John Kerry returned to Washington having completed his first trip to Asia as the U.S. secretary of state. The trip came at a time fraught with peril and complications — much like his prior trips to the Middle East and Europe. That said, in every case he has shown signs that he is capable of being an exceptionally effective chief diplomat for the United States — and shown warning signals that he is tempted in directions that may undo his efforts.
Certainly, Kerry has been energetic. He has already put his personal imprint on U.S. diplomacy, meeting with most of America’s principal allies and diving into the toughest problems from Israel-Palestine to Syria to Iran to Afghanistan to North Korea to cyberwar to the complex relationships with U.S. allies in Europe and frenemies in China. This is not to be minimized. Personal relationships with top leaders, the ability to speak candidly with them and show personal investment in critical issues — all will bear fruit in the years ahead. People and personalities almost always trump policy and process in the real world of foreign policy.
In addition, Kerry has shown a canny sign of understanding that for all the hoopla and photo ops that commonly come with cabinet-level missions around the world, the most important work is done in private. He spoke of this in Asia, referring to North Korea but also more broadly to the nature of diplomacy. “Subtlety and definite secrecy and absence of advertisement” are required in sensitive cases, he thoughtfully observed. Offering Richard Nixon’s secret diplomacy with China as an example, he said this principle would guide him in his interactions with China and in matters from North Korea to the Middle East.
For a man who devoted considerably less of his travel as Foreign Relations Committee senator to Asia than to other global hot spots, Kerry showed some of the deftness that he exhibited in Europe and the Middle East, regions where he has invested an extraordinary amount of time. With North Korea, President Obama’s administration has behaved with exceptional balance. As Kim Jong Un ratcheted up the rhetoric, the U.S. military moved assets into position to show that the United States took the threat seriously and would respond to provocations forcefully. But Kerry also suggested that America was “prepared to reach out” to the North Koreans if there were signs they would moderate their threats and were genuinely interested in talks.
In China, in addition to establishing high-level ties, there were signs of progress on several levels. The Chinese agreed to join the United States in sketching out a plan forward toward a resolution of the North Korea problem. And, on another front, the United States and China agreed to set up a working group to address cyberissues. Working groups might seem the province of process-happy wonks, but in this case the agreement is wise on several levels.
First, given the broad number of sources, goals and impacts of cyberattacks, there is a need for something like a “cyberhotline” to avoid escalation of tensions due to a misunderstanding, much as there was a need for a red phone during the days of the Cold War to avoid nuclear miscommunications and catastrophe. Next, the best way to diffuse potential tensions on this front is through constant, working-level communications, better understanding, and ultimately the establishment of rules by which both sides — and ultimately the entire world — agree to live. Finally and most importantly, such a working group carries forward the efforts established as part of the “strategic rebalancing” toward Asia and the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue to systematically deepen the relations between the two countries, forming more lines of interaction, at ever-deeper levels, between their large and complex public bureaucracies.
As Kerry no doubt has come to realize in his trips through Europe and the Middle East — not to mention in his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — few major world issues can be solved or effectively addressed without cooperation and communication between the United States and China. This is precisely why the China trip was so heartening after Kerry’s initial preoccupation with the Middle East. While the problems of the Middle East lie within its borders, the only way for the United States to have the leverage and resources it needs to address those problems — from Syria to Iran to broader questions of how to stabilize the region — is for it to find new ways to collaborate with the world’s other major powers that have both a stake in stability and the clout to do something about it.
As Iran and Syria have shown, for the first time in history that means working with the Chinese. Without them, no sanctions against Iran would have worked (to the extent that sanctions today are working). Without their cooperation it is impossible to gain traction in the United Nations. Should they side with the Russians on issues like Syria, progress is almost impossible.
In fact, one of the fundamental realities of the world in which Kerry is serving as U.S. secretary of state is that for the foreseeable future, America’s most vital international partners are the two great powers that most share its interest in minimizing global unrest and fostering economic growth: the European Union and China. Together with the United States, these are what my friend Tom Friedman of The New York Times calls “the forces of stability” — the players who have the greatest stake in the peaceful functioning of the international system and are able to do the most to promote it.
China, of course, is new to the global stage and has many interests and impulses that run contrary to America’s. Europe is weakened by economic crisis and feeble institutions and has little culture of having a true continental purpose or set of objectives. But no other great powers are as globally engaged, are as economically potent, or have the reach or, should they desire to use it, political leverage of the triumvirate that those two powers form with the United States. Indeed, there is little effective use of U.S. “smart power” that does not involve creative steps to leverage it with that of one or both of these other megapowers.
Here, however, we come to a core early challenge facing Kerry. He must now realize that whether he is dealing with Israel-Palestine, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, the South China Sea, global economic relations, or climate change, he can’t be the man working the day-to-day issues on the ground and the one shaping and implementing a grand strategy. The new alliances and institutions of the 21st-century require as much attention as, or more attention than, the business of fighting fires in the world’s hot zones. Ensuring that any U.S.-EU trade deal is part of a broader reinvention of the trans-Atlantic alliance, that the same is true of what emerges from the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, and that the United States also works on developing international structures to deepen critical relationships (including those with other vital established and emerging powers such as Japan, India and Brazil) requires that Kerry devote the next few weeks to finalizing his team at the State Department and that he work with the president and his top aides on ensuring his team dovetails with seemingly imminent changes coming to the White House National Security Staff and at economic cabinet agencies.
The mordant joke I’ve heard from within the State Department during the past couple of months has been “John Kerry phone home.” What it means is that there’s no place for one-man diplomacy in this increasingly complex world. Just as the president must empower his cabinet more in this second term to achieve legacy goals, so too must Kerry put in place senior leaders who can work the issues he has started to explore. Although his involvement will be critical going forward, he must view his role as that of a conductor or a commanding general — overseeing, orchestrating, providing vision, reaching in to provide leadership where needed, but empowering others to save him from getting trapped in the alluring (if exhausting) illusion that shuttle diplomacy is actually getting something done. It has its place. It sometimes helps. But it should be used sparingly, only when necessary, or it is devalued. There will be no legacy of Kerry the statesman that does not effectively incorporate that of Kerry the effective leader of a global bureaucracy.
David Rothkopf is CEO and editor-at-large of Foreign Policy.