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Home > Opinion
 
Kerry’s challenge

Nader Mousavizadeh (PERSPECTIVE) / 5 February 2013

John Kerry’s overwhelming confirmation as the next US secretary of state presents a welcome opportunity to consider what the point of the job is.

Now that Hillary Clinton has left Foggy Bottom for a well-earned rest, it’s worth stating that public diplomacy was not Thomas Jefferson’s idea of being the country’s chief diplomat, nor, one suspects, Clinton’s.

An extraordinarily able and shrewd politician with an unmatched global Rolodex, Clinton accepted early on a circumscribed definition of the role for reasons that probably only she truly knows. For the United States, and the world, however, it has left a legacy of diplomatic detachment from a range of conflicts and challenges.

Looking back, it is clear that the role of secretary of state in the Obama administration was constructed around primarily domestic priorities: first, managing successfully the poisonous political rivalry between the two giants of the Democratic Party; second, reassuring the American public that the “era of wars” was indeed coming to an end; and third, that when America would project its power and influence to neutralise national security threats, it would be far more in the form of drones and special forces than diplomats.

The great promise of a president uniquely prepared by heritage, intellect and experience to guide America’s 21st century global mission with a global perspective gave way to a highly militarised form of engagement with the world.

Underlying these political motivations was the deeply held belief that in the aftermath of the Great Recession the country’s global position was defined entirely by its economic strength. “Foreign policy begins at home” became a mantra as familiar in the era of economic crisis as “Yes, we can” was during the 2008 campaign.

What this legacy bequeaths to Kerry are two false choices that he must confront without alienating that same White House from which he will ultimately derive his influence. First, it is time to recognise that foreign policy begins just as often, and just as importantly, abroad. Chinese nationalism, terrorism in the Sahel, a savage civil war in Syria, climate change, cyber warfare, the Iranian nuclear program and the EU crisis are challenges with distinct roots and reasons far beyond the shores of America. They need to be encountered and understood out there. Otherwise, the risk of surprise on the scale of the one that struck on that cloudless day in New York a decade ago will remain — and indeed increase — in a fragmenting, rapidly changing world.

Second, Kerry must mount a new challenge to Washington’s ossified debate about intervention as an instrument of foreign policy. Syria will soon present him with the best (or worst, as the case may turn out) reason to do so. For the president’s critics, the US should have taken a much more active, military, role far sooner — including arming the opposition, imposing a no-flight zone and conducting targeted strikes against the regime.

President Obama in an interview with The New Republic this week elaborated on why all of these options seem to him deeply unpalatable — dwelling on everything from the risk of triggering the use of chemical weapons, to the impact on operations in Afghanistan, to the relative merits of acting in Syria vs. acting in the Congo in order to save lives.

Of course, the fact that there isn’t a simple military solution to the Syria crisis is precisely what makes a dramatic and sustained diplomatic initiative so urgent — and its absence so troubling. One need have no illusions about the Russian or Chinese views of the crisis to appreciate that without a genuine negotiation where they will have to get in order to give, the slaughter will continue — and risks of regional escalation spike.

But such has been the near-complete militarisation of U.S. foreign policy over the past decade that for all intents and purposes the only alternative presented to an invasion of the country is a combination of drone strikes and targeted killings. The tried and tested principle of diplomacy backed by the threat of force has seen a near-total inversion. Axiomatic now as the only alternative to doing nothing is the use of lethal force backed by the occasional choice of diplomacy as clean-up job.

This is unworthy of a great power — and a great foreign service. During his confirmation hearings, Kerry stated that “American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone.” If that remark is to be remembered as more than one man’s expression of hope over experience, he will have to make it so. To engage, to cajole, to give and take, to offer incentives to allies and enemies alike in pursuit of interests global and national, political and economic, to wield diplomatic power and influence as only America can: That is Kerry’s opportunity now — and his challenge.

Nader Mousavizadeh is chief executive of Oxford Analytica

© IHT

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