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Can John Kerry top Hillary Clinton as secretary of state?
Kerry sailed through his Senate confirmation. Now he faces the world — and the ghost of his rock star predecessor
 
Kerry emerges after a unanimous vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approving him to become the next secretary of state.
Kerry emerges after a unanimous vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approving him to become the next secretary of state. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) will be America's 68th secretary of state, having easily won Senate confirmation on Tuesday with just three senators, all Republicans, voting against him. The son of a U.S. diplomat, Kerry grew up "among the rubble of Berlin" and other locales in post–World War II Europe, so "he has diplomacy sewn into his DNA," says the AFP's Jo Biddle. And he has spent his entire 28 years in the Senate as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, the last four as chairman, so he's no stranger to America's current challenges in the world or the foreign leaders he will now confront as the country's top diplomat. But "he has big shoes to fill." Outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "has won accolades and the expansive title of 'the rock star diplomat' during her four years on the job." How will Kerry stack up against one of the most popular secretaries of state in modern times?

President Obama, not surprisingly, thinks Kerry will do just fine. "John has earned the respect of leaders around the world and the confidence of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, and I am confident he will make an extraordinary Secretary of State," Obama said after the Senate ratified his first cabinet pick for his second term. Also not surprising is that people who don't think highly of Obama's foreign policy also disagree with the president about Kerry's prospects at State.

"The bad news for the United States is that Kerry is President Obama's ideological twin and can be expected to enthusiastically embrace the Obama doctrine and continue the administration's pursuit of arms control, international treaties, and climate-change agreements," says Helle Dale at the Heritage Foundation. What should he embrace instead? Dale's Heritage Foundation colleagues Amy Payne and Luke Coffey explain:

The secretary of state's priorities should be defending American sovereignty, promoting economic freedom, and restoring American leadership in the world. Kerry's track record and his fidelity to Obama's worldview give us little hope for those priorities. [The Foundry]

The same things Kerry's critics complain about, of course, are selling points to others in the global policy community. In Europe and much of the world, Kerry "is seen as the embodiment of foreign policy," Ian Lesser at the German Marshall Fund tells The Christian Science Monitor. "Whether that is good or bad is subjective," notes The Monitor's Sara Miller Llana, but from Pakistan to China to Europe — everywhere, basically, except Latin America — leaders and diplomats "have voiced expectations that his vast experience and diplomatic skill will be a boon to dealing with international crises and issues." Clinton was popular, a household name across much of the world, but Kerry's biggest challenge among world leaders, friend and frenemy alike, may be managing high expectations.

Kerry will not be a pushover, though, says historian Douglas Brinkley. He "exudes noblesse oblige," but "his courtesy and diplomatic finesse can mask a toughness and a willingness to speak hard truths," especially to "present and former enemies or difficult partners on the world stage." And he shouldn't need much on-the-job training, adds Martin Indyk, a former ambassador now at the Brookings Institution. "It's as if John Kerry stepped out of one of those portraits on the seventh floor of the State Department. He's been in training for this job for decades," Indyk tells the AFP

In private, says the AFP's Biddle, "some among the foreign service are happy to be welcoming back one of their own, and while Clinton has been a popular boss, the added personal political spotlight surrounding her has at times been seen as a distraction." Still, it's hard to predict how Kerry will stack up when Clinton's own legacy at State is still "a matter of hot debate," says Michael E. O'Hanlon at Foreign Affairs.

Some of the most important and enduring elements of the Clinton years — steadiness and pragmatism coupled with a reinvigoration of ties with Europe and the so-called rebalancing with Asia — are clear. For style and for collegiality, Clinton gets high marks…. Clinton's work ethic as secretary of state was remarkable.... [But] none of this is to say that Clinton was necessarily a historic secretary of state. The flip side of her caution and deliberation was that her positions were not usually remarkably imaginative. And even an admirer must acknowledge that few big problems were solved on her watch.... Put it all together and, despite the setbacks, you have one of the most respectable records of any modern secretary of state, although not yet a historic legacy — a major bending of history. [Foreign Affairs]

In other words, the jury is still out on Clinton's tenure at State, so there's no telling how Kerry will do at the job he's long cherished. Only time will tell if he's a "consequential" figure like Henry Kissinger, former diplomat Aaron David Miller tells the AFP. "A lot of being a great secretary of state is luck. Right time, right place."

Still, the new secretary of state will have at least one qualification that Clinton does not: He was on Cheers. Here's Kerry in 1992 (via The Boston Globe):

 

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