Global Missionary: John Kerry's Faltering Effort to Redefine US Foreign Policy

By Holger Stark

Photo Gallery: John Kerry's Middle East Tribulations Photos
AP/dpa

John Kerry has spent months rushing from one conflict to the next, but has little show for it. His failures are symptomatic of an America that lacks a foreign policy identity -- and of a country that seems uncomfortable with its role as a superpower.

In the Middle East, it doesn't take much to be branded a terrorist -- even if you are the US secretary of state. The week before last, John Kerry spent several days traveling back and forth between Cairo, Jerusalem and Ramallah in an effort to establish a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But his efforts were not universally appreciated. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that senior officials in Jerusalem described his cease-fire proposal as a "strategic terrorist attack."

The derisive comment came after Kerry presented what was essentially a reasonable plan. It called for a temporary cessation of hostilities during which negotiations for a long-term armistice could continue. But instead of being appreciated, it was mocked. Jerusalem angrily rejected the plan, saying it only catered to demands made by Hamas.

A short time later, things got even worse. Israel's Channel 1 broadcast the alleged transcript of an antagonistic telephone conversation between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It later turned out the transcript was a fake.

When Kerry did finally manage to broker a 72-hour cease-fire at the end of last week, the resulting hope was short-lived. Just three hours into the suspension of hostilities, Hamas allegedly abducted an Israeli soldier andthe cease-fire was history. Israel later announced that the soldier had been killed rather than abducted.

In recent days, global diplomacy has seemed like an absurd form of theater, with John Kerry in the role of the tragic hero. He doesn't look like the secretary of state from a world power, Haaretz jeered, but like "an alien who just disembarked his spaceship in the Mideast." In speaking last week about the hostile atmosphere, Kerry vowed to keep trying, saying: "None of us here are stopping."

The helplessness of the world's most important foreign minister shows just how little influence the US still hasin the Middle East. And with each failure, Washington's influence in the rest of the world erodes as well. A civil war is raging in eastern Ukraine, an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program is still a long way off, Islamist terrorists now control large swaths of Iraq -- and the US doesn't appear to be in a position to do anything about it.

Searching for a Role

Now, as secretary of state it is his task -- exactly 10 years after he was nominated as the Democratic candidate for president, only to lose to George W. Bush -- to mediate in large conflicts from Israel to Iran. But as part of a government that is steering America away from its traditional role as global hegemon, Kerry also embodies the dilemma of the United States' global role in the 21st century: How successful can a US foreign policy be íf it depends more on strong words than it does on tanks and aircraft carriers?

On a Tuesday in spring, John Kerry appeared before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to talk about the end of the Middle East peace talks. Behind heavy brocade curtains that blocked out the daylight, Kerry described a weekend spent waiting at home for Israel to release a handful of Palestinian prisoners. The gesture of goodwill had previously been agreed to and it was hoped the release would allow the peace negotiations to continue. Hours went by and Kerry began to get anxious. But the Israelis didn't release the prisoners; instead, they announced settlement expansion. "Poof, that was the moment," Kerry said, forming an imaginary explosion with his hands.

For a moment, Kerry seemed like a child whose toy had just broken. He saw the peace process as his own personal project; he had spent months in Ramallah, Tel Aviv, Qatar, Riyadh and Amman. He had wanted to force through a deal and reshape the Middle East. And then things went "poof."

As usual, Kerry's appearance was impeccable, with his marine-blue pinstriped suit and perfectly coiffed silver hair. The only blemishes were the conspicuous rings under his eyes and the cough he had brought home with him from one of his trips abroad. Kerry is intimately familiar with the room where the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations meets. In 1971, he spoke out in opposition to the Vietnam War after receiving a medal for bravery in recognition of his command of a boat in the Mekong River delta. Later, Kerry himself chaired the committee for four years.

But during Kerry's testimony in spring, the Republicans were not satisfied with Kerry's answer. "You can't help but get the impression our foreign policy is just spinning out of control," said a Senator from Idaho. His counterpart from Tennessee said, in reference to Syria: "You have to be disappointed by the lack of action."

Then, John McCain took the floor, the Republican Party éminence grise who sees military intervention as the solution to most problems, no matter where and against whom. McCain demanded that the US help arm Ukraine and then cited President Theodore Roosevelt's famous tenet to "speak softly and carry a big stick," an approach that helped establish the US as a global power at the beginning of the 20th century. "What you're doing is talking strongly and carrying a very small stick, in fact, a twig," McCain said.

A Divided Country

The conflict over where America is drifting currently counts among the greatest debates being waged in Washington. Conservatives, such as the political scientist Robert Kagan, have been the most vocal. Kagan recently warned of a "collapse of global order" in an essay in the New Republic. It was titled "Superpowers Don't Get to Retire" and argued that only American power can "keep the lid closed on ... Pandora's box." In its most recent issue, Foreign Policy magazine described the "path to national renaissance" and asks: "Have We Hit Peak America?"

The US remains the world's only superpower, but it is also on the search for a new foreign policy identity. It is a country divided, torn between what Kagan calls "world-weariness" and the craving for the powerful role it once played.

Obama is a president of "retrenchment," the word Americans use to describe their retreat from the foreign policy front. Obama didn't bomb Syria, refused to send ground troops back into Iraq and opted not to intervene when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. "We are no longer in a Cold War. There's no Great Game to be won," Obama said last autumn in a speech to the United Nations. In a more recent address, he said: "Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail." Thus, John Kerry's mission: to construct an effective foreign policy without the help of a hammer.

"The president appreciates Kerry's tireless work ethic and willingness to take diplomatic risks," says Obama's deputy security advisor Ben Rhodes. Such qualities, he continues, are "well-suited to a time when diplomacy has moved to the forefront of our foreign policy."

Hurrying from Crisis to Crisis

During his first 12 months in office, Kerry flew more than 300,000 miles across the globe, more than any of his predecessors at the State Department. He made a state visit to China and traveled to Afghanistan to help resolve a dispute over election results. On the weekend of the World Cup final, he flew to Vienna for talks on the Iranian nuclear program and a meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier about the espionage case that has currently been weighing on German-American relations. Soon after, he was in the Middle East in an attempt to stop the fighting.

Kerry is 70 years old. He and his wife Teresa Heinz -- an heir to part of the Heinz Ketchup fortune -- own homes in Boston and Washington D.C. in addition to a property in Pittsburgh and a summer house on Nantucket. Heinz is thought to be worth a half billion dollars. When travelling together, the couple flies in their own Gulfstream and bring along a personal chef. Kerry could easily spend his time sailing with his grandchildren and taking it easy.

Instead, he hurries from one crisis to the next, and his office now only books appointments for him at the last minute. And yet, despite the enormous workload, Kerry seems as though he has found his calling. "I don't know how he does that," says David McKean.

McKean is Kerry's director of policy planning. His office is located on the seventh floor of the State Department building; Roman columns frame the gold gilded elevator. Kerry's offices are to the right, through the security checkpoint while McKean's wing is to the left. The two have known each other since Kerry was a junior prosecutor in Massachusetts and McKean has been working for him since 1987, first as his office manager in the Senate and then in his campaign team.

The Global Missionary

Kerry's role is different than that of his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, McKean says. When Clinton became secretary of state in 2009, America's image in the world was at an historical nadir and her mission, McKean says, was that of making amends. Kerry, he continues, can build on that, implementing phase two after the Bush years: the attempt at influencing global politics without military interventions and waterboarding. "Kerry knows in most countries one of the key players, the head of state or the foreign minister," McKean says. "He uses these contacts. As secretary of state, he is the right man at the right time."

Kerry has always seen himself as a kind of global missionary. As a young senator, he flew to Manila to monitor elections there; in Nicaragua, he convinced the Sandinistas to make concessions; later, he investigated the involvement of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in the drug trade. Kerry is able to convince people with a combination of charm, persistence and experience. He has an anecdote and a hug ready for each of his guests. "He thinks he can make the difference," says Douglas Frantz, one of his undersecretaries of state.

That helps explain Kerry's commitment to mediating between Israel and the Palestinians. Though Obama already failed once in the attempt four years ago, Kerry told SPIEGEL before he set off for his most recent mission to the Middle East that making an effort at mediation is "in our DNA as a country, and it's in our DNA as a friend to Israel." He doesn't regret having tried. "I think everyone also understands that someday, at some point, the parties will return to the peace process because it's the only way to ever achieve any kind of lasting peace and security and stability," Kerry says.

One of Kerry's tactics is to convince his counterparts that America is their closest ally, but since the NSA spying affair, at the latest, that approach hasn't worked particularly well. And when it comes to such entrenched conflicts as that between Israel and the Palestinians, it certainly won't suffice.

One day in May 2013, after speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about the conditions for an agreement between the two sides, Kerry had a spontaneous idea: He had his delegation stop at a shawarma restaurant in Ramallah. The staff rushed to serve him amid much excitement as Kerry, dressed a dark suit with a strawberry-red tie, ordered a turkey shawarma. "Man, this is good," he exulted as he ate.

The anecdote is a perfect illustration of Kerry's way of approaching people, but the event in Ramallah causes unexpected ripples. Republicans accuse Kerry of having shown too much support of the Palestinians while Israelis say he's portraying himself as a savior. Since then, they have snidely called him the shawarma diplomat.

At the height of last year's peace negotiations, Kerry spoke with his partners in the Middle East almost every day over the phone -- often early in the mornings or late at night from his villa in Georgetown over an encrypted line. But when Kerry was travelling and under time pressure, he sometimes used a normal telephone.

Tapped Phone

Several sources in the intelligence community have confirmed to SPIEGEL that a large part of these discussions, which ran over satellite uplinks, were listened in on by at least two intelligence services, including that of the Israelis. The Chinese and the Russians were also probably monitoring the calls. As a result, the Israelis often knew exactly what Kerry had discussed with the other side. Kerry knew the risk, but he wanted results -- and the conversations were more important to him than his security people's concerns. Neither the Israelis nor the State Department would comment on the phone monitoring.

The recordings allowed the Israelis to see through Kerry's diplomatic balancing act. The more time he spent working as an intermediary, the stronger their attacks became. Kerry has an "incomprehensible obsession and a sense of messianism," Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon spat at the beginning of this year. "The only thing that might save us is if John Kerry wins the Nobel Prize and leaves us be."

Effective foreign policy, says Daniel Hamilton of Johns Hopkins University in Washington, involves a savvy combination of "soft power" and "hard power." Bill Clinton, he says, demonstrated this masterfully in the 1990s, but Kerry lives in his plane and spends most of his time trying to solve acute crises. "What he is lacking is a strategic vision. And he is working with a president who is primarily concerned with domestic issues."

Kerry is an old-school secretary of state. He sees America's role as that of a hegemon and global mediator, and sometimes also as that of a global policeman. But Obama has a different view of the world. He doesn't want to intervene everywhere in the world and prefers to focus on problems closer to home.

The Syria crisis has shown their contrasting worldviews in especially stark relief. On a Friday in late August 2013, Kerry made a passionate speech against Syria's use of chemical weapons in State Department. He said that he knows Americans are tired of war, but "fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility." It's about keeping a promise, he said, that the "most heinous weapons must never again be used against the world's most vulnerable people." They were the words of a field marshal; it sounded as if Kerry had just given the order to fire off a salvo of mid-range missiles.

Deep Disappointment

That evening, Obama invited his advisors into the Oval Office and told them that no air strikes would take place without Congressional approval, thus taking the military option off the table. The announcement made Kerry look bad. And Obama didn't consult Kerry in reaching his verdict; he merely informed him of his decision. Even so, Kerry defended Obama's position afterwards as if it had been his own.

According to Obama advisor Ben Rhodes, the two men have a "close relationship" but for observers, it is obvious that is not a friendship. The two have, however, known each other for a long time. Indeed, one could even say Kerry discovered Obama. When Kerry was running for president 10 years ago, he asked the then widely unknown Democratic politician from Illinois to speak at the Democratic National Convention. The appearance made Barack Obama world famous, while Kerry's election loss that year was extremely difficult for him. To describe it as "deeply disappointing is an understatement," David McKean says.

Although Obama thanked Kerry for the opportunity to speak at the convention, he made Hillary Clinton his first secretary of state and had hoped to replace her with Susan Rice. Kerry only got the job because Rice made misleading statements about the attack on the American consulate in Libya in 2012, making herself politically untenable.

The relationship between the two men can be summed up in an encounter that took place in October 2012. It was the height of the presidential election campaign and Obama wanted Kerry to help him practice for a crucial debate. Kerry was supposed to play Mitt Romney, Obama's Republican rival, in a practice duel at a hotel in Virginia. Obama's advisors had asked Kerry to annoy Obama as much as possible while he spoke.

Kerry argued shrewdly, pushed the president around and cut in so many times that Obama snarled that he didn't constantly want to be interrupted. Ultimately Obama stood up and left the room, making it clear that he thought Kerry's behavior was insolent. Kerry serves a function for Obama, but he isn't part of the president's inner circle.

Because of the crisis in the Middle East, Kerry didn't have the time to meet with SPIEGEL, but offered to answer questions in writing. One of them was about whether a world could exist in which another power, like China, took over America's role.

'More Engaged, Not Less'

"Never," the secretary of state answered, "and no one contemplates the United States doing anything but leading." He compared the current situation to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, saying: "Back then, a lot of people thought America should just take its peace divvidend and pull back from the world." But it was a moment, he argues, that required America's leadership. The current situation, he believes, is very similar -- a time in which the world is "extraordinarily complicated" and that the US "must be more engaged, not less."

Has the renunciation of military force lessened America's international influence? Kerry rejects the premise: The US still uses force as a threat, he argues, pointing to the Syrian chemical-weapons agreement and the bombardment of Libya to save Libyans from being killed by the regime as examples.

American politics are like a Hollywood film: History is written based on results, there is always a winner and a loser. If Kerry is able to reach an agreement with Iran or broker a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, he will be considered by history to be a hero. But if he doesn't accomplish anything, then he may become a symbol of the US's political decline. It's possible that the great era of American dominance has come to an end, and that a new geopolitical chapter will begin -- a possibility that even the conservatives fear.

During Kerry's appearance before the Foreign Affairs Committee, he was questioned by the Republicans for an hour, but remained unruffled. In the end he turned to the right and looked directly at John McCain. The two of them have known each other for 30 years, both men have fought in Vietnam and both have run for, and failed to win, the presidency.

"Your friend Teddy Roosevelt," Kerry said to McCain, "also said the credit belongs to the people who are in the arena trying to get things done."

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1. All of that ..
yeg814 08/05/2014
.. is bunch of horse shit. America supports and pays for apartheid regime. That is the reality. All crocodile tears not withstanding I won't cry. When you commit a crime know that justice will eventually come. Don't you dare to cry ..
2. Your article on John Kerry
peter thompson 08/05/2014
One of the main reasons for US diplomatic failures is that no-one regards the US as much else than a nuisance, forever interfering and trying to intervene in matters not of concern to them. The US influence is declining as is their so-called superpower status, and maybe this is a good thing. The US has to realise that it is not in charge of the world ........ and should just stay at home.
3.
peskyvera 08/05/2014
Oh, I don't believe for a minute that the US feels uncomfortable with its role of super power. Quite the contrary...our noses are rubbed at every chance. As for Kerry - he is but the messenger.
4.
nsmith 08/06/2014
Herr Stark: with all due respect, your conclusion re: John Kerry -- "His failures are symptomatic of an America that lacks a foreign policy identity--and of a country uncomfortable with its role as a Superpower..." is a bit presumptive and too simplistic. Do you need to be reminded of just how long this conflict has been going on??? Also-- the role of a "Superpower" is not to merely its blind will on disputing nations --- hence, the role of Diplomacy (or at least attempted Diplomacy)....And as far as Israel and the Palestinians is concerned, there is apparently no desire on either side to engage in a constructive dialogue that might result in something more than a 3-Day ceasefire....and THAT, is the real problem in a nutshell.
5. Kerry
rafael 08/06/2014
I am not saying that Kerry is not in a bad shape. And I am not saying that US foreign policy kompass does not need recalibration. Instead I am asking the author of this article, HOW MUCH BETTER HAS EU DONE? WHERE IS GERMANY'S MUSCLE? After all, it is beginning to penetrate Americna psyche that America is no longer the ultimate power. Is it not time that EU gets it, too?
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