Climate change tops John Kerry’s global agenda
WHAT can the world expect from America’s John Kerry? There were few real clues in the hearings held in the United States Senate before the vote that overwhelmingly confirmed President Barack Obama’s choice to replace Hillary Clinton as the Secretary of State.
Mr Kerry’s service as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - on which he served for 28 years - and a review of current events suggests pretty clearly what his early priorities will be.
Topping his agenda will be his long-standing interest in advancing treaties and action on such global issues as climate change. He will, however, also be called on to help in the spiralling crisis in the Middle East and north Africa.
Secretary Kerry made his welcoming remarks to State Department employees on February 4, 2013. He told them their task was to ‘try to make our nation safer….try to make peace in the world….to lift people out of poverty…try to cure disease….try to empower people with human rights….to speak to those who have no voice….to talk about empowering people through our ideals, and through those ideals hopefully they can change their lives’.
The US Department of State today is more than simply the diplomatic arm of the US government. The department manages a plethora of activities and services including consular services, intelligence, foreign assistance, public diplomacy, export control oversight, and arms control.
Traditionally, US Secretaries of State have focussed on high-level diplomacy and global issues. They do not become deeply involved in internal reforms or management of day-to-day departmental tasks.
Secretary Kerry’s long-term interest in foreign policy has been more on issues than detailed operations of the department.
He seems intent on taking many of his long-time trusted allies from his 2004 presidential campaign and his long service in the Congress into the department.
Such personnel moves reinforce the conclusion that Mr Kerry is more interested in his role on the global stage than internal department affairs.
One potential exception to Secretary Kerry’s emphasis on his role as diplomat and policymaker is the function of diplomatic security, particularly at ‘high-risk’ postings.
The 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, remains a hot button topic in Washington. Secretary Kerry will be pressed to address security concerns in an era when the department can expect no rush of extra funding from Congress.
Subjects like climate change and foreign aid were mentioned in both the confirmation hearings and his first speech as Secretary delivered in Virginia on February 20.
Those references were unnecessary for predicting that global issues, particularly climate change, will be important themes for the new secretary.
Most agree that this is one issue where the president will allow Secretary Kerry broad freedom to both press Congress to act and make the case overseas that the US wants to be a global leader. It could well be the signature issue of his tenure as secretary.
Mr Kerry will also be a forceful advocate for pressing for new talks on contentious issues such as nuclear arms reductions with Russia as well as unratified treaties with serious US implications, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In terms of geopolitics, there is little question but that Mr Kerry, along with the rest of his national security team, will be dragooned to deal with the worsening situation in the Middle East and north Africa.
The president was sincere in his intent to shift the US diplomatic focus to Asia.
However, both regional and European leaders are pressing Washington to act more proactively. It comes as no surprise that both the president and the secretary intend to visit the Middle East in the near future and spend more time consulting with European friends and allies about establishing a common approach.