In the US, the Secretary of State is the diplomatic face of the nation. The image of these office holders portrays the first visible cue to the world the intentions and interests of the US; in addition to the official documents and official statements that are forthright.
Ex-Senator John Kerry became Secretary of State on February 1, 2013. Upon assuming office, he immediately took his position up with diligence and dedication. He did not hesitate to make calls to Israel and Palestine first to address a peace agreement or to speak with Japan, South Korea, Canada, Mexico, and Turkey his first weekend. His travels included ten states in the last two months and he is measuring his in-office progress on the State Department website using: total mileage, travel days, countries visited, and flight time.
But tracking travels alone is not a sound measure for success. And there can also to be observed a scramble for work without a scramble for strategy.
Secretary John Kerry was likely meant to present the world with an American image of humility and apology. This can be traced far back with his participation and then condemnation of the Vietnam War or his more recent stance for the War in Iraq and then position against that war when the nation was disillusioned with Saddam’s nuclear ambitions. Each conflict represents brutality, atrocity, deception, mistakes and dishonor—a feature that Secretary Kerry has a history of addressing.
Secretary Kerry has held on to his moral convictions, which have not always appeared consistent with his involvement, but from which he derives life lessons and political benefit in their aftermath. These convictions are largely aligned with the larger Obama Administration in the self-image view of the US foreign policy apparatus—we’ve made some mistakes, we still believe in our liberal values, we want to see a better world, and help us to do so.
One really good thing that Secretary Kerry has done since in office, is to speak out against human rights abuses, including: the calling for the immediate return of a Laos activist and government accountability; addressing Iran’s arming of Syrian President Bashar al Assad; “praising safe Afghan elections;” attempting to cool tensions with Israel and Palestine; the illegal Iranian imprisonment of Christian pastor and US citizen Saeed Abedini; Sri Lanka’s commitments, the UN arms treaty and many others.
Ultimately, will this type of moral political diplomacy work? Has Secretary Kerry succeeded in Kofi Annan’s role, dubbed as that of a “secular pope” for human rights? Maybe, but the world is yet to embrace an American to play that role. The US would certainly need to change directions on many fronts for this to happen or be taken seriously. For one thing, a priority shift from economic to political strategic focus is long overdue and anticipated by the international community. Such efforts will also be greatly supported by Europe and the UN as a whole. But particular American methods to achieve such a noble quest will eventually tell everything or they will be contradicted by war-cries.
Does the world really view Secretary Kerry as an apology for US military aggressions or mistakes in the Middle East—or for that matter around the world? Do they accept his new “secular pope” role?
He certainly has an almost internationalist moral compass but this already tainted with Saudi Arabia ties of geopolitical and economic realities face-off against goodness. It may take a larger commitment and more time to gain world’s trust. As to whether he and the US is sincere in this potential shift, only time will tell.
Is this consistent impression of America’s humble and benign face consistent with Secretary Kerry’s first two months as chief diplomat?
There is what the world sees and then there is what Secretary Kerry and the US want the world to see. Obviously, the US has the interest in seeing a more open Asia, economically and with international human rights conventions. Primarily, the focus of stability rests on economic concerns, which rally the world’s Non-aligned Movement of 120 or the G-77 Southern Hemisphere nations against the US. This is an obstacle that the US has not been willing to address directly or head on, and one that increasingly challenges the attempts of new Secretaries of State and foreign relations of the present world order.
The impact value of the Secretary’s travels, first to Europe and Central Asia, reflect a disregard for high diplomacy in the Pacific, where America’s Armed Forces have “pivoted” in area concentration. Already, the world response has been negative. Not only has the Secretary’s stern message to Turkey to speak of Israel better was ignored, but much of everything he has instructed others might be taken as too weak or too offensive. Both might be overcome with greater total commitment to these principles by the US with fewer contradictions.
The world took the US high emissary for a chance to reconnect and improve ties, following US humility. What they got at first was a bad start—the face of humility and weak demands. The hawks in the US might be disappointed in the Secretary for not being strong enough for their liking and not being proud enough in America’s dominant power. The doves might feel that he is too pushy and not humble ashamed enough.
In a sense, the American hawks and doves are both right. Secretary of Kerry started out as the contradiction of a US reconciliatory approach to nations but also turned out to be a domineering elitist that told states and their leaders what they must do. He is, then, likely to be seen by the world as neither humble or prideful in practice, but arrogant and lofty in profession—a push back to 19th -20th century diplomacy styles.
This already marks a big break with Secretary Hillary Clinton’s brass style which pushed for more innovative approaches to foreign relations, like rolling out greater civilian power, e-diplomacy and social media. Nor have we seen any big strategy changes in foreign policy.
While abroad very often, Secretary Clinton pushed hard for new ideas and approaches. Unlike her final days, however, Kerry did have any scars from the Benghazi terrorist attack.
Unfortunately, Secretary Kerry seems mistaken in choosing his primary travel destinations and phone conversations—having missed the biggest players in the world—China, Germany, India, and Brazil, for example. He remains at odds in deciding whether the greatest conflict of the century lies in East Asia or Central Asia.
Secretary Clinton was not effective at resolving tensions in the China Seas—the problematic dispute between Japan and China that was temporarily halted only by the incessant hostility from North Korea. In fact there were many provocative measures well beyond “containment” of Chinese expansion at play which lacked any diplomacy at all but force.
The shift from China and Japan tensions to North Korea should show the world and the US leadership that matters of importance are often those “declared” matters of importance by the USA. This means that if the US focuses on an issue hard enough, it has the power to create an out-of-context event, turning it into a major event.
This is a lesson for diplomats that could be further pressed into Kerry’s human rights methods as he shines the light on other nation’s actions but the US must remember that they will receive the same diplomatic reprisals for their abuses. There is also a cautionary note in creating conflicts that do not yet exist without the American spotlight and added pressures. These features Secretary Kerry knows well from experience.
Lastly, Secretary Kerry has made no headway with North Korea or China and is caught in his predecessor’s wake. He is apt to make similar diplomatic blunders without a change in behavior. While Secretary Clinton had more time in office and hence, more time in Asia, it is unfortunately that Secretary Kerry was off to a bad start. This has recently become a good start, as he increasingly addresses real “political” issues of the 21st century. Nevertheless, if and when Secretary Kerry does travel to Asia, unless he has a massive, innovative and benign diplomatic strategy, the masters of strategy will eat him up alive.