America’s Next Top Diplomat

What the WikiLeaks cables reveal about John Kerry.

Michael Kovac/Getty Images for The Elton John AIDS Foundation
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for The Elton John AIDS Foundation

If John Kerry seems like a natural choice for the next secretary of state, that’s because he is. He’s a 27-year veteran of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he’s chaired since 2009 (taking the seat left by Joe Biden). In that time, he’s bounced from country to country, and issue to issue, on congressional delegation trips. He’s met with high-level officials from around the world and carried sensitive messages for successive administrations. But it’s hard to find insights into Kerry’s diplomatic style when so many meetings take place behind closed doors.

There are hints, though, in the WikiLeaks cables. Dozens of the leaked State Department cables, covering a period from 2005 to early 2010, refer to visits by Kerry from Pretoria to Islamabad, Beijing to Damascus. As with most such documents, the meeting summaries focus on what the other person is saying more than Kerry — "In response to the senator’s comment," "When Kerry asked about this, so-and-so replied," and so on. Still, in reading the cables, the image of John Kerry, jet-setting diplomat, takes shape.

Kerry’s choice of issues over the years is instructive. He tends to take on hard challenges, from his early efforts to clear up the mystery of American prisoners of war in Vietnam to his more recent forays into shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East. And he does not shy away from dealing with unsavory characters. The prime minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, for instance, still sings Kerry’s praises a decade after the senator helped negotiate an agreement that allowed the Khmer Rouge to be tried domestically. In one cable, Hun Sen is seen recalling, "Senator Kerry had always sought the means to make the court a success."

Kerry’s instinct for engagement is particularly evident in his trips to the Arab world, where he has hop-scotched around the region — meeting in 2006 with leaders of what was then the ruling coalition in Beirut to help guide the effort to investigate former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination, then talking to the Lebanese opposition and its patron, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus.

Climate change, another uphill slog, is one of Kerry’s abiding interests. On a trip to the Bali convention on climate change in 2007, he met with at least 10 national delegations, including partners like France to the more reticent countries like China, as well as representatives of 25 NGOs. Kerry has given China, a particularly squeaky wheel on climate change issues, special attention. He made a special visit to Beijing before the 2009 Copenhagen talks to pass along a message from the White House "that the world needs to ‘change its energy base’ to chart a path to more sustainable economic growth," and to try to move Chinese officials toward accepting different metrics for measuring their greenhouse emissions. Initial assessments of the conversations were positive — a cable about Kerry’s conversations with China’s vice premier stated, rather optimistically, that the "overall frank exchange of views with Senator Kerry and straightforward expression of interest in concrete projects should be taken as a signal that China has caught on at a top level to the new U.S. administration’s identification of climate change as a key bilateral priority." Seven months later, however, the Copenhagen talks stagnated over many of the same issues Kerry discussed in Beijing.

The WikiLeaks cables don’t depict Kerry as naïve, however. Even as he was talking to Chinese officials about climate change, the senator was encouraging other countries to press ahead without China, or the United States for that matter, which he feared would have its hands tied by electoral politics as early discussions began in 2008. If talks moved forward, the United States could catch up and pass proposed legislation later, he suggested. This proved overly optimistic.

Kerry’s most controversial appearances in the cables touch on the delicate subject of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. In 2009, he told the Lebanese president that the United States felt the "clock is ticking" on negotiations, and in a meeting with the prime minister cited George Mitchell’s recent appointment as a special envoy as a sign of U.S. commitment to resolve the conflict. He made unrealistic promises to Arab leaders, telling Syria’s vice president that U.S. policy would be to oppose new Israeli settlements. He even outlined the framework of a potential agreement — including a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, something for which he caught criticism when the cables were leaked — in a conversation with the Qatari emir.

Some of Kerry’s unheralded successes have come in South Asia. Through meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his national security advisor, M.K. Narayanan, Kerry helped build a U.S.-Indian dialogue on civil nuclear technology that culminated in the 123 Agreement. In those discussions, Kerry was cautious in outlining an agreement that would have the support not just of the Indian government and U.S. Senate, but with other international signatories and the Indian public, as well. After the 2008 attack in Mumbai, Kerry worked as an intermediary to help defuse tensions between India and Pakistan. In 2009, Kerry helped coax Afghan President Hamid Karzai into accepting a second round of elections after the first round was not decisive, and when Karzai came out on top, Kerry called the Afghan leader’s rival to convince him to concede gracefully.

Kerry has had less luck in Pakistan. He struggled to build up Asif Ali Zardari and Pakistan’s civilian government through initiatives like the Kerry-Lugar aid legislation, but could make little headway against the country’s powerful military, and his efforts hit a brick wall when Osama bin Laden was discovered living in safety in Abbottabad.

His climate change initiatives foundered, both domestically and abroad. The special tribunal that he pushed for in Lebanon became a political hot potato, and eventually led to the collapse of the Hariri government; nearly eight years later, no one has been held to account for the former prime minister’s assassination. In pursuing a Middle East peace agreement, Kerry took the advice of several Arab leaders that, to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel and Syria would have to settle their differences first, and he met — controversially — with Assad in Damascus on multiple occasions.

In those meetings, Kerry comes across as accommodating but stern. In December 2006, he reassured Assad that he would be recognized for positive steps he took toward the peace process and in halting the flow of militants into Iraq, and tried to assuage the Syrian dictator’s concerns that the steps he had taken already weren’t appreciated by the Bush administration. Kerry left the meeting with a warning: "People who think Iran is in the ascendancy," he told Assad, "are making a mistake." He also, according to one cable, "cautioned [Assad] not to be fooled by any temporary feelings of self-confidence his regime may be enjoying because of recent events in the region, as the current course his regime is on holds very negative future consequences for Syria."

This didn’t stop Kerry from telling the Qatari emir, in February 2010, that "he took away from his visit to Damascus that [Assad] wants change," one cable reveals, but this seems to have been as much a way of guiding the Qataris — then one of Syria’s closest Arab allies — to pressure Assad as anything else. In more candid conversations, Kerry conceded that "the U.S. was ‘not expecting great change’ from Syria, but it was worthwhile to start the conversation."

If he is indeed confirmed, starting conversations will be Secretary Kerry’s job. He has started dialogues both good and bad. Not all of Kerry’s efforts have panned out, and he’s not likely to develop a golden touch once he gets to Foggy Bottom. But, based on his history, we know he’ll at least try.

J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network. Twitter: @jdanastuster

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