The most decisive foreign policy dynamic at the moment is the developing relationship between John Kerry and Barack Obama. Kerry needs to be careful not to travel too much, so he can be in Washington, where he should be building a strong team at the State Department, and strong working relationships with other foreign policy principals, including Chuck Hagel at Defense and John Brennan at the CIA. He also needs to establish good working relations with the White House foreign policy team headed by NSC Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy Ben Rhodes.
Nothing is more critical to the future foreign policy of the U.S. than Kerry’s building strong working relationships with these individuals, and in particular with the president. Kerry brings to the table considerable strengths in precisely those areas where the president is weakest: an understanding of diplomatic history, a grasp of international law and its usefulness in achieving U.S. objectives, a deep appreciation of the importance of foreign assistance, and a good sense of the constructive role Congress can play, including the critical function of the Senate in ratifying treaties.
The key question is whether Obama will delegate significant pieces of foreign policy making to the Secretary of State, or rather view him simply as an adjunct of his centralized White House foreign policy operation. Will he listen carefully to Kerry and take his suggestions into account, e.g. prior to a speech on Israel, or just have Ben Rhodes go and write an eloquent document to be read?
If he is to succeed as Secretary of State, Kerry must now place his primary attention on developing a full and flexible relationship with the president, through regular meetings and establishing easy access to the Oval Office. This argues for limiting travel during his first year.
For an optimal relationship to be forged, Obama too will need to make a major effort to empower his secretary of state with lead responsibility in a number of key areas, and to leave him with enough space to take the lead in areas Kerry himself deems to be priorities.
Whether this can be achieved is anyone’s guess.
Perhaps the president’s last chance to recover from the diastrous foreign policy of his first term, and to set the nation on a more positive and promising couse, depends on his and John Kerry’s ability to forge a close and collaborative working relationship, with John Kerry taking the lead on foreign policy issues.
The Trenchant Observer