The Kerry Doctrine

The secretary of state's go-big-or-go-home foreign policy.

Illustration by Ben Wiseman
Illustration by Ben Wiseman

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.

Kerry also met with Abbas throughout 2013, often in extended one-on-one sessions. He says that he heard Abbas’s insistence on having a viable state that the Palestinian people could be proud of and assured the president that this was a priority for the United States as well. As Abbas explained the issues of top concern to him — for instance, that no Israeli troops be allowed to stay in the Jordan Valley, a policy that Netanyahu disagrees with — Kerry says he searched for possible solutions.

He kept the circle of participants in discussions very small to prevent leaks, and he largely ignored the chattering classes — and much of official Washington — as they scoffed that it was too soon, that he was wasting time, that any talks were certain to fail.

Eventually, the Kerry Doctrine paid off. Quietly, without fanfare or a Rose Garden address from Obama, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators gathered in Washington in late July to begin the first direct peace talks in almost three years.

Only time will tell whether all of Kerry’s spadework will produce a lasting peace accord that resolves one of the most intractable conflicts on Earth. But Kerry believes firmly in the power of diplomacy and in his ability to get people who have the power to make decisions in a room together — and then help them make those decisions.

Take Syria, which as of press time was well along the path toward relinquishing, under U.N. supervision, its stock of chemical weapons. This, too, owes in part to the Kerry Doctrine.

While perhaps a jump of the gun, Kerry’s remark at a September news conference, at which he seemingly offered the Syrian regime a reprieve from the Tomahawk missiles aimed at Damascus if President Bashar al-Assad gave up his chemical weapons arsenal, reportedly stemmed from ongoing conversations with Russian officials. In the days after the horrific Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria, Kerry says he spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov nine times on the phone, and it was clear that Moscow was interested in playing a role.

After the Kremlin seized on Kerry’s comment at the news conference, the secretary of state met Lavrov face to face in Geneva for formal talks. An agreement was ultimately reached, however, during a private conversation by the pool at the InterContinental Hotel. "Lavrov was just out there, and I took advantage of it," Kerry explained to me. "Sometimes, things [like that] just work better than getting everybody in the room into formal mode."

It was a triumph of diplomacy that stopped the United States from going to war in Syria — or at least saved the administration the ignominy of being told not to by Congress — and one that required bravado and bona fides that few statesmen have.

Then, as U.N. inspectors began the dangerous work of dismantling Assad’s chemical weapons program, Kerry turned to Iran, which had — with the election of Hassan Rouhani — seemingly offered an olive branch to the West. Following Rouhani’s surprising visit to New York for the U.N. General Assembly session, Kerry met privately with top officials from Tehran during September discussions in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany), opening the door to serious negotiations in November on sanctions relief and nuclear inspections. Of course, Kerry’s old friend Netanyahu isn’t thrilled about Washington warming to Tehran, but you can bet the secretary won’t leave it to a phone call to assuage the skeptic in Jerusalem.

It is risky stuff from someone few saw as a risk-taker. And the outcomes, good or bad, will define Kerry’s legacy as a statesman. Either way, he’s not stopping.

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