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Can Kerry measure up to 'rock star' Clinton ?

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2013-02-27

There are signs that newly appointed US Secretary of State John Kerry, currently on an 11-day trip through Europe and the Middle East, will take a strikingly different approach to his job than Hillary Clinton. But will Barack Obama let him?

It is a frequently repeated cliché, in Washington and beyond, that newly appointed US Secretary of State John Kerry has big shoes to fill.

But with Kerry currently on the first leg of an 11-day trip around Europe and the Middle East, there are signs that his approach to the job may be markedly different from Hillary Clinton’s widely praised brand of “rock-star diplomacy”.

Whereas Clinton strove to rehabilitate America’s image after eight years under an internationally unpopular President George W. Bush, the new secretary of state is thought to harbour more specific, and perhaps ambitious, objectives.

Whether President Barack Obama, known to be particularly hands-on in shaping foreign policy, will grant him the autonomy to pursue those objectives remains to be seen, political analysts and State Department officials say.

The first hint of the push-pull that may come to define the relationship between Kerry and Obama is the choice of location for Kerry’s first official outing abroad. Though the administration reportedly wanted Kerry to go to Asia, continuing Clinton’s efforts to re-pivot the US foreign policy focus towards China and neighbouring Asian nations, Kerry insisted on an itinerary that reflects his own background and goals. After meetings in London on Monday, Kerry was in Berlin on Tuesday before continuing to France, where he has family ties, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

The most anticipated part of Kerry’s European tour will be his visit to Rome, where he is to meet members of the Syrian opposition, along with representatives from other countries that support efforts to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

He is also expected to hold talks on the face-off with Iran, as well as a new trade agreement with Europe that Obama mentioned in his State of the Union address earlier this month.

An interest in ‘Islamic extremism’ and crises of the moment

Indeed, Kerry’s schedule suggests that he is attempting to directly tackle the problems of the moment, rather than lay groundwork for broader, longer-term strategies, as Clinton did. “In the wake of Benghazi, Mali, and uncertainty in Syria, [Kerry] has come into office with a particular interest in how the US is currently postured vis-à-vis Islamic extremism -- particularly in those countries, and surrounding areas, experiencing transitions,” said one former advisor to Clinton, who continues to act as a policy consultant to the State Department.

The problem, said the official, who wished to remain anonymous, is that Obama has maintained a firm grip on those areas of foreign policy. “Many of the issues we know [Kerry] to care most about, for example Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the post-Arab-uprising Middle East, have been largely in the preserve of the White House and Department of Defence,” he noted.

Many prominent foreign policy experts doubt that Obama will give Kerry the leeway he may seek. “Obama is the most withholding foreign policy president since Richard Nixon,” wrote Aaron David Miller, former advisor and negotiator for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, on news site POLITICO this week. “He dominates; he doesn’t delegate.”

A recent New York Times article reported that some of Clinton’s bolder ideas as secretary of state – like vetting and arming Syrian rebel groups -- were rejected by a White House keen on staying out of new conflicts and guiding policy on the biggest international crises.

Consequently, Clinton pursued smaller-scale projects, including new global initiatives for women’s rights and press freedoms, as well as less heavy diplomatic lifts, like normalising relations with Burma (also known as Myanmar).

According to Peter Mandaville, a political analyst and professor at George Mason University who has also served as a policy advisor at the State Department, Kerry will likely “focus more on conventional, almost traditional foreign policy and national security concerns, and less on developing innovative approaches to diplomacy, a hallmark of the Hillary Clinton tenure”.

Is the lack of Clinton’s star power an asset?

One challenge for Kerry, both in defining his prerogatives with the White House and hashing out deals with world leaders, is the fact that he does not have Clinton’s celebrity -- something that electrified her interlocutors abroad and gave her an implicit bargaining chip with the Obama administration.

On the other hand, as the former State Department advisor to Clinton pointed out, Kerry faces less pressure than his predecessor. While Clinton is widely believed to be mulling a 2016 presidential bid, and was therefore mindful of her legacy as secretary of state, Kerry views his new post as the peak of a long career (nearly 30 years in the Senate, as well as a 2004 run for president).

“He has less to worry about in terms of public relations and an ‘image’ that needs to be protected than Clinton did,” the official said.

That may mean, for example, that Kerry will be more proactive in trying to advance the Mideast peace process. Whereas Clinton removed the issue from the top of her priority list once efforts to get both parties back to the negotiating table proved fruitless, it is Kerry who reportedly urged Obama to travel to Israel next month (his first trip there since entering the White House).

Moreover, with centrists emerging as a force to be reckoned with in recent Israeli elections, Kerry may feel particularly motivated to work with Obama in hatching a new strategy.

But the new secretary of state may find his aspirations stymied by a tangle of intractable international conflicts that have defied the best brains in diplomacy for decades. “He may be intellectually capable of challenging the status quo and thinking outside the box, but whether he can actually act on these bolder impulses is another matter,” Miller wrote on POLITICO. “Part of Kerry’s problem as secretary of state is that it’s an unfriendly world out there to say the least. Where are the big diplomatic deals and grand bargains to be made?”

Date created : 2013-02-26


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