John Kerry, Barack Obama, and the future of U.S. foreign policy

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

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.