Archive for category John Kerry

John Kerry’s Diplomacy



Secretary Kerry’s patient diplomacy continues to win little victories for the Obama Administration.   Though he lacks the tough veneer of his predecessor, Kerry is proving to be an adept and successful diplomat.

The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) claims Iran is ahead of schedule in following the agreement reached last year and took affect on January 20th.    The dilution of enriched uranium means that Iran probably does not have enough to make even one nuclear weapon, defusing what had been a tense situation.   Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani says its in the interest of Iran to assure the world that Iran does not want to have nuclear weapons.   If the process stays on track  sanctions will be lifted and Iran will move towards fully rejoining the international community.

This is a success for the Obama Administration.   The problem of Iran’s nuclear program has been an issue for over a decade, with the potential of doing immense harm to the region and the world economy.   An attack on Iran by the US or Israel could lead to disastrous consequences.  The Pentagon was not happy about how it war gamed out, and there was fear Israel might go it alone.

The deal with Iran remains on track, which is in the mutual interest of Iran and the US

The deal with Iran remains on track, which is in the mutual interest of Iran and the US

Yet that was then – when Iran was part of President Bush’s “axis of evil,” and the US war in Iraq created intense emotions and anti-Americanism.   Now anti-Americanism has waned and the emotion of the last decade has turned into realization that the Iranian economy is the real problem.   There is no benefit for Iran in maintaining a hard line, and the last election and recent demonstrations show the Guardian Council (the body of clerics that have the most power in Iran) that the public is unhappy.   They need to put the nuclear issue behind them and focus on the economy.

There could still be problems and missteps along the way, but for the first time in a long time concern over Iran’s nuclear program is fading.  Patient diplomacy by Obama and Secretary Kerry is paying off.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov make progress

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov make progress

The other place diplomacy seems to be working is in Ukraine – though this is still a very tense and uncertain situation.   Both have agreed in principle to eschew violence.   Ukraine will give full amnesty to all protesters except those who have committed capital offenses, while Russia agrees not to invade or use violence.   More details aren’t yet known, but while it is meant to de-escalate rather than solve the problem, it’s an important step in the right direction.

Those who say Putin wants to recreate a resurgent Russia are overstating the case.   Putin was humiliated by the defeat of Yanukovych earlier this year and it completely unsettled his effort to bring Ukraine closer to Russia.   Putin genuinely believes the new government is illegal, radical and illegitimate.   If an anti-American protest overthrew a pro-American government in Mexico, we might feel the same way.

No doubt Putin wants to find a way to allow eastern Ukraine to, if not become part of Russia, at least have more autonomy from Kiev to pursue closer relations with Russia.   That isn’t necessarily a bad idea; in a divided country, sometimes de-centralized power works best.  But Putin is not stupid.  He knows that in an era of globalization Russia cannot be isolated from the West – that kind of isolation is what caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.   His challenge is to find a way out of this that both maintains Russia’s connections to the West (particularly the EU) and prevents an unacceptable outcome in Ukraine.

Today’s de-escalation agreement could allow a transition to talks on constitutional reform in Ukraine to keep the country unified, but allow autonomy on some economic fronts.   That may seem like a victory for Russia – and in the short term it would be.   But ultimately if the western part of Ukraine develops faster thanks to their EU ties, provinces in the east would have the power to look west.   They won’t be tied to Russia.

The situation in eastern Ukraine is tense

The situation in eastern Ukraine is tense

The US and EU has to use their clout to get Kiev to recognize that they won’t achieve a perfect outcome – Russian power and influence is real; compromise is necessary.   They then have to work out an arrangement with Russia that avoids any military action, and will allow for a peaceful resolution of the tumult in the east.    Even if the short term result allows the east to drift closer to Russia, as long as Ukraine is one country and the regions in the east remain autonomous from Russia, it’s an acceptable result.

Those who say Putin and Russia are “winning” and the US has lost its foreign policy edge are in the land of the absurd.   Not that long ago Russia controlled not only all of Ukraine, but the 15 Soviet Republics and a bunch of east European states.   That day is long gone.  Russia’s position vis-a-vis the US is severely weakened, and the best Russia can hope for is a little more regional influence.

For those who like to think about power and conflict, messy diplomacy may seem dissatisfying.   Better to bomb the Iranians to be sure, or risk war to stop Putin from Russian expansion!   But in reality both Russia and Iran have very strong motives to make sure they are connected to the global economy.  In the 21st Century, international isolation is defeat.   That’s why patient diplomacy can work.

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Time To Seriously Consider a Divided Ukraine

Crimea's location on the Black Sea has been of historical strategic importance to Russia.

Crimea’s location on the Black Sea has been of historical strategic importance to Russia.

The reaction to Russia’s invasion of Crimea has been swift and harsh.   The EU and the US have unambiguously condemned the military action, and have talked of serious sanctions and consequences should Moscow not back down.   However, as time passes and it becomes clear that there is no easy way to get Russia to back down, it may be necessary to seriously consider dividing Ukraine.

Its almost surreal how there is a kind of collective amnesia about the 2008 war in which Russia attacked the independent state of Georgia, a close US ally and participant in the Iraq war, taking the Russian-speaking territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.   Those are still occupied by Russia almost six years late.   The events on the ground, outside the control of the US, created a situation where Russian action was virtually inevitable no matter who was in office.   Blaming Obama (or Bush in 2008) is ridiculous.

Second, this war represents the weakness of the Russian position.   While critics want to paint Putin as Hitler incarnate, planning to swoop next into Poland, the reality is that he is struggling to keep Russian influence in places where Russia has been dominant for quite some time.    When the USSR gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, there was no doubt where the power really lie – in Moscow.   Kiev, like Tbilisi, was subservient to the Kremlin.   That they can’t keep a fraction of their influence without using the military shows a country still in decline, not one resurgent.

Gates, a Republican told his party to tone down it's criticism of the President and “try to be supportive of the president rather than natter at the president."

Gates, a Republican told his party to tone down it’s criticism of the President and “try to be supportive of the president rather than natter at the president.”

Third, Republican attacks on the President are counter productive,  shallow and objectively wrong.   The response to Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula has been vitriolic among a few on the right.   Senator McCain said the US had a “feckless foreign policy” and Senator Graham claimed that Obama is “weak and indecisive” and “invited aggression.”

Driven by talk radio, Fox News, and the right wing blogosphere, the right has convinced themselves that Obama is a bumbling idiot with no experience, who does everything wrong, and maybe should be impeached.  That hyperbolic inbred Obama-phobia plays well among that group, but is both absurd and harmful to the country.   We need to have a serious domestic discussion about our options, interests and goals in dealing with far away crises like this one.  Consider:

1.  What options does the US have?  In reality, we’re not going to go to war over Crimea.   Neither are the Europeans.  Russia has troops on the ground and it’s in their backyard – their “near abroad.”  This means that the only feasible response involves economic, symbolic and diplomatic action.   This cannot be unilateral.  Such actions are only effective if they are multilateral and enforced.  That means the US has to work with the EU for a common position.

The 1854-55 Crimean War is remembered as a military disaster, even if it did yield the Red Cross and "the charge of the light brigade"

The 1854-55 Crimean War is remembered as a military disaster, even if it did yield the Red Cross and “the charge of the light brigade”

2.  Is it wrong to consider having the Ukraine give up territory?   Besides Georgia, Yugoslavia is another state where ethnic differences caused parts of that country to want independence from the core.   The international community opposed separatists in Yugoslavia for a long time, but ultimately realized that the country was untenable as one state.   Might it be untenable to have a Ukraine so divided between East and West – or Europe and Russia – that internal conflicts are unable to be settled?  Might it not be better to have a clearly western Ukraine whose people support NATO and EU, and a new state representing parts of the east that want to be closer to Russia?   Do we support existing lines on maps, or self-determination?

3.  If Russia is in decline with Putin acting desperately, shouldn’t we also consider not just “piling on” like the international community is now doing, but giving Putin a way out?  The Russians have a tradition of isolation from the West, and if Putin sees no choice he’ll play into that cultural history to keep a firm grip on power and assert regional Russian power.   Russians often have seen “being Russian” as a spiritual identity that is exceptional and must not be sacrificed for western norms.

The problem with not giving Russia a way to save face or gain something is that more regional conflicts could emerge, spreading instability.   Moreover, if Russia is isolated, any effort by the Russian people to try to open up their society would be endangered.  If isolated, domestic oppression would grow.   The hope of having economic interdependence ultimately open Russia’s politics would be dashed.   Finally, sanctions and enmity between Moscow and the West would have economic costs; it’s ultimately in nobody’s interest.

US Secretary of State Kerry and the EU's equivalent to a foreign minister, Catherine Ashton.

US Secretary of State Kerry and the EU’s equivalent to a foreign minister, Catherine Ashton.

Americans have to accept that the world doesn’t run by idealistic legalism, and geopolitical events overseas often reflect the local realities that can’t be countered with simple slogans.

I believe negotiations should start aimed at allowing Russian speaking regions of the Ukraine vote on autonomy or remaining with Ukraine.  Right now this is not a popular position – the international community is piling on Russia, and domestic political name calling makes it hard to deal with the ambiguities and nuances of this case.   But I doubt that a divided Ukraine is sustainable.  Given globalization, there is no real benefit to controlling a bigger chunk of territory – whatever the nationalists in Kiev might say.  That kind of thinking is obsolete.

This map, shown in the post yesterday, shows the stark division.  The places with blue or dark blue could well choose to leave Ukraine.

This map, shown in the post yesterday, shows the stark division. The places with blue or dark blue could well choose to leave Ukraine.



John Kerry, an American Hero on a Mission


John Kerry first became a household name when he had the courage to come home from Vietnam, a decorated hero, and tell the truth about what was happening there.    Protesting a meaningless war, he helped form “Vietnam Veterans Against the War,” which included testimony to Congress and a protest wherein veterans including himself threw their medals over a fence at the Capital building.  Kerry said:  “I’m not doing this for any violent reasons, but for peace and justice, and to try and make this country wake up once and for all. ”

Young John Kerry was even the subject of mocking by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau

Young John Kerry was even the subject of mocking by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau

Later, of course, he went into politics and became a highly regarded Massachusetts Senator, and the 2004 Democratic candidate for President.   Though he was slandered in that campaign with false allegations about his military service, he fought a close election, losing to President George W. Bush 50.7% to 48.3%.  In losing, he still garnered more votes than anyone else in history at the time, except for President Bush.

Kerry was active in the Senate, maintaining his principles.  He and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin flew to Nicaragua shortly after his 1984 election to the Senate, visiting Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega.   The US was actively engaged in policies against Nicaragua, and Kerry along with Christopher Dodd investigated and helped bring to light the illegal activities of the Iran-Contra affair.   He did vote to authorize military force against Iraq, but was critical of the way President Bush handled the war.   Still, that vote represents a blemish on his career.

On February 1, 2013 Senator Kerry became Secretary of State Kerry.   The man who was once seen as a dangerous critic of US foreign policy is now the primary architect of that policy.   He has shown that he intends to be active and true to his principles.

Kerry being sworn in as Secretary of State

Kerry being sworn in as Secretary of State

This has generated criticism.  His efforts to broker a deal with Iran have been criticized in France and Israel.   His work with Russia has been dismissed as being naive.   But the critics all share one trait: they assume diplomacy can’t work.    Many people have a very black and white view of reality.   Certain countries are the “bad guys” and “our enemies,” so only naive fools will engage them.

Such a view is absurd.  Mao Zedong was vehement in his hatred for the US and threats against American hegemony.   His rhetoric made the anti-Israel barbs of former Iranian President Ahmadinejad look mild.  Yet President Nixon and Henry Kissinger opened relations with China, allowing China to replace Taiwan on the UN Security Council, which helped lead to positive change in China.   That was heavily criticized, but Nixon’s credentials as an anti-Communist helped him mollify the critics (hence the colloquialism ‘only Nixon could go to China’).

Nixon and Mao

Nixon and Mao

Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was once the most hated man on the planet by the American government.  He masterminded terrorist attacks which killed Americans, and the Reagan Administration tried to eliminate him in an attack on his house.  Later, though, diplomacy led him to abandon his nuclear program and try to get on the good side of the West.   Many on the right were critical of UN efforts to help the Libyan rebels, preferring Gaddafi stay in power.

The point: diplomacy is about trying to turn enemies into, if not friends, at least people we can deal with.

John Kerry has logged 250,000 miles as Secretary of State, visiting 35 countries.  His desire to try to find solutions to long standing problems in the Mideast and elsewhere have caused many in Washington to criticize him.    Unlike his predecessor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Kerry goes less for the showy displays and more for substance.   One gets the sense that she never wanted to do anything that would later harm a Presidential bid, such as being seen as too open to an agreement with Iran.   Kerry is not limited by political ambition, he can go where his principles lead.

President Obama has given Kerry considerable latitude in pursuing his foreign policy goals, largely because the two share similar principles.   Since Kerry doesn’t have to worry about what Washington insiders say, he can take their shots, working on extremely complex issues.   If he can’t succeed, he gets blamed.  If he does manage to reach agreements, the President can step in and get the glory.   That’s the job of a Secretary of State, and Kerry understands it.

John Kerry could deliver foreign policy successes to enhance President Obama's legacy

John Kerry could deliver foreign policy successes to enhance President Obama’s legacy

Yet while his efforts have been rather quiet, mostly underneath the media radar screen, he appears to be on a mission to do good – to be true to the principles that led him to speak out against atrocities taking place in Vietnam.  Who knows?  In the next three years he might be able to accomplish more as a hard working Secretary of State getting into the diplomatic trenches than he would have as President had he won in 2004.

And if so that would be fitting closure to his career.   His began by protesting against a pointless war that killed over a million people, with the major consequence being a decline in US power and moral authority.   Perhaps it might end with him guiding US foreign policy in a way that promotes peace and works to limit human suffering.   At this point in time John Kerry is the right man for the job.