A new Secretary of State doesn’t often mean any major directional changes at Foggy Bottom.
WASHINGTON, D.C.: President Obama nominated Sen. John Kerry, last week, as the nation’s 68th Secretary of State, one of the first cabinet positions to be filled in the Democrat’s second term. Judging from statements by a number of his Senate colleagues from both parties, the senior senator from Massachusetts is expected to sail through the confirmation process.
Once confirmed in the new year, Kerry will be succeeding Secretary Hillary Clinton, who is leaving Foggy Bottom after doing a commendable job for four years. The new chief diplomat of the United States will be delving straight into the most pressing global crises and conflicts. Among them are the Syrian civil war, which is appearing to be nearing a denouement, the continued hostilities of the North Korean leadership toward its neighbors and the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which remains as intractable as ever.
Syria, where the ground beneath the feet of its strongman, Bashar Al Assad, has been eroding inch by inch every day, will be one of the first major tests for the new Secretary of State. According to many foreign policy and intelligence experts, the question now is not whether, but when the regime will fall. Much of the focus of Kerry will be ensuring a relatively smooth transition of power in that country, limiting the bloodshed and preventing non-democratic political dispensations from taking over Damascus.
Anyone who has followed the long and distinguished career of John Kerry — which included serving with honor in Vietnam and a presidential run whose outcome would have been different if one battleground state, Ohio, had flipped — knows that he is the man for the job. And even his detractors would agree that Kerry, the 10th longest serving member of the Senate, has both the pedigree and the experience.
Highlighting the senator’s credentials for the job, Obama described his one-time Senate colleague as someone who “has played a central role in every major foreign policy debate for nearly 30 years.”
“He is not going to need a lot of on-the-job training,” the president said while announcing the nomination. “In a sense, John’s entire life has prepared him for this role.”
The president was not being hyperbolic while introducing his new Secretary of State. In fact, Kerry, who replaced Vice-President Joe Biden as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations, is prepared for the job like few have been in recent times. Having served in the committee for nearly two decades, he is intimately familiar with all the major foreign policy and national security issue of the day.
Like millions of others from his generation, Kerry’s initiation to the foreign policy was through the Vietnam War. Although he had reservations about the war, the young Yale graduate served in Vietnam valiantly, commanding a swift boat. He received Silver and Bronze Stars, as well as three Purple Hearts awards for combat wounds.
Son of a diplomat, Kerry was able to travel extensively in Europe at a young age, because of his father’s postings there. “I had some great childhood experiences in those years — I remember walking the beaches of Normandy with my father just a couple of years after Americans had stormed the beaches there to liberate Europe,” he told an interviewer several years ago. “I remember playing as a kid in blown-out bunkers in Berlin — and my family really gave me a great sense of history.”
This sense of history, his service in Vietnam — a war he later opposed — and his long tenure on the Foreign Relations Committee, which enabled him to familiarize with global issues and master the nuances of foreign policy, will likely make him very effective as the Secretary of State.
And much like Clinton, Kerry will be able to command respect at the world stage, a fact that the president emphasized. “I think it’s fair to say that few individuals know as many presidents and prime ministers, or grasp our foreign policies as firmly as John Kerry,” Obama remarked introducing the senator last week. “And this makes him a perfect choice to guide American diplomacy in the years ahead.”
One question many in capitals around the world are eager to find out is how would a Kerry State Department look like?
The answer for that would be it is unlikely to be any different from the Clinton State Department. In essence, Kerry will be picking up the baton from his predecessor. Foreign policies don’t usually change during a president’s second term, barring any major outward events. A new Secretary of State doesn’t often mean any major directional changes at Foggy Bottom.
Nonetheless, every secretary of state brings his or her own unique talent to the job. Many secretaries put their stamp on foreign policy and a few leave powerful legacies. The person Kerry is set to succeed, Secretary Clinton, is the biggest example for that.