With his confirmation as incoming Secretary of State on January 29, John Kerry achieved a lifelong ambition that well suits his demeanor and skills. Although he fell short of his 2004 quest to be president, Kerry has a perfectly tailored resumé to serve as the United States' chief diplomat.
As the son of a foreign service officer, scion of the wealthy Forbes family on his mother's side, alumnus of elite private schools in Europe and New England and ultimately a student of political science at Yale University and law degree recipient from Boston College, he represents the classic American statesman of a bygone era, when the Atlantic Ocean served as the conduit between the great powers, American diplomacy was centered on Europe, and French was the language of choice for the well-bred. In fact, Kerry's life would follow this upwardly mobile trajectory in Massachusetts from state politics to his five-time election to the U.S. Senate beginning in 1984 and his eventual chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2009.
Kerry has developed many commendations over his years of public service, and he has generally demonstrated strong bipartisan instincts and a willingness to engage in dialogue with friends and foes. After serving a short stint in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam from 1968-69, where he received numerous military decorations (Silver Star, Bronze Star, three Purple Hearts), he returned to publicly oppose the Vietnam War and later promoted normalization of diplomatic relations.
Throughout his career, Kerry has demonstrated pragmatism, commitment, and preparation, doing his homework to be informed on major issues and be prepared for debates over the key questions in American domestic and foreign policy. His instincts decidedly lean towards the moderate mainstream of American center-left public opinion. This deliberate and calculated style did not serve him well when running for office nation-wide in 2004; in the supporting role of an appointed official in President Obama's foreign policy team, Kerry's flexibility will prove much more of an asset.
Among the moderate elements of both the Democratic and Republican parties is a strong commitment to free trade and prioritizing commercial interests over other issues, from human rights to geopolitical strategic balance of power politics. Kerry sits squarely in this tradition, and he is likely to serve as a strong voice for emphasizing the deep economic ties and interdependence that characterize U.S.-China relations. Kerry was long a supporter of most-favored nation (MFN) status for China in bilateral and multilateral trade arrangements, and will likely enhance dialogue on such economic matters.
As Kerry said in his confirmation hearings, "More than ever, foreign policy is economic policy." He will also be able to cultivate support for a pragmatic tone toward China on Capitol Hill where his congressional colleagues respect his expertise and experience. He is already a seasoned diplomat from his decades of overseas trips, oftentimes as a lead negotiator representing President Clinton in personal encounters with world leaders. Certainly, he is unlikely to make a major gaffe, launch an unscripted tirade, and offend the sensibilities of major world figures.
Some worried that President Obama's reputed first choice Ambassador Susan Rice may not have been as measured or careful, and could have upset fragile relations with other countries, and may have been offensive to China. Kerry is certain to be cautious but firm, and will certainly have an excellent rapport with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who also has widespread international experience.
Despite the core partnership between China and the United States when it comes to economic and financial issues, subtle disputes remain over currency values, trade protectionism, foreign investment, and as such, strategic tensions will persist in Obama's second term. At the forefront, continued hostilities over the control of disputed islands in the East and South China Sea have the potential to escalate. Kerry's selection will not alter this reality.
In fact, it is important to understand the degree to which the State Department has declined as the chief architect of American foreign policy since World War II as the White House, the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Defense Department have gained in setting the agenda. Outgoing Secretary Hillary Clinton was an excellent representative of President Obama's priorities and star of public diplomacy. Clinton was not an innovator in strategic thinking or a bureaucratic force in pushing a new ideology. The days of Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, or Henry Kissinger holding court in the cabinet and creating true doctrines to face global challenges has passed.
The joint team of Kerry and Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense may prove both influential and effective – he and Kerry have camaraderie as former Vietnam War veterans, though both are likely to foremost implement White House directives. They and their former senate colleague Senator John McCain formed a band of brothers who were skeptical of American intervention and generally willing to think outside the box. Each of them is an independent thinker, though they have often come down on different sides of historic decisions regarding going to war.
On this issue, another divergence between China and the West may be prolonged. Kerry is somewhat of a wildcard on military intervention. He spoke against the 1991 war in Iraq before falling into line; he long supported regime change in Iraq and expressed so again in 2003, before claiming opposition. He supported the intervention in Libya, though formerly expressed acceptance for President Assad in Syria before stating that he must leave power. Kerry's job will be to cajole and to caress sensitivities in Beijing and Moscow toward potential Western intervention in conflicts in numerous countries across the world.
The selection of key players in American foreign policy always risks upsetting Sino-American ties. The decision to choose and now confirm John Kerry as Secretary of State will do nothing to damage those bonds, and should only help lessen mistrust and tension.
The author is Associate Professor of Department of Government o f California State University, Sacramento. He is the Fulbright Scholar (2011-2012) to China Foreign Affairs University.
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