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Sunday, February 10, 2013
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John Kerry: 'An adult' in the State Department

Last week, Senator John Kerry, the 2004 presidential candidate, was sworn in as the new US Secretary of State. He replaces the charismatic Hilary Clinton. President Obama, therefore, by nominating Kerry who is likely to give new substance to his crafting a new world order in his second term in the presidential office, seems to have brought a breath of fresh air to the otherwise stale initiatives that characterised his first term in office.

As Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry had played a critical role in framing and overseeing foreign policy and security policy of the US. His special interests had been Afghanistan, Pakistan, nuclear non-proliferation and global climate change. In the last few years, he had been aiding President Obama whenever US relations were at a low with Pakistan.

Kerry brings with him encyclopedic knowledge on strategy and tactics that have shaped US policy in the global arena. Everybody in the US State Department thinks that there is now "an adult" who will be pulling the strings in the foreign policy establishment of the US.

What are Secretary Kerry's priorities in the realm of international politics? There are a number of issues which he needs to tackle, and all of them demand his attention at the same time; the civil war in Syria, the alleged nuclear proliferation in Iran, the pullout from Afghanistan, resolving the US-Pakistan enigmatic relations, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, etc. The situation in the Korean peninsula as well as the growing hostility between Japan and China are also likely to grab his immediate attention. The rise of China and the simultaneous befriending of India by the US are also matters of interest to him.

Secretary Kerry has expressed concern about Obama's policy of "pivot to Asia." According to him, positioning of a few more warships in the Pacific and stationing some US military personnel in northern Australia would not in any substantive way help change the mathematics that could bring any serious advantage to the US.

Kerry thinks that there is a lot of unfinished business in the Middle East and Israel. They need to be looked at first. Any reduction in US presence in that part of the world could put the US in a disadvantaged position. The Arab-Israeli conflict demands that the US act as an honest broker so as to bring lasting peace in the Middle East where two states, Israel and Palestine, can live side by side in mutual harmony. In order to do this, it is important that the parties are cajoled to work together after taking some confidence building steps.

Kerry is a decorated war hero in Vietnam. Later, he became a leader in the anti- war movement. Many think that he is qualified to understand the cause, effect and limitations of the use of military power. This is more so in the Asia-Pacific region. His main concern about the "pivot to Asia" policy is that it could be reliving the "containment policy" of alliances of the Cold War. It could incubate states which were once friendly but, due to this policy, would be hostile to the US. Kerry is now sitting on the philosopher's stone trying to find the right way to address the priority issues before him.

Secretary Kerry's penchant for studying climate change and its implications as well as his emphasis on poverty alleviation is likely to add nuances to US foreign policy which were not in evidence before.

In his Senate confirmation hearings, Kerry acknowledged that the world desperately needed a coordinated global effort on climate change. In 2012 alone, extreme weather events had cost the US billions of dollars in damage. That is why Kerry admitted that action at home and abroad was needed to combat climate change.

Kerry has also been an ardent advocate of US leading the World Bank -- the premier institution that cuts across countries and continents and works towards eliminating poverty. Last February, in a signed article in the Washington Times, he wrote that he believed that the US should continue to head the World Bank. This is because he considers it not as a matter of birthright or custom, but because it was in the US interest and the shared interest of all countries that turn to World Bank to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of millions around the globe. He continued that since its establishment the Bank had extended $700 billion in financing to more than 11,000 projects in 168 countries. So, no matter how tempting, US cannot opt out of a networked world. So Secretary Kerry would be listening carefully to what impoverished nations of the world would have to say in the future.

John Kerry is a Roman Catholic and comes from an upper middle class family. He went to some of the elite schools in Europe. His paternal grandparents were Jewish and had converted to Catholicism. So Kerry, while describing himself as a Catholic, says that he has an open mindedness to many other expressions of spirituality that comes through different religions. He believes that the Torah, the Quran and the Bible all share a fundamental story which connects with readers from all over the world.

On his assumption of office as secretary of state, Kerry was warmly congratulated by all and sundry. From Tibetan activists to the Syrian government, all welcomed him. The telephone calls were relentless. But the secretary had himself initiated a long line of calls. He reached out to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders assuring them that Obama was interested to continue to pursue a Middle East Peace Agreement. He talked to the Japanese foreign minister and spoke about the forthcoming visit of his prime minister to Washington. He spoke with the South Korean foreign minister and agreed on the need to ensure that North Korea understood that it will face consequences from the international community if it continues its provocative behaviour. He also talked to the Turkish, Canadian and Mexican foreign ministers on matters of mutual interest.

Judging by the stream of phone calls and the Tweets he generated, Kerry is well on the way and running fast. Like an intern, but with much experience and great connections of a veteran statesman, he could yet turn out to be the great force for change in US foreign policy. But we still need to wait and see. Although Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni has greeted him, nothing else has happened. But his fondness for seeking solutions to climate change and poverty alleviation could prompt him to look at Bangladesh and what we could do together in these areas.

The writer is a former Ambassador and a regular commentator on contemporary matters.

E-mail: ashfaque303@gmail.com

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