Following former U.S. Senator John Kerry’s quick confirmation by the Senator, the new secretary of state joked he had big “heels” to fill as Hillary Clinton’s predecessor.
Clinton is leaving the State Department with unprecedented approval ratings that could pave her way to a 2016 presidential candidacy if she wanted it. She became known for her efforts to incorporate women’s empowerment and extend US foreign policy into areas like gender violence and the use of digital technology and social media for democracy promotion.
Clinton travelled to 112 countries, clocked nearly one million miles around the world and became famous for her use of “soft power” to encourage diplomacy and development. Clinton’s commitment to economic statecraft and the building up of US alliances has gained her respect among the international community. Many point to Clinton’s success in cultivating relationships with world leaders, like that of Myanmar, and playing a mediator role in conflicts around the world as evidence that she facilitated tremendous steps in US foreign policy.
However, despite these many foreign policy improvements, some analysts are pointing to the fact that Clinton does not have any “big triumphs” as a sign that she did not substantially further foreign policy during her term. While alliances were sustained in Europe, strengthened in Africa and rebalanced in Asia, failures in the Middle East contribute to this “mixed success” report card. This is largely due to contradictory foreign policy in the region.
Afghanistan seems to serve as the prime example for this disagreement between policy and practice. While working to support women’s rights and increased development initiatives, Clinton also supported the military surge in Afghanistan, a surge that put many of the women she was working to protect in harms way. Military policy was chosen over political processes that could have resulted in more peaceful negotiations and increased power sharing between those on the ground
But here is the thing: while Clinton may have endorsed contradictory policy at times, a great deal of it was because of her largely ambassadorial role as Secretary of State. Disagreeing policy was not entirely her fault, as it has been tightly controlled by the White House. And this is where the root of the problem lies. More progress could have been made in areas of the Middle East—namely, Syria, Pakistan and Israel-Palestine—had the administration not held such a tight grip on US-Middle East policy.
Aides closest to Clinton say while she may have scared the Obama administration with her sometimes “activist tendencies,” at least she brought something different to the cabinet roundtable. Some fear that because Kerry is Obama’s ideological twin, he will allow the White House to further consolidate foreign policy and become merely an implementer of administration foreign policy.
Let us hope that Kerry brings something new to the table. Let us hope he will move forward where Clinton could not, namely in the areas of Middle Eastern policy. And let us hope US foreign policy will not become centralized and solely path dependent on what the White House has previously pursued.
John Kerry has a lot to live up to, but has the power to further shape foreign policy in a positive way and build upon what Clinton did. Kerry is the son of a US diplomat, a decorated Vietnam veteran and has served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 30 years. Because of this, many believe Kerry is finally in a position that was tailor-made for him. However, he does have a strong legacy from his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, to live up to at the Harry S. Truman Building in Washington.