John Kerry and the restraint of American power in U.S. foreign policy

Stephen Kinzer writes: In some parts of the world, especially in the volatile region that stretches from the Persian Gulf to Central Asia, [newly confirmed Secretary of State, John] Kerry is already a familiar figure in the corridors of power. He has also established an evidently strong working relationship with Obama. Even the fact that his friends in the Senate brutally crushed his main rival for the job, Susan Rice, who is one of Obama’s close and trusted advisers, was not enough to sour the president on his nomination.

One fundamental aspect of American foreign policy making will not change as Kerry takes over the job Hillary Clinton has held for the last four years. Major policy decisions will be made in the White House, not at the State Department – and the secretary of state may not even be in the room when they are made.

Nonetheless, Kerry will be a key figure as the United States confronts the crises of the moment. His most encouraging credential is that he truly believes diplomacy is preferable to war – hardly a unanimous view in Washington. Whether this will result in a serious change in America’s approach to the world, however, is far from certain.

The first test will be Iran. Kerry is less prone than some others in Washington to throw around threats about war being an option that is “on the table”, and it is hard to imagine him blithely reminding Iranians, as Clinton did, that the United States has the power “to totally obliterate them”. Yet, the essence of American policy toward Iran – shaped around threats, sanctions, and demands that Iran submit to western power without expecting much in return – is unlikely to change.

Kerry will also be unable, and quite possibly unwilling, to rein in the ever-expanding US drone war, which is not run by the State Department but feeds the anti-Americanism that will make his job ever more difficult. Nor is there much prospect that he will be able to calm the fundamentalist radicalism that is surging through Egypt, Syria, and Israel.

The area in which Kerry may be able to have the greatest impact is redefining the meaning of national security for Americans. He recognizes that the main threats to the United States no longer come from foreign armies or what George W Bush liked to call “evil-doers”. His most encouraging statements are those that suggest he recognizes the enormous security challenges posed by climate change, global energy politics, and economic troubles at home. [Continue reading…]

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