America’s newly minted top diplomat hasn’t yet finished his nine-country, 11-day swing through Europe and the Middle East, his first overseas trip as secretary of state, but the first tough reviews are already in print. It doesn’t help that John Kerry’s most widely reported comment thus far was a boast to German students that Americans “have a right to be stupid” or that, as if to prove his point, he seemed to create a new central Asian republic known as “Kyrzakhstan”. He’s “off to shaky start”, warned one headline. “Kerry hits a bumpy road in world diplomacy” announces another.
Let’s be fair: Mr Kerry is a shrewd and sophisticated analyst of international politics and a formidable Washington heavyweight. He has a tough act to follow in Hillary Clinton, but Mr Kerry’s hard work on behalf of the administration over the past four years made a significant contribution to some of her successes.
But beyond early assessments of whether Mr Kerry is up to the job, we must acknowledge that success as secretary of state depends increasingly these days on the ability of a skilled manager to do more with less. This president’s stated policy goals focus overwhelmingly on the domestic side, and when boasting of his first-term foreign policy achievements, Barack Obama speaks mainly of bringing soldiers home, reducing the leverage of US diplomats at international bargaining tables.
As for this first trip, it’s no surprise that Mr Kerry begins his work in Europe and the Middle East, the two regions he knows best. Friendships in London, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Ankara, Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha will serve him well. His challenge in Europe will be to keep the US involved in the process of eurozone reform without offering much direct material help and to create momentum behind a transatlantic trade pact that will take years to negotiate.
In the Middle East, the first step will be to try to stop the carnage in Syria and help prepare the ground for a capable new government. He scored an early apparent success by helping persuade opposition leaders to join talks on Syria’s future. Yet Mr Kerry knows well that here, as in other Middle East hotspots, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran will have significant say in how a post-Assad Syria develops in coming years. Particularly given the “pivot” of more US resources and attention to Asia, America’s direct involvement will be more limited than in the past, and every government in the Middle East knows it.
Then there is Russia, a country with which Washington would like better relations, if only to make life easier in managing emerging challenges in Syria and Iran. Yet Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has made plain that he believes he can score more points at home by attacking the US and its foreign policy than by engaging its diplomats.
Mr Kerry’s most complicated test will be in Asia, where he must lead an administration effort to ensure that America’s heavier Pacific presence and US efforts to expand security and commercial relations with so many of China’s neighbours does not produce the sort of competition with Beijing that provokes direct conflict – in Asia’s waterways, in trade relations or in cyberspace.
Secretary Kerry, best of luck.
The writer is the president of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, and author of ‘Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World’