The Kerry Doctrine: The Secretary of State's Go-Big-or-Go-Home Foreign Policy

By Brinkley, Douglas | Foreign Policy, December 2013 | Go to article overview

The Kerry Doctrine: The Secretary of State's Go-Big-or-Go-Home Foreign Policy


Brinkley, Douglas, Foreign Policy


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THE WORLD OF HIGH-STAKES international diplomacy can be rough and tumble, but it's more often than not a procession of suits and summits, protocol sessions and photo ops. And in this genteel old boys' club, John Kerry is a pro. The Yale-educated son of a foreign-service officer, he served in the U.S. Navy, became a veterans' advocate, spent 28 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee--including four as chairman--and, of course, ran for president. Perhaps that's why it surprised no one when President Barack Obama picked him to become the 68th secretary of state this February.

Unlike his hyperkinetic celebrity predecessor, Hillary Clinton, who many believed was using Foggy Bottom as a launching pad for another presidential run, Kerry looks more like a diplomat in the old model. A patrician figure--and the first white man to hold the position since Warren Christopher--he clearly relishes the secretaryship and has made clear that he has no aspirations to further office. But if anyone had expected Kerry to settle quietly into his sunset post, his first year has been nothing less than shocking. Brazen even.

This boldness is at the heart of the Kerry Doctrine, which involves tackling the issues most likely to make a historic difference--that is, the world's most festering problems--and doing so with direct, don't-sweat-the-small-stuff diplomacy. It rests on leveraging long-term, substantive relationships with fellow politicians around the world in order to employ diplomatic intervention as the first choice, not the last resort.

The media doesn't often cover the Kerry Doctrine in action--but that's by design. It's a brand of diplomacy done face to face, in private, without media crews in tow. In an extension of the old Eastern Establishment ethos of statesmen Henry Stimson and George Marshall, Kerry won't betray trust: He believes that diplomatic options dry up when discretion breaks down.

It was this doctrine that guided Kerry's efforts to jump-start the Middle East peace process, to the surprise of many, within weeks of becoming secretary of state. Syria was in flames, Lebanon seemed on the verge of unraveling, and Egypt--the guarantor of peace with Israel--was then governed by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party inimically opposed to the Jewish state. While others were talking about giving up on a turbulent and unpredictable region, Kerry was looking for a Camp David redux.

So what convinced Kerry he could pull this off? Long-standing relationships with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Over the course of several conversations I had with Kerry this fall, he stressed his ties to the players in the region. Kerry's connection with Netanyahu goes back a quarter-century. It began in Massachusetts in the 1980s, when the prime minister was a private citizen in Boston and Kerry was in the early stages of his political career; Kerry recalls that the two would sometimes meet for meals. And Kerry was one of the first American politicians to meet with Abbas after his 2005 election. Kerry often tells of the Palestinian president saying, "I know what you want me to do: You want me to disarm Hamas. How am I supposed to do that when I have no army, no rifles, no tanks?"

As the newly minted secretary of state, Kerry has parlayed these relationships into serious diplomacy. Soon after Obama visited Israel in March 2013, Kerry flew to Jerusalem for a long dinner with Netanyahu and his team, beginning a dialogue that lasted several months. The Israelis said that they would not allow a repeat of what happened when their forces withdrew from Lebanon and Gaza and that the country's legitimate security needs had to be met in any final status agreement. Over many meetings, often between just him and Netanyahu, Kerry probed Israel's questions and concerns, telling Netanyahu that Israel's issues were America's, too. …

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