Making the grade? Assessing John Kerry’s record as secretary of state

As President Obama reaches the 7-year mark in his tenure in the White House, and Secretary of State John Kerry his 3-year anniversary at Foggy Bottom, it is a good moment to offer an interim assessment on how the nation’s top diplomat is doing.

He has been in office long enough to see some of his initiatives and priorities play out, yet still has a full year to make course corrections or new efforts as may be needed. Moreover, the convening of the Vienna peace talks on the Syrian war, which Kerry has suggested to be his top remaining priority, and the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal all converge at this precise moment to place a particular spotlight on one of the nation’s longest-serving public servants.

Top 10 list

On balance, I would offer Kerry a solid interim grade, with some very impressive efforts to date but also lots of unfinished business—and at least two major mistakes. Here is my understanding of Kerry’s top 10 priority list over the last thousand-plus days:

  1. Dealing with the meltdown of the Middle East, the failure of the Arab spring to deliver a new democratic normal, and the ascendance of Da’esh (another name for the Islamic State). Here Kerry has struggled, along with the Obama administration in general.
  2. Addressing Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine and, more recently, Russian intervention in Syria. Here I believe Kerry and Obama have done better than commonly acknowledged, keeping up some pressure through sanctions without provoking Putin into a spat that the latter would likely relish (which could make the situation much more dangerous).
  3. Negotiating the Iran nuclear deal. This has become a political Rorschach test, of course, but while I have some reservations about the specifics of the deal, on balance I credit Kerry for remarkable energy and perseverance in negotiating it.
  4. Contending with ongoing North Korean nuclear shenanigans (including two nuclear tests on Kerry’s watch). Here the Obama administration has taken a hands-off approach. I do not believe that strategy to be working very well, but in fairness, it is not clear that another strategy would do better.
  5. Wrestling with China’s rise, including security and cyber challenges (though this was often more the Pentagon’s lead). Here I think Kerry has been largely absent, as I argue below.
  6. Helping President Obama negotiate a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on trade. Here Kerry has done enough in an administration that had other key actors to take the lead on TPP.
  7. Working with Europe and Japan to promote economic recovery in the broader western world (though this was largely led by the Treasury, Federal Reserve, U.S. Trade Representative, and White House). Again, Kerry probably has done enough as part of a larger team.
  8. Attempting a few isolated but high-profile diplomatic high-wire acts such as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (and to an extent the opening to Cuba—though that may have been more of a White House show). On this he has won a round or two, lost a round or two—with no clear net verdict.
  9. Addressing climate change. Given resistance in Congress that predates Kerry’s tenure as secretary of state, I think that Obama and Kerry accomplished about as much as could have been realistically expected in the Paris accord.
  10. Making some kind of meaningful, signature progress on other 21st century issues such as poverty, narcotics, and water shortages. At present, I do not see a major legacy here.

I have enough professor in me to offer a crude report card. Out of these 10 big issues, I see Kerry doing well on 5 or 6, including his handling of Putin and of Iran, as well as climate change. A bonus was his admirable midwifing of the Afghanistan coalition government of Ghani and Abdullah—not an issue I am ranking in the top 10 globally, but still an important matter and an impressive feat. I would give Kerry mediocre grades on the various 21st century issues, as well as on North Korea. I would give him poor grades on the broader Middle East and Da’esh, as well as the rise of China and associated rebalance.

[P]riorities are important in statecraft; Kerry cannot do it all.

Kerry seems most riveted on problems of the broader Middle East and Europe, extending over to Moscow—his travel record reflects that, with most of Kerry’s time and travels having been to that general swath of the world. That fact leads me to one of my major critiques of Kerry—his inability to do much to sustain President Obama’s declared top global priority from the first term, the so-called rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific. Kerry is relatively less riveted on South Asia and an infrequent visitor to East Asia. Of course, priorities are important in statecraft; Kerry cannot do it all. But his failure to devote much energy to the Asia-Pacific rebalance has to be seen as a considerable flaw, given the declared grand strategy of the man he works for, to say nothing of that region’s inherent importance.

Moonshot on Syria?

Beyond the specifics, what are Kerry’s broader attributes as secretary of state? I would offer three. 

  • First is his incredible level of energy and commitment—and also of patience in dealing with some moderately unsavory individuals and countries fairly often. 
  • Second is his attention to newer global problems such as climate change. 
  • Third is his relative preference for diplomacy over either grand strategy or security policy. He really is a diplomat, more than a strategist or a wartime officeholder. That is mostly good, but not entirely, and it leads me to my final critique.

Kerry’s approach to combating Da’esh, and to addressing the intertwined matter of President Bashar Assad’s ongoing hold to power in Syria, has failed to date. But it is worse than that. It is not fair to blame any secretary of state or president for all problems in the world, or all bad outcomes of various diplomatic endeavors. The United States is not powerful enough to control what happens everywhere around the world, and strategy is often a probabilistic endeavor in which one attempts to do the best with whatever tools are available.

He really is a diplomat, more than a strategist or a wartime officeholder. That is mostly good, but not entirely.

Yet there must be limits to that way of thinking. Right now, as he prepares to head for Vienna, Secretary Kerry is hoping to negotiate peace among various groups that view each other as monsters, that coexist in a chaotic environment of dozens of warring actors, and that have no common vision for Syria—not to mention no plausible basis for compromise in light of current maximalist ambitions of each group. And Kerry’s goal is to create a self-sustaining and self-enforcing ceasefire in such an anarchic environment. This is a greater longshot than Aaron Rodger’s Hail Mary pass in the playoffs. 

Of course, Hail Mary passes are sometimes caught—so, one might say, why blame Kerry for trying? The reason is that this extreme longshot diplomatic strategy is blinding us from the need to develop a more realistic approach. We need a political strategy for Syria that imagines less repair to the Humpty Dumpty of what has become of the Syrian state and more of a confederal concept that allows different groups autonomous zones (Assad could live in a future Alawite sector, a compromise among different actors). We need to acknowledge the need for a U.S.-backstopped peace enforcement mission by the international community once such a deal becomes possible. Meantime, we need to devote considerably more military resources to strengthening the moderate Syrian opposition so it has a chance to make inroads against Assad, Da’esh, and the Nusra Front. Or, if my plan doesn’t appeal, we need some other concept that lowers standards for success, increases and improves the means we are devoting to the problem, and levels with the American people about what is likely to be needed in the way of a peacekeeping force someday to hold whatever is negotiated all together.

Because Kerry is following an illusory policy on what he himself rightly considers a top priority of the year, and because he has a certain tunnel vision for the ¼ or so of the world’s population including the broader Middle East and Europe, I need to register some strong dissents and critiques for what has otherwise to date been a very impressive period of leadership by the American secretary of state.