John Kerry, the Most Progressive Pick for the State Department?

Flickr/U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan

Senator John Kerry and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzain in Kabul in 2009.

The optics of Susan Rice’s withdrawal from consideration for secretary of State are disheartening. Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post and Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio attributed racism and sexism to the campaign against Rice, with Marcus writing that “the attack had something to do with Rice’s gender, and her sharp elbows and sometimes sharper tongue,” while Fudge said “[Republican senators] have never called a male 'unqualified,' 'not bright,' 'not trustworthy,' …there is a clear sexism and racism that goes with these comments.”

Given that foreign policy circles are among the worst in terms of gender diversity, Rice’s withdrawal from consideration is a tough blow for the representation of women and minorities in top leadership positions.

Even so, John Kerry may be a better secretary of State for progressives when it comes to philosophical approaches to military intervention. Since his highly public protest of the Vietnam War following his tour of duty there, Kerry has been a prominent voice of caution against the 2003 war in Iraq as well as the U.S. support for the Nicaraguan Contras, the first Gulf War, and the 2007 Iraq surge. Most recently, when asked whether the United States should intervene in Syria, Kerry said: “Is that the right thing to do tomorrow or the next day? I think not … the world must respond in a responsible way.”

By contrast, Rice supported the Iraq war, telling NPR in 2002 she supported the notion of "regime change" and that "Iraq has these weapons and is hiding them.” Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol saw her as a better choice for State than Kerry on the basis of her support for intervention in Libya and Syria. Her background as assistant secretary of State for African affairs during the Clinton administration’s failure to classify Rwanda as a genocide led Rice to remark: “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required." A New York Times op-ed criticizing Rice’s record of support for repressive African regimes demonstrates that at times she overemphasized military stability at the expense of human rights.

Given her record, it’s difficult to imagine that Rice would have continued Clinton’s expansive understanding of statecraft, summarized by former Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter as “a pivot to the people.” Clinton created a “super-office” of Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, and sought to engage citizens—not just heads of state—through technology initiatives and special advisors for global women’s issues and youth issues. Clinton said in a 2011 interview, “We have placed women’s rights and responsibilities and human security at the center. [With] human security you can expand the concept to talk about ‘Do you have enough food?’ because that’s a security issue; ‘Do you have a safe place to live?’ because that’s a security issue.”

Clinton’s approach to foreign policy attempted to bring together “the world of states and the world of societies,” and the headway she was able to make largely rests on the fact that she held the insider credibility necessary to put forth unconventional initiatives. Though Clinton has tried to incorporate “soft power” initiatives into the standard portfolio of State, Mark Lagon, chair of International Relations and Security for Georgetown’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program, identifies a “lack of linkage between “realist” hard-power issues (such as nonproliferation) and domestic values (such as the rule of law) in the Obama administration’s foreign policy. The biases of the field make it difficult for almost anyone in leadership to de-emphasize a military-heavy approach to a focus on supporting human rights, economic security, and gender equality.

“In Washington, our foreign policy is made through the lens of threats rather than challenges,” says Micah Zenko, Dillon Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, “and the reason there is limited diversity [in the field] is that it requires some degree of risk. When it’s time to hire someone, the men in charge will prefer someone well-known but who agrees with the conventional wisdom,” which often ends up reinforcing the centrality of our military. Rice would have fallen in line with this tendency, according to The Daily Beast’s Peter Beinart and Jacob Heilbrunn, who wrote that “her most distinguishing trait seems to be an eagerness to please her superiors,” perhaps exacerbated by the perceived credibility deficiencies she faced as a black woman.

In this environment, Kerry’s race and gender may, counter-intuitively, prove to be a symbolic advantage, allowing him to be the iconoclast in sheep’s clothing. As The Washington Post’s David Ignatius put it, Kerry is “surprisingly willing to challenge conventional wisdom …This unlikely contrarian streak would be an advantage, especially because it’s so well disguised … Kerry would find it easier to take diplomatic chances than other potential nominees, especially the younger, less experienced Rice.”

Admittedly, any secretary of State will first and foremost execute the vision of the president, and Kerry’s presumptive tenure will likely include some military actions. Yet if we want to normalize a foreign policy that combines military strength with collaboration relationships around the world to ensure citizens’ rights to security and voice in their respective governments, our best bet may be the older white guy. He’s gone up against his peers’ machismo for forty years and has nothing left to prove.

You may also like