Hillary Clinton, the 67th US secretary of state, is a tough act to follow. Her successor, John Forbes Kerry, must have learned that soon enough, if he didn’t already know it before he became number 68.
He doesn’t have Hillary’s star power. He has admirers but he’ll never be worshipped by women all over the world who see in Hillary the promise of what they themselves could be.
Glamour’s magazine has billed him as “the sexiest politician alive.” But that comes after The Onion palmed off North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un as “the sexiest man alive.” That doesn’t help Kerry at all.
Still, make no mistakes: John Kerry is no slouch in foreign policy. A bemedalled hero of the Vietnam War, he cut his political teeth by leading a Vietnam War veterans’ anti-war movement, in the process proving himself a first-rate social organizer. From the time he became senator in 1985 until he was appointed America’s top diplomat, he was a foreign policy legislator. When he ran for president in 2004, he trounced the incumbent George W. Bush in the presidential debate of Sept. 30 when the subject was foreign policy.
A smear campaign impugning his record as a swiftboat commander during the Vietnam War was a factor in his loss of that election. That vicious propaganda putsch carried out by Republican-funded operatives out to scalp him is now immortalized in the vocabulary of American politics as “swiftboating.” Nevertheless he remained a highly respected figure in the US senate for his gravitas, his mastery of issues and skills as a bridge-builder. The chamber confirmed his appointment as state secretary by a vote of 94 to 3.
In his first trip abroad using a diplomatic passport, he covered nine nations in Europe and the Middle East in ten days — demonstrating that he has the same stamina for travel so famously displayed by his women predecessors: Madeleine Albright, Condi Rice and Hillary Clinton.
Much has been read into his choice of first travel destination — as if the US has pivoted back from Asia and the Pacific to Europe and the Gulf. Pundits called this “the rebalancing of the rebalancing.” Well, it’s not. One early trip — made urgent by Netanyahu’s Iranian jitters and the bloodbath in Syria — does not mean a change in strategy.
In fact, the US State Department has just announced that Kerry will fly to Asia in the middle of next month — to Japan, South Korea and China. These happen to be the countries most shaken by North Korea’s nuclear test last month. With China, he has a great deal to talk about, including Internet hacking. And also climate change — because China is a huge greenhouse gas producer and its latest problems of environmental degradation threaten the entire planet.
Will he make a sidetrip to Indonesia? Logically, he should. In any case he will be in this part of the world in June when he attends the Asean Post-Ministerial Conference in Brunei.
So the pivot endures. The only change is that it’s now officially called “rebalancing,” a more innocuous word. This means the US will keep enhancing its presence in Asia in the economic, sociocultural and politico-security fields. It will insist on freedom of passage in the global commons, but it won’t take sides in territorial disputes.
Think of this: during his visit to London, Kerry dismayed all of Britain, America’s closest ally, by stressing that on the sovereignty dispute over the Falklands between the UK and Argentina, the US remained neutral. It’s therefore likely to be just as neutral in East Asian disputes.
So far Kerry has made a running start. If he stays sensible and works hard as secretary of state, he may yet prove that a man can do the job as well as a woman.