John Kerry as secretary of State: expect a more traditional style (+video)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with her late-night dancing and talks with children, was known for her 'people to people' style. John Kerry is expected to adopt a more traditional version of diplomacy.

By , Staff writer

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    President Barack Obama announces his nomination of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., right, as next secretary of state in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Friday, as Vice President Joe Biden stands left.
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As secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton has boogied the night away in Bogotá, chatted about life’s dreams with schoolgirls in India, and fended off one persistent African goatherd’s proposal to take her daughter as his next bride.

When Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts replaces Secretary Clinton as secretary of State – the job that President Obama nominated Senator Kerry for on Friday – expect the tone set by America’s top diplomat to change. In an era when being secretary of State is increasingly about style as much as substance, many foreign-policy experts say, the five-term senator and quiet policy negotiator is expected by many to return the office to a more traditional version of diplomacy.

In announcing his selection of Kerry, Mr. Obama said that, as the son of a Foreign Service officer and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is well known and “respected” by dozens of world leaders, Kerry “is not going to need a lot of on-the-job training.” Kerry still must win Senate confirmation, but he is not expected to encounter much resistance, with key senators like John McCain (R) of Arizona already referring to him as “Mr. Secretary.”

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While international experts equate Clinton with “people to people” diplomacy, some cite another “P” word for Kerry – patrician. But they add that, in the world’s diplomatic circles, that won’t necessarily be a drawback.

Kerry may be known for a certain “aloofness,” but “it’s not particularly germane to being secretary of State if you’re seen as the type who has beers with the guys at the local tavern or you’re seen as patrician,” says James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va., and a former US envoy to Afghanistan.

“In fact in international terms, being seen as a patrician is not a disadvantage,” he adds. “A dignified person with some or substantial familiarity with the elites of the world is not at a disadvantage at all.”

Some foreign-policy experts with diplomatic experience say Kerry is “the right man at the right time” because the tough international issues he’ll face – ranging from Iran’s nuclear program to Syria’s civil war and a rising China – require a serious “issues person” who can hit the ground running.

“He’s the man for the job given the state of the world,” says Charles Stith, a former US ambassador to Tanzania who is now director of Boston University’s African Presidential Center. “Given the unsettled times, you need someone who’s seasoned. John Kerry knows the world,” he says, “and he knows Obama’s agenda.”

In his remarks, Obama noted that in his first term, he had called on Kerry to help the administration address a number of complex diplomatic challenges – from Afghanistan to Sudan and South Sudan – and that each time he had been “exceptional.”

Moreover, both foreign officials and foreign-policy analysts have responded to Kerry’s nomination by emphasizing his extensive knowledge of salient foreign-policy issues – and the key people behind them.

“Senator Kerry is a man of towering stature and accomplishments, having served the United States with great vigor and distinction,” said Sherry Rehman, the Pakistani ambassador to Washington, in a statement. “Senator Kerry has demonstrated through the years an extraordinary understanding of the complexities of South and Central Asia.”

Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, cited Kerry’s “longstanding personal relationships.” “His leadership on energy and trade, nuclear non-proliferation and the changing Middle East,” she added in her statement, “make him particularly qualified to meet twenty-first century challenges that transcend national boundaries and cabinet departments.”

In her own statement, Clinton – who is recovering at home from an illness – also underscored Kerry’s established relationships with many world leaders. And she gave her endorsement of Kerry a personal dimension by noting that both of them know what it is to lose a hard-fought political campaign – Kerry the 2004 presidential race, she the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

But she said the experience of losing at politics is something Kerry will be able to put to good use in a world of many young democracies, just as she has. “As I have learned,” Clinton said, “being able to talk candidly as someone who has won elections and also lost them is an enormous asset when engaging with emerging or fragile democracies.”

A large part of being secretary of State is frequent travel – often long and grueling trips. Clinton used her travel to dozens of countries not just to strategize with allies and confront and cajole less amenable world leaders, but also to extend America’s hand of partnership to the people of the world, in thousands of sometimes folksy events.

Time will tell if Kerry, widely lauded for his deft use of his long experience with the world’s leaders, will ultimately strike a similar balance.

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