns that challenge Europe culturally and economically. This can mean everything from promoting economic investment by promoting regulatory coherence with the EU to advancing constitutionalism in the Arab Spring nations. The early drafts can be quite vague about proposed legal structures defending fundamental gender equality, free elections, religious liberty or other matters inseparable from human dignity. The advantage of being able to tap into the long-view through the hard-earned wisdom of Secretary-designate Kerry is that he understands how many both directly and proximately will count upon the resolve of our diplomacy to achieve not just words on paper but actions that uphold human rights which cannot be sacrificed.

An anecdote from the war

Let me illustrate the proximate or collateral impact of U.S. diplomacy. While serving as U.S. Ambassador to Malta at the start of the Libyan uprising in early 2011, two Libyan pilots had been ordered by Gaddafi into the air to strafe innocent civilians in Benghazi. Malta is a neutral nation, but diplomacy is never neutral in matters of peace and human right. The pilots' well-being was safeguarded and the fighter jets saw no further duty. U.S. intelligence was critical to the overall safety of the region in this time of turmoil and Maltese and other EU investors supplied personal insights into the Libyan situation that facilitated our rescue of close to 100 U.S. diplomatic personnel in Libya as well as several hundred other foreign nationals.