Both Mrs.Hillary Clinton, the outgoing US Secretary of State, and Mr. John Kerry, her successor-designate already officially nominated by President Barack Obama, are public servants of style and substance who have distinguished themselves as Senators for their knowledge of the world and expertise.
Ms. Condoleezza Rice, who was Secretary of State during the second term of Mr. George Bush, and Mrs. Clinton were different from the traditional cold war style of Secretaries of State that one had seen before them. They realized that they had to operate in a world that had changed and that continued to change after the end of the Cold War and that the old style of policy-making, execution and projection that served the US well during the days of the Cold War, would no longer serve it well.
They diluted the elitist tradition that dominated the functioning and thinking of the US State Department before them. Public diplomacy and greater policy maker-people interaction became their defining characteristics. They discarded the traditional aloofness of US foreign policy makers and encouraged their staff in the State Department to do so too.
Mrs. Clinton was the most out-going and transparent Secretary of State that the US has had who never hesitated to speak her mind out whether to China or Pakistan or other countries. She could be blunt without being unpleasant in her interactions with her counterparts from other countries. One had a glimpse of her quintessential style of public diplomacy during her town hall interactions with selected members of the civil society in Kolkata earlier this year moderated by Barkha Dutt of NDTV.
Mr. Kerry is as knowledgeable as Ms. Rice and Mrs. Clinton and his expertise in moulding policies is considerable. But in a commentary on Mr. Kerry after he was nominated by Mr. Obama, the BBC described him as “deliberate and strategic” in thinking, but secretive in style. A commentary by the ”Christian Science Monitor” drew attention to Mr. Kerry’s past reputation of elitist aloofness.
Many commentators feel that public or people-to-people diplomacy of the kind in which Mrs. Clinton excelled as we saw in Kolkata does not come naturally to Mr. Kerry. It is said that Mrs. Clinton was an excellent team manager in running the State Department. One has misgivings whether Mr. Kerry would be an equally good and warm team manager.
In fact, Mr. Kerry was not Mr. Obama’s first choice as Secretary of State to succeed Mrs. Clinton. His first choice reportedly was Ms. Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the UN, who would have been in the mould of Mrs. Clinton, but Ms. Rice’s controversial statements regarding the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi in September, which came in for criticism from some Republican Senators, made it doubtful whether she would be confirmed by the Senate. Mr. Kerry should have a smooth sailing in the Senate because of his experience as a Senator and as the Chairman of the Senate Foreign relations Committee.
While the style of Mr. Kerry could be different from that of Mrs. Clinton, in substance one is unlikely to see any changes in foreign policy except in nuances in relation to China and Pakistan. The broad features of foreign policy are largely decided by the President on the basis of inputs and advice from the Secretary of State, the Defence Secretary, the National Security Adviser and the Director of the CIA.
One has to wait to see whom Mr. Obama nominates to the posts of Defence Secretary and Director, CIA, before assessing what could be the totality of the impact of the team as a whole on the foreign policy during the second term of Mr. Obama. Three constants in respect of China have to be kept in view: Firstly, during 2012, the US replaced the European Union as the largest buyer of Chinese goods. The economic dependence between the two countries would rule out any adversarial relationship of a permanent nature. Secondly, the strong support in the Congress for Japan’s sovereignty claims in the East China Sea and for continued supply of military equipment to Taiwan would keep alive the trust deficit between the two countries despite the flourishing bilateral trade. Thirdly, the US could press ahead with its policy of strengthening its Asian presence through continued support to some ASEAN countries on the question of their rights in the South China Sea and further diversify its growing ties with Myanmar, which would be, in long term, to the detriment of China.
Mrs. Clinton vigorously pursued and projected the policy of enhanced presence in the Asia-Pacific region to counter Chinese activism and to reassure the ASEAN countries and Japan. The projection and execution of this policy by Mr. Kerry to protect the interests of the US and its allies would avoid the rough edges of Mrs. Clinton without changing the overall US objectives in the region.
The continued importance of India during Mr. Obama’s first term was partly the result of Mr. Obama’s own conviction on the role that India could and should play as an emerging Asian power on par with China and partly the outcome of the energy and enthusiasm imparted by her to the growing strategic multi-dimensional relationship between the US and India. This is a policy constant that will continue under Mr. Kerry.
Mr. Obama continues to attach importance to pursuing a tough counter-terrorism policy in the Af-Pak region partly to prevent any more threats to the US homeland from terrorists based in this region and partly to maintain stability in Afghanistan despite the thinning out of the US presence in Afghanistan.
While vis-à-vis China, Mr. Kerry will enjoy some latitude in the way the policy as laid down by Mr. Obama is projected and executed, Mr. Obama is expected to continue in the driving seat in respect of the Af-Pak region. At the same time, one has to remember that Mr. Kerry has greater sensitivity to the strategic interests and concerns of Pakistan in the Afghanistan region than Mrs. Clinton and pays heed to the perceptions of the Pakistan Army. He might try to moderate the consequences of Mr. Obama’s present tough policy towards Pakistan in order to soften Pakistani perceptions towards the US.
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Kerry would play a more active role in identifying and executing policy options in respect of Syria and Iran. There was an impression that Mrs. Clinton, who has future political ambitions of her own, avoided too activist a role in West Asia and the Gulf lest any policy mishap come in the way of her future political interests.
Many believe that Mr. Obama would want Mr. Kerry to show greater activism in West Asia and the Gulf than Mrs. Clinton did — particularly in Syria. Those who had seen Mr. Kerry’s policy flip-flops in relation to the regime change policy of Mr. Bush in Iraq — he first supported it in the Senate, and then marked his distance from the policy of Mr. Bush — wonder whether Mr. Kerry would have the stomach for a vigorous regime change policy in Syria.