How John Kerry Could End Up Outdoing Hillary Clinton

Critics say he's pompous and reckless—but his relentlessness may end up making him the most consequential secretary of state in years.

In many ways, secretary of state is the job for which Kerry was born and bred.

Born: His father was a Foreign Service officer who spent years as a diplomat in Germany and Norway; his mother was the Paris-born scion of Boston’s Forbes family, at whose estate in Brittany, France, Kerry spent his summers as a boy. In the summer of 1962, after Kerry graduated from prep school, he dated Janet Auchincloss and visited her at her family’s palatial estate in Rhode Island, which the Kennedy administration was using as a summer White House. Kerry met Kennedy there, and that September he watched the America’s Cup sailing race with the president and his friends.

Bred: While volunteering for service in Vietnam as a naval officer, he was awarded a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and three Purple Hearts. Upon his return home, Kerry became an antiwar activist and, on April 22, 1971, the first Vietnam veteran to testify before Congress. Following stints as an assistant district attorney and the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Kerry would, after his election to the Senate in 1984, go on to serve for 28 years on the same committee he had stood before in 1971, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Logging thousands of miles on fact-finding expeditions—a trip to Nicaragua in 1985 to meet with President Daniel Ortega; serving as a crucial envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2011—he developed diplomatic contacts worldwide. He also, of course, lost the 2004 presidential election to George
W. Bush, after a campaign premised on the idea that he would manage America’s foreign policy more prudently. (But for Ohio, where he lost to Bush by 119,000 votes, Kerry would have been president.)

All of which would seem to have equipped him well to be secretary of state. But Kerry stepped into the role at a singularly weak moment for the position. For one thing, America, weary after a decade of conflict, is turning inward; activist diplomacy is out of favor. For another, State Department employees I interviewed told me that morale is low. They feel the department is too hierarchical, inflexible, and risk-averse—and is in danger of becoming even more so in the aftermath of Benghazi. Furthermore, the intensely controlling Obama administration has centralized foreign-policy decision making in the National Security Council, weakening the State Department.

Vividly illustrating this phenomenon, Obama appeared to undermine his own secretary of state over Labor Day weekend. Just a day after Kerry delivered one of the most impassioned speeches of his career, assailing Assad’s use of chemical weapons on civilians as a “crime against conscience” and sending a clear signal that U.S. air strikes on Syria were imminent, the president announced that missile strikes might in fact not be imminent, and that he would be seeking congressional authorization to attack Syria. Military and foreign-policy analysts observed that in having let Kerry go out on a limb one day only to saw it off the next, the president risked causing foreign leaders and negotiators to doubt whether any future warnings or statements issued by Kerry were backed by the White House.

All in all, inauspicious conditions for someone aspiring to be an activist secretary of state.

Kerry refuses to concede any diminishment of the State Department’s bureaucratic standing—or of America’s standing in the world. “We will continue to lead as the indispensable nation,” Kerry vowed in his first speech as secretary. “Not because we seek this role, but because the world needs us to fill it.” But isn’t staking America’s credibility, and his own reputation, on long-odds breakthrough agreements with Tehran or Moscow, or on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, a dubious exercise, as Obama’s failed first-term efforts at Mideast peace demonstrated? When I asked Kerry about this last summer, he forcefully defended the importance of risk taking in diplomacy. “I don’t care about risk, honestly,” he said, leaning forward in his chair, spoiling for a fight. “The riskiest thing to do is to not act. I would far rather try and fail than fail not trying.”

“I’m Not Slowing Down”

When you first meet John Kerry, he can seem as stiff, awkward, and aloof as his television persona—the haughty, flip-flopping Massachusetts aristocrat who lost the 2004 presidential election against an eminently beatable George W. Bush. He is taller than you expect, standing 6 feet 4 inches. His face is long and drooping. (An article in the Boston Herald in late September speculated that he’d had plastic surgery; his aides flatly deny it.) His finely tailored suits and silk ties bespeak the fortune that, by dint of marriage (he has wedded two heiresses), made him the richest person in the U.S. Senate.

But for all his blue-blooded superciliousness in public, Kerry can be engaging and down-to-earth in private. He drinks beer, loves the Boston Bruins, and plays ice hockey himself. (In a mark of his regular-guy bona fides, Kerry broke his nose a couple of years ago in a pickup game with friends; in a mark against those bona fides, the game was at one of his vacation homes, in Ketchum, Idaho, with the actor Tom Hanks and members of the Kennedy family.) On overseas flights, he dresses in jeans and an orange hoodie. When off the record, in relaxed settings, he is refreshingly direct, profane, and insightful, speaking bluntly about the limits of American power and caustically lamenting Washington’s growing paralysis and partisanship. He finishes sentences with phrases such as something like that or that’s about it or thanks, man. Toes tapping, head bobbing back and forth, he speaks with fervor and candor. His tenacity is palpable.

Recent secretaries of state have had different strengths. Henry Kissinger and James Baker, two secretaries who had close relationships with their presidents (Nixon in Kissinger’s case, George H. W. Bush in Baker’s), were powerful bureaucratic players. In contrast, Colin Powell lost a crucial internal administration battle in failing to halt the Bush White House’s march to war in Iraq—but was adored at the State Department for implementing sweeping administrative reforms. (If you ask long-serving diplomats—the vast majority of whom are politically liberal—to identify their favorite secretary, they will name Powell.) Before taking office, Kerry conducted long interviews with every living former secretary of state—Kissinger, George Shultz, Baker, Madeleine Albright, Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Clinton—and set out to model himself after Shultz, who, in six and a half years serving under Ronald Reagan, was seen as a combination of the two prototypes, both a great diplomat and a good manager. “Beyond going around doing things as secretary of state,” Shultz told me in an interview, “you have to recognize that you have managerial responsibilities.”

As secretary, Clinton embraced a new, Google Hangout era of town-hall diplomacy, and she elevated economic development and women’s issues. She was an architect of the administration’s “pivot to Asia,” and she took risks in supporting the Afghanistan troop surge and the intervention in Libya. But she generally steered clear of the Middle East, delegating special envoys like Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell to grapple with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, peace talks with the Taliban, and other politically fraught diplomatic challenges. Foggy Bottom officials say that Clinton was much more prudent and careful than Kerry, whom one former State Department official describes as more of a “high-risk, high-reward” secretary of state.

Current and former State Department officials praise Clinton personally—hailing her intelligence, work ethic, charisma, and voluminous reading—but some say that her inner circle of fiercely loyal aides isolated her within the department, and carefully managed her image. Richard Armitage, who served as Powell’s deputy secretary of state, praises Clinton but says she was poorly served by her aides. “My view is that she was pretty sheltered,” he told me. “They were not interpersonally pleasant, and they were very protective of her. You can get into a cocoon.”

Members of Clinton’s inner circle dispute this characterization, but some well-positioned observers believe that the possibility of a future presidential campaign caused Hillary to steer clear of playing the role of Middle East peace broker. “My assessment was that she made a calculated political choice not to hang her hat on that thankless task,” Kim Ghattas, a State Department reporter for the BBC whose book, The Secretary, covered Clinton’s tenure as America’s top diplomat, told me recently. “If you fail at her stage in her career, the damage is much-longer-lasting.”

One of Clinton’s State Department deputies, who did not want to be named, told me that the former secretary would have taken bolder risks but was reined in by the White House—especially during her first couple of years in office, when hostility from the bitter 2008 primary campaign still lingered between the Obama and Clinton staffs. (After the personal relationship between Obama and Clinton blossomed, according to Ghattas, Clinton gained some room to maneuver. In contrast, Ghattas notes that Kerry has always had more room to maneuver, because “no one around Obama is worried that John Kerry will outshine him.”) Two other Clinton aides I spoke with insisted that she was never that constrained or risk-avoidant—and said that, furthermore, she actively engaged in Middle East talks, at one point meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for seven hours in New York.

Kerry also works in a cocoon, albeit one of a different sort. Very quickly he earned a reputation in the State Department for being aloof, keeping to himself, and not bothering to read staff memos. Diplomats outside Kerry’s inner circle complain that they have little sense of his priorities or plans. One former aide told me Kerry is “lovably unapproachable.” Career State Department officials complain to journalists that, under Kerry’s leadership, power has become so centralized among the secretary and a small coterie of his aides that decision making in the building slows to a crawl during his frequent overseas trips. Others in the State Department say Kerry has a kind of diplomatic attention deficit disorder—he shifts from topic to topic, changes his schedule often, and fails to focus on long-term strategy. State Department employees say morale in the building is lower now than under Clinton, despite Kerry’s early diplomatic achievements.

Colin Powell told me that before he became secretary of state in 2001, he received a letter from George Kennan, the famed foreign-policy thinker, then in his 90s. Kennan warned Powell about the dangers of traveling too much—of prioritizing activist diplomacy over providing the White House with solid foreign-policy analysis. “This office has in recent decades, in my view,” Kennan wrote, “been seriously misused and distorted.” Kennan urged Powell to minimize his travel and focus on advising the president.

Powell gave a copy of Kennan’s letter to Kerry. So far, Kerry is not following the advice. As October came to a close, Kerry had already flown more than 213,000 miles and spent more than 100 days—roughly 40 percent of his time—outside the United States. In his first nine months, he’d traveled more miles than Clinton had in her entire first year in office.

I asked Kerry last summer whether he was traveling too much. “Hell no,” he said fiercely. “I’m not slowing down.”

Presented by

David Rohde, a columnist for Reuters, is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent book is Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East.

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