Dear John

John Kerry can be a great secretary of state. Here's how.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

To: John Kerry
From: Aaron David Miller

To: John Kerry
From: Aaron David Miller

So, you probably weren’t the president’s first choice for the position. But forget that — it really doesn’t matter now. You’re going to be secretary of state. The only thing that counts is what you’re going to do with the job.

And make no mistake, it’s quite a prize — the second-best job in government, maybe even the best.

Can there be a greater high in government than disembarking in some foreign land from an aircraft embossed with the words "United States of America" on the fuselage and the American flag on its tail?

And could there be more honor and privilege in knowing that — no matter how tough, even hopeless, the task — you’re charged with representing America abroad? As secretary of state, you are a minority of one in American political life today — a non-partisan bipartisan partisan, often untouchable in the catty corridors of Washington.

So What Is a Great Secretary of State?

I’ve written about what it takes to do the job well, to be consequential, even great. So how do you measure up?

The right presence: You’ve got the physical persona. And while it may be politically incorrect to say it, no secretary of state in the modern period — with the possible exception of Dean Acheson — does a better job in looking the part. And trust me, presence, charisma, and image count. When Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton walked into the room, people noticed. It often had nothing to do with physical size, gender, hair, or clothes. Each had a certain presence, persona, spark, moxie, and spunk that made an impression. 

You’ve got that exterior. But what’s on the inside? Do you have the persona — the combination of charm, guile, and toughness that’s required for real success? The latter is really critical. Applying honey is required too, but that’s easy. Using the vinegar is the hard part. Shultz had his stare and glare that could cut an interlocutor to the bone, Baker had his "I’m out of here" slammed notebook routine. Albright was plenty tough when she needed to be, especially in the Balkans and with Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasir Arafat. 

Bottom line: Are you a son of a bitch with an instrumental and manipulative edge? Are you prepared, as Kissinger and Baker did, to trash the Arabs in front of the Israelis and vice versa in an effort to gain the confidence of both? Or are you a diplomat’s diplomat — nice, balanced, and always coloring between the lines? If it’s only the latter, you’ll bag a lot of frequent flyer miles but not much else.

The negotiator’s mindset: We really don’t know what kind of negotiator you’d be. You’ve had more experience than some of your predecessors in the Senate, and as a kind of shadow envoy for the president, you’ve undertaken missions to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

We already know you’re well-versed in international relations, pragmatic, non-ideological, and patient. Above all, you really do believe in the power of engagement and diplomacy — perhaps to a fault. Kissinger and Baker — the two best negotiators and manipulators in recent times — never felt quite the same.

Whether you have the intuitive skills to see how the pieces fit together and the sense of timing, theatrics, and leverage to assemble them is another matter. You won’t know until you’re in the middle of a hot negotiating moment. Indeed, to paraphrase Kenny Rogers, do you have the sense of when to hold ‘em, fold ‘em, or threaten to and actually walk away from ‘em if need be?

Luck and timing: The bitter truth is that the next two elements are the most important to your success — but are the ones over which you have the least control. Woody Allen was wrong: 90 percent of life isn’t just showing up, it’s showing up at the right time. If the world doesn’t cooperate, it doesn’t matter how smart you are.

You can make your own luck…up to a point. But if the mullahs don’t want a deal on the nuclear issue or Netanyahu isn’t interested in moving with the Palestinians, you really will be blocked from big opportunities and successes. And there really won’t be much you can do about it.

Kissinger negotiated three disengagement agreements in 18 months because Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad — to just about everyone’s amazement — opened the door by attacking Israel. Baker got to Madrid because Saddam opened the door by invading Kuwait and Bush 41 had the courage to push him out. As a result, the regional pieces were scrambled enough to afford a willful and skillful secretary of state the chance to move.

Of course, there’s little doubt that a crisis will break out on your watch. But as we’ve seen in Syria, it might not be one that can be solved by American persuasion, manipulation, or military might. 

A president who supports you: Sure the president likes and respects you greatly, as he did your predecessor. That doesn’t mean he’s prepared to empower you to own some of the really important issues facing the United States. Will you really be his foreign policy strategist — charged with creating and shaping policy? Or will you be his implementer-in-chief, charged with executing policies decided on in the Oval Office?

Can You Be a Great Secretary of State?

Like your able and talented predecessor, you’re going to be constrained by numbers three and four.

It’s a really tough world out there. You are going to face deeply rooted — some might say intractable — conflicts, such as the festering dispute in Israel-Palestine. You will be faced with headaches from nuclear powers or wannabes like Iran and North Korea, who aren’t preparing to roll over. And you’ll be confronted by big powers such as China and Russia, who will challenge you as much as cooperate. That’s before you even open up the Pandora’s Box of other assorted problems, such as political turbulence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and across the Arab world, which will not be terribly responsive to American power. Can you identify any low-hanging fruit?

You’re also working for a president who tends to dominate on foreign policy, not delegate. Spoiler alert: He thinks he’s smarter than you, too. I think that not delegating is bad for him and America, particularly in a second term where stumbles are legendary and where domestic issues are likely to take much of his time. But the president has run a pretty competent foreign policy, and may see no real reason to change

So Mr. Secretary-Designate, if your goal is to be a truly consequential secretary of state, I’d respectfully offer a few pieces of unsolicited advice.

Don’t contract out the big issues: There’s nothing wrong with using special envoys. As of last year, the Obama administration had created a record number of 24 of these positions, of which about half report to the secretary. There are advantages of using these "specials" – they provide more substantive focus and attention to a specific issue, and can raise the issue’s political profile. And in some cases, when you’ve got the right envoy and the crisis provides an opportunity, the model can be very effective. Just look at what late Dick Holbrooke was able to accomplish in the Balkans during his time there.

But on other big issues, it hasn’t worked so well. Take the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Unless you’re looking to run away from it, that’s something you’ll need to manage with a hands-on approach. You can’t do that by finding some high profile envoy (see: Bill Clinton) to run it. You run the team yourself, handing off day-to-day supervision to someone who reports directly to you. That’s how Kissinger and Baker did it. And guess what? Since then, we haven’t had much success — at least on the Israeli-Palestinian issue — with any other model.

Own an issue: You want to be a truly consequential secretary of state? Own an issue that normal human beings regard as really hard and significant — and make it better. This is only partly related to ego. It also has to do with efficiency and results. The challenges America faces require full time effort. They can only be solved by a team of professionals — overseen by you.

This is the nature of your new job. A bold and successful foreign policy can’t be run out of the National Security Council or by the president’s political advisors, nor should the State Department’s careerists control it. You and the national security advisor need to work closely together to make sure the right balance is found.

Don’t misunderstand. The president is the boss. But you need to make clear what you want to own relatively early. Secretaries of state — the really good ones — aren’t just implementers. They often fashion the strategy, sell it to the White House, and run with it — coordinating with the Big Boss and his team every step of the way. You run the traps and shoulder the risks and responsibilities. If it’s a negotiation, then you do the legwork, bring the president in when necessary, and set the table for him to close, as required.

Get a team to help you: You’re going to need a really good team of professionals to help you. Don’t shut the State Department out — use your ambassadors and the assistant secretaries for serious work. But don’t become a prisoner to the building either. Draw outsiders whom you trust from the Hill into the system, and don’t be afraid to ask the universities and think tanks for their best and brightest. Don’t get caught up on political affiliation: Republican vs. Democrat isn’t the dividing line here. Smart vs. dumb is.

And most important, let your advisors debate openly — if at times noisily — in front of you. Encourage it. Don’t let any single individual control the information flow. In the end, it’s the adult supervision you exercise — the intuitive capacity to make the right decisions — that’s the key to having a chance to succeed.

I don’t envy you. You’re not Henry Kissinger, who served under a president who was preoccupied with domestic scandal and who really did — however grudgingly and jealously — respect and admire his top diplomat’s brilliance. Nor are you James Baker, who had a closer personal bond with his president than any of his predecessors.

And that’s your main challenge. You won’t get the diplomatic breakthroughs unless you can achieve a breakthrough of your own with the president, creating a close bond with a guy who thinks he’s a lot smarter than you and who’s used to running everything.

If you can get him to stop dominating and start delegating, and if the world cooperates a little, who knows? While the odds may be against it, you might even be headed for the Secretary of State Hall of Fame.

If not, don’t worry. You’ll have a fine time, and probably do some good. But you might as well hang a closed for the season sign on any chance of doing bold and historic diplomacy — let alone emerging a secretary of state we’ll all want to remember.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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