After being unanimously cleared on Tuesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he once chaired, John Kerry easily won confirmation as the next U.S. secretary of state in a 94-3 vote. And it won’t be a minute too soon for the man who has been publicly craving the job since Barack Obama was first elected four years ago.
Thanks to his extended time in the Senate, where he was known as an astute observer of global politics and liberal hawk who challenged conservative orthodoxy but also occasionally jumped on the neoconservative bandwagon (as with the Iraq invasion in 2003), Kerry’s qualifications were never in doubt. The decorated Vietnam War veteran took up anti-war activism upon returning home from combat, and has never really left the scene of American foreign policy discussions since.
Less obvious is just how transformed Barack Obama’s approach to the world will be when Hillary Clinton steps down and hands over the sprawling diplomatic apparatus to the Democrat from Massachusetts.
Kerry is a climate-change hawk who wants aggressive global action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. He can be expected to champion international accords in general, having backed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty that Bill Clinton signed in the 1990s (but that was not ratified by the Senate) and, more recently, the Law of the Sea treaty this past June. We know, then, that Kerry will seek to build generous coalitions that back a coherent set of (Western) norms. Which aren’t exactly major divergences from Clinton’s approach.
He is notorious for having expressed confidence in Syria’s Assad regime and its potential for reform as recently as 2011, which raises the question of just how aggressively he’ll be involved in the ongoing rebel battle for liberation there. This is especially crucial in light of mounting concerns on part of Western leaders about the influence of Islamic militants on post-Assad Syria. Kerry has come around to support for the opposition while nonetheless expressing the same misgivings: that heavily arming a diverse array of militant groups is a dangerous game.
Having taken the lead in the fight against trade secret theft by the Chinese regime, we might expect Kerry to be a steady ally for Shinzo Abe and the center-right nationalist government currently leading Japan into an increasingly volatile territorial spat with Beijing over the Senkaku islands. But if a muscular multilateralism has defined Kerry’s foreign policy in the Senate, he’s likely to do everything he can to keep the longtime U.S. ally out of trouble.
Even as we attempt to read the Kerry tealeaves when it comes to some of the hottest global red zones, the fact remains that the senator was careful to avoid laying out detailed new policy proposals in his confirmation hearings. Which Kerry we’ll get — the unabashed liberal who challenged the Reagan administration’s messy Latin American interventions, or the conventional center-left pol who went with public opinion in backing George W. Bush’s post-9/11 approach to the Middle East — is not yet clear.