Voice

Secretary Kerry

Would John Kerry do a good job of filling Hillary Clinton’s shoes?

I'd like to tell you who's going to be the next secretary of state. But I can't. It's a secret.

Still, I'm not the only one who knows. One very plugged-in friend of mine says that she's talked to Pete Rouse, the Obama advisor now assembling lists of names for President Barack Obama's second-term cabinet, and he says that Senator John Kerry has the short odds. But a White House correspondent responded by e-mail that, in fact, Kerry is "a long shot," since Obama won't want to risk losing a Senate seat, that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is still the leading candidate, but that national security advisor Tom Donilon "REALLY wants it." Then, the New York Times reports that Donilon doesn't want it, and that Rice is "crippled" because GOP senators will use the confirmation hearing to torture the administration over Benghazi. That's the problem with rumors: Knowledgeable people know things that contradict what other knowledgeable people know.

Since, to be honest, I don't know what Obama is thinking -- and neither does anybody else I've talked to -- let me try to answer instead the question of who it would make the most sense for him to appoint. I think the answer is pretty clearly John Kerry. Tom Donilon is a highly competent administrator who would die of impatience halfway through an interminable lunch with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Susan Rice is a pugnacious team player who, like Donilon, is more insider than outsider, and is notably deficient in that unctuous fluid which issues from the pores of professional diplomats. She would make a very good national security advisor if Donilon goes elsewhere. Obama, by all accounts, trusts Rice's judgment and is very fond of her; but he may be penetrating enough to see her shortcomings.

John Kerry is Hillary Clinton in pants. (Yes, I know, Secretary Clinton also wears pants.) He came within a whisker of being president -- much closer than she did -- and thus enjoys the aura of the almost-commander in chief. He is, like Clinton, a kind of living embodiment of America. He is immensely solemn and judicious, like her, but, unlike her, immensely tall. He is a decorated veteran with the iron grip of the ex-athlete. His baritone voice bespeaks bottomless gravitas. The man looks and acts more like a secretary of state than anyone since George Marshall. As a casting decision, it's a no-brainer.

It's important to understand what space Kerry, or someone else, would be seeking to fill. With a few important exceptions, Hillary Clinton has not been asked to formulate America foreign policy but rather to represent it, to talk about it, and to execute it. And she has done so almost flawlessly. If she is a conceptual thinker, she has kept her vision to herself. The big thinking in this administration comes from the Big Thinker in the White House, and a very small circle of aides. That is unlikely to change. And Kerry, though deeply familiar with everything and everyone, poses no danger of trying to impose a worldview of his own. He is an implementer, not a thinker. Tell John Kerry to take that hill, and he will take that hill or die trying.

Then there's the foreign policy work that needs to be done. The Obama administration will spend the next few years trying to extricate itself from Afghanistan -- and, collaterally, Pakistan -- with the least possible risk to America's reputation or national security. Kerry has been the White House's designated placater of Hamid Karzai and Pakistan's military chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. He visited Pakistan in the aftermath of the arrest of CIA agent Raymond Davis, and the killing of Osama bin Laden; and both times he left cooler tempers in his wake (though the effect didn't last). In 2009, he listened to Hamid Karzai rant for hours about how the world was shafting him before finally persuading Karzai that it was not in his own interest to accept the outcome of the transparently rigged election which had just won him a second term as president. If anyone can talk those guys off a ledge, it's Kerry.

All presidents want to bring peace to the Middle East. They all fail, but that doesn't stop them from trying. Nor should they. In the first term, Obama delegated that task to George Mitchell, his special representative. That won't work; the Israelis need to feel that they are the most important thing in the world, just as the U.S. Congress tells them they are. John Kerry has known Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, since the latter was making a living in Cambridge, Massachussetts, some twenty-odd years ago. I have heard him say nice things about Netanyahu off the record. He knows everyone who matters in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. If a relationship of trust confers any advantage -- and I'm not convinced that it does -- Kerry has that edge.

Kerry is also a world-class listener. When I traveled to Afghanistan with him in 2010, he let me sit in while he met with a leading human rights campaigner. "Tell me where you think we are," he said. And, "What do you think are the chances of a civil war?" And, "What is the U.S. doing wrong?" And "What is your most important advice for us?" It has to be very flattering to be so earnestly interrogated by an enormously tall man who was almost president of the United States. Tom Donilon and Susan Rice can't do that. John Kerry will make heads of state everywhere feel that American policy is in good hands. He is the secretary of state they would choose if anyone was asking.

But this is a limitation, too. The world has been knocked from its moorings; some of the friendly autocrats Kerry had spent years cultivating, like Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, have been toppled by popular outrage. Kerry's understanding of the world has been profoundly shaped by the countless hours he has spent talking to leaders in their palaces. He understands their problems. After repeated visits to Syria, for example, Kerry became convinced that President Bashar al-Assad was a man the United States could do business with. Assad and his wife drove Kerry to a mosque in Damascus and spoke sadly of the decline of secularism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Kerry nodded his great, graven image of a head. He asked Assad to take confidence-building steps, and Assad came through. Good friends like the Emir of Qatar told Kerry that Syria held the key to Middle East peace (see this striking WikiLeaks cable). But the Arab autocrats club is history.

The point is not that Kerry is naïve, or soft on dictators. It's rather that he is, to a profound degree, a status quo figure who deals with the world as he finds it. When I taxed him over his role in Syria, he said to me, "Countries and people and leaders of countries act out of self-interest. Foreign policy is the art of finding those interests and seeing what serves your nation and trying to marry them." Kerry operates one small turn of the wheel at a time. But his caution goes further than that: He also accepts the existing terms of debate. Throughout the 2009 debate on policy towards Afghanistan, when Vice President Joe Biden was torturing the generals with tough questions about counterinsurgency and proposing a sharply different alternative, Kerry was keeping mum. He has never deviated sharply from the administration position on this or almost anything else. Kerry is prepared to pilot the boat in the face of incoming fire, but not to rock it. He has courage -- but not intellectual courage.

Perhaps Kerry would be more outspoken inside the White House than out. He is not one to speak out of turn. The combination of his natural ponderousness and his extreme care about secret discussions often make him maddeningly vague in public. His default public posture is a kind of high-minded WASP propriety. In private, he is a gracious man with impeccable manners, genuinely curious about others, at times touchingly deferential.  And the same restraint and reserve which made him such an unsatisfying presidential candidate have also made him the kind of consummate diplomat whom the White House has counted on to soothe troubled waters in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and elsewhere.

Kerry has shortcomings. Who doesn't? But I can't think of anyone who would be better for the job.

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Terms of Engagement

Adapt or Die

Still think climate change is a joke?

See more photos of vulnerable coastal areas here. 

I'm one of the lucky ones. I live on the Upper East Side in Manhattan and I haven't lost a minute of power to Sandy. Many of my friends have, of course; as I write this, my wife's nephew, and our god-daughter, are asleep in our apartment. The storm has upended vastly more lives than anyone expected -- the death toll in New York City is up to 38, while most of Hoboken, just across the Hudson, remains underwater. Still, New York will feel like New York again quite soon, for a great Western capital is an inherently resilient place. "Can you imagine," asks Cristina Rumbaitis Del Rio, a climate change expert at the Rockefeller Foundation, "something like this happening in Calcutta or Dhaka, where people live in substandard housing and there isn't the communications infrastructure to lead to the preparedness we saw in New York City?"

It doesn't take too much imagination. In the last few years, vast floods have ravaged Manila and Bangkok; in 2005, storm waters killed close to 1,000 people in Mumbai. Coastal cities, of course, have always been subject to floods and storm surges, but climate change has increased that vulnerability owing to rising sea levels and the increasing violence of storms. And the number of people exposed to those risks has grown rapidly as people have flocked to cities. Over 400 million people now live in urban areas situated 10 meters or less above sea level, most of them in Asia. A sea-level rise of 38 centimeters has been estimated to increase by a factor of five the number of people affected by such flooding. The U.S. Geological Survey has projected that oceans will rise by between 60 centimeters and 1.9 meters by 2100. Is that a graphic enough picture?

The long-term answer to the problem, of course, is to bend the curve of climate change downward by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. But even should this somehow comes to pass, the cumulative effects of global warming ensure that the kind of damage we have begun to see -- in farms and forests as well as in cities -- will grow in the coming decades. This is why climate scientists and policy advocates have increasingly focused on adaptation as the solution to the inevitable effects of global warming.

Adaptation involves both big infrastructure projects, like the kind of storm gates now being considered for New York City, and myriad changes in early-warning and evacuation systems, building design, urban planning, wetlands development, and the like. It's not cheap, though it's much cheaper than doing nothing. In a 2010 report, the World Bank estimated that the cost of adapting to a world 2 degrees centigrade warmer than the historic baseline would be $70-$100 billion a year between now and 2050.

The likelihood that donor countries will mobilize such a vast sum, which is roughly equal to the total amount now spent on development aid, is only slightly greater than the likelihood of drastic action to reduce global emissions. But the auguries are a little bit better. At the otherwise unsuccessful 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen, donors pledged to spend $10 billion a year over the ensuing three years on a combination of adaptation, especially in vulnerable countries, and "mitigation" -- reducing emissions -- while building towards a goal of spending $100 billion a year by 2020. Most of those pledges have in fact been committed, including by the United States, whose share of the three-year total comes to $5.1 billion. So far, however, very little of that money has been disbursed, apparently because the international financial institutions which hold it in trust have been slow to move.

Adaptation, by its nature, is a localized activity, and there are innumerable pilot projects and studies and actual programs going on in affected areas. Bangladesh, which according to the World Bank study is on the receiving end of 40 percent of the world's storm surges,  has been adapting to calamity since the 1960s by building coastal embankments and shelters, planting trees, and establishing early-warning systems. The Rockefeller Foundation's Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network funds programs in 10 cities, mostly medium-sized places like Surat, in western India, or Da Nang, in Vietnam. The program works with municipal leaders and local organizations to devise small-scale, high-impact measures such as modeling flood zones or building public-health campaigns to reduce the incidence of malaria and other insect-borne diseases. But it's all very modest. In Bangladesh, for example, natural disasters already absorb 0.5 to 1 percent of gross domestic product; absent more ambitious adaptation measures, that may well be the cost of each of the more severe cyclones expected in the future.  

Who's going to pay for that? China and India, which together have almost a third of the affected coastal population, are increasingly self-reliant, and should be expected to make serious contributions towards the cost of adaptation -- though their current position has been that the West has caused global warming, so the West should pay for the consequences. What about us? Until Hurricane Katrina, citizens in the West could look on epic flooding as just another awful problem besetting the Third World. But that's a pre-global warming mentality. As John Mutter, a climate scientist at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Institute, puts it, "one way to think about a world getting warmer is that the tropics are just bigger." Natural disasters once largely confined to 30 degrees from the equator are now creeping towards the forties, where the West's great centers of commerce and creation lie. New York in 2030 may feel like Manila in 1970. Climate-change adaptation will become part of our lives because it will have to. Whether that will make the West more or less likely to finance this adaptation and mitigation in more vulnerable parts of the world is another question.

Of course, if you keep treating the symptoms rather than the disease, the treatment will only get more expensive, and more desperate. As Dean Bialek, director for climate change at the non-profit advisory group Independent Diplomat, puts it, "All the adaptation in the world will fall way short if we don't peak global emissions before 2020, and U.S. leadership is the sine qua non to a more concerted global effort, particularly in China." That is, China, as well as the other emerging nations whose rapidly expanding economies account for a growing fraction of emissions, must agree to sharply reduce the rate of emissions even while continuing to grow -- and they will not do so unless the United States agrees to adopt equivalent measures.

In this respect, climate change is a lot like nuclear nonproliferation. President Barack Obama understood very clearly that other states would not agree to restrain nuclear proliferation unless and until Washington accepted its own end of the bargain -- reducing the stockpile of nuclear weapons. Within the limits of what is politically impossible, Obama has done just that. He has made virtually no progress on climate change because it hasn't been politically possible to do so; but this, in turn, ensures that the global problem will only get worse. Still, recent polls have found that Americans do want the Washington to take a leadership position on climate change, though are leery of the kind of tax policies which might be required to address the problem. Sandy may move the needle of public opinion a little further. Should he win next Tuesday, Mitt Romney, who cannot admit to even believing that humans cause climate change, is unlikely to do anything about the problem. If Obama is re-elected, he will have no choice but to lavish a great deal of political capital on this intractable subject. But isn't that what a second term is for?

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