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With Hillary off the stage and John Kerry returning from his first overseas adventure as Secretary of State, one wonders how similar—and dissimilar—will be the approach of the former senator as he settles in at Foggy Bottom. What is already apparent is a more pragmatic approach applying traditional statecraft to America’s interests in contrast to his predecessor’s focus on remaking the world to suit a Western liberal agenda.
Secretary Clinton departed the State Department as a world traveler intent on reaching out beyond elites in national capitals to women, youth, and civil society. She angered many social conservatives, at home and abroad, with her open championing of the gay agenda and her cultural imperialism—such as public skepticism of abstinence campaigns and conservative mores on the traditional family. It is unclear how much impact she had on the high politics of the day: the national security imperatives of dealing with Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other critical security challenges. It is also unclear whether she played any constructive role in pushing forward critical free trade deals (signed by Obama) that were Bush-era initiatives stalled by her own Democratic Party for years.
In contrast, it seems clear that the new secretary of state will turn Foggy Bottom’s focus away from social engineering of traditional societies and back to shaping the international environment in a way that is consonant with at least some of America’s vital interests. Kerry is the scion of a diplomatic family and has spent his career in public service involved in American foreign policy. He is a combat veteran and he has developed a real expertise in that area of the world most critical to U.S. interests over the next generation: the Asian continent.
Of course, the challenge for liberal internationalists, such as most of today’s Democrats, is to not feel guilty about promoting America’s interests first and foremost. It is clear that this Administration does not hold to views of American “exceptionalism,” “primacy,” or “superiority.” Nonetheless, there are many who feel that this Administration, and John Kerry, are committed to a more realistic, limited foreign policy vision which is not dissimilar to that of most American leaders prior to Teddy Roosevelt.
Evidence for Kerry’s current views can be found in a campaign speech he gave in September 2012, in which he defended the Obama Administration and outlined a “Democratic [Party] foreign policy.” He focused attention on dangerous parts of the world—notably in Asia and the Middle East—to the utter exclusion of other regions, most notably Latin America. He cites traditional American security concerns (e.g. terrorism, proliferation) in places like Iran and Pakistan instead of platitudes about the “global commons,” the efficacy of “civil society,” and the value of the UN. He robustly recognizes the “special relationship with Israel,” stating, “that relationship has been central to U.S. policy in the Middle East. It is integral to overall security concerns, and it is an essential part of the moral dimension of our foreign policy, as Israel is the only true Middle Eastern democracy … The president stands with Israel because it is right, and it is in our interest to do so.”
The speech, written during campaign season in part to tar Romney as an extremist, cites one Administration as a model for prudently advancing the national interest in uncertain times: that of George H.W. Bush. One can only hope that Kerry, and the Administration more generally, will have the wisdom and courage to act in ways reminiscent of the leadership team of Bush, Baker, Scowcroft, Eagleburger, and Cheney.
Finally, Kerry has argued previously that America’s diplomatic efforts need more investment. Both liberals and many conservatives tend to agree with him, although it is to be hoped that this investment will focus on advancing the national interest rather than simply in giveaways to foreign capitals. Many Americans find it difficult to understand huge cash payments to countries who do not like us and work against our interests, such as Pakistan and Egypt.
Republicans, conservatives, pragmatists, and many centrists look at the tenure of Secretary Clinton with reservation due to her overt efforts to force a liberal social agenda on more traditional societies. Democrats, as well as many of their political adversaries, see in John Kerry a more traditional statesman who may pursue the national interest and revive the State Department’s role as a leader in foreign and national security policy.