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What Will New U.S. Secretary Of State John Kerry Be Like?

John Kerry (left) is officially sworn in as secretary of state in Washington on February 1.
John Kerry (left) is officially sworn in as secretary of state in Washington on February 1.
WASHINGTON – Hillary Clinton regularly leads international popularity polls and was known abroad as America’s “rock star diplomat.” John Kerry -- who greets his State Department staff for the first time on February 4 -- seems to be the very embodiment of an elder statesman.

It's clear that, when it comes to tone, image, and career path, at least, John Kerry marks a departure from his predecessor as the new U.S. secretary of state.

Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution recently wrote that the tall, somber-faced, 69-year-old Kerry looks like “he stepped out of one of the [historic] portraits” that line the walls at the department he now leads.

Clinton spent eight politically charged years as the country’s first lady and eight more as a U.S. senator before arriving at the state department. It's a common view in Washington that Kerry's entire 30-year public career has given him all the necessary credentials to be secretary of state. Even President Barack Obama said he “won’t need very much on the job training.”

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Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and longtime State Department official Nicholas Burns calls Kerry someone who has “great faith” in the power of diplomatic engagement.

“He’s been chairman of the [Senate] Foreign Relations Committee, he knows leaders around the world, he’s traveled widely, he’s been involved for 30 years in international politics," Burns says. "The United States is fortunate that we’ll have in our next secretary of state a highly experienced individual.”

Focused On The Nitty-Gritty

So how will Kerry behave as the country’s new top diplomat? He’s known to relish lengthy negotiations and is an impressive speaker. He oozes gravitas and doesn’t rush decisions. He has a natural ease with foreign leaders and is wary about the use of force -- something he underscored at his Senate confirmation hearing when he said, “We cannot afford a diplomacy that is defined by troops or drones or confrontation.”

And he’s as focused on what the Brooking Institution’s Indyk calls “the nitty-gritty” details as he is on the bigger picture of America’s interests and influence abroad.
John Kerry has been involved in international politics for decades.
John Kerry has been involved in international politics for decades.

Both Kerry and the famously hard-working Clinton are policy pragmatists, in that they’re focused on solving problems, says Thomas Carothers, director of the democracy and rule of law program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But Kerry -- who once delayed a Senate vote to keep talking with Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- has unusual patience for the long game, according to Carothers.

“I think he’s the kind of person who enjoys, in a sense, a more protracted negotiation, or trying to bring very difficult parties together over a period of time," he says. "To some extent Hillary Clinton was brusque. She’s very efficient; she’s very much to the point. She’s very transactional, in a good sense. And I think to some extent she didn’t really like to get involved in kind of extended negotiations over certain things. She had some of her deputies do that in certain cases, in some cases she didn’t do that at all.”

Some analysts say this was evident in Clinton’s lack of involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian issue -- a quagmire Kerry is expected to plunge into. Clinton made only a handful of trips to Israel, while Israeli officials have already said Kerry will make the Jewish state one of his first trips. Kerry said he sees “a way forward” in the peace process and called both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas on only his second day on the job.

Unfinished Business

When it comes to priorities, there’s a reason Kerry was called “Obama’s good soldier” in the Senate. At his confirmation hearing, he said he would “do everything in [his] power to build on Clinton’s record and the president’s vision.” His statements on hot button issues, from Afghanistan to the Arab world, echo the White House.

Carothers says Kerry “is not a man of crusades.”

Clinton handed the baton to Kerry in her last media interview as secretary, listing the unfinished business he inherits: Syria’s civil war, Iran’s nuclear program, North Korea’s threatened nuclear test, the U.S. transition in Afghanistan, and the growing threat from Islamists in North Africa.

In addition to these issues, Carothers suggests that Kerry will also have plenty of other things on his agenda.

“Then you have the traditional [foreign policy] questions," he says. "The relationship with China, the relationship with Russia, the long effort to consolidate allies in Asia and Europe. So he’s got certainly a full plate and problems that really don’t have easy resolution.”

All of it adds up to what Burns calls a daunting agenda dominated by the Middle East, and especially Iran, which said it would consider direct U.S. talks on February 3.

“He’s going to face a very difficult, complex agenda," he says. "Obviously, beginning with the Middle East, there are overlapping crises there -- from the Syrian civil war and what we should do about it and whether or not the United States should be more proactive in trying to help the Syrian opposition; to now the political crisis in Egypt, which has destabilized the country; and of course a new Israeli government to work with, and the Iran nuclear crisis. And that issue, with Iran, might even be the most important national security issue this year. So the Middle East is turbulent and it’s unstable and that’ll be, I think, an early focus of Secretary Kerry.”

Kerry seems to know there's no time to waste. On February 1, shortly after Clinton handed in her official resignation, he told reporters he was "anxious to get to work.”

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