If John Kerry seems like a natural choice for the next secretary of state, that's because he is. He's a 27-year veteran of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he's chaired since 2009 (taking the seat left by Joe Biden). In that time, he's bounced from country to country, and issue to issue, on congressional delegation trips. He's met with high-level officials from around the world and carried sensitive messages for successive administrations. But it's hard to find insights into Kerry's diplomatic style when so many meetings take place behind closed doors.
There are hints, though, in the WikiLeaks cables. Dozens of the leaked State Department cables, covering a period from 2005 to early 2010, refer to visits by Kerry from Pretoria to Islamabad, Beijing to Damascus. As with most such documents, the meeting summaries focus on what the other person is saying more than Kerry -- "In response to the senator's comment," "When Kerry asked about this, so-and-so replied," and so on. Still, in reading the cables, the image of John Kerry, jet-setting diplomat, takes shape.
Kerry's choice of issues over the years is instructive. He tends to take on hard challenges, from his early efforts to clear up the mystery of American prisoners of war in Vietnam to his more recent forays into shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East. And he does not shy away from dealing with unsavory characters. The prime minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, for instance, still sings Kerry's praises a decade after the senator helped negotiate an agreement that allowed the Khmer Rouge to be tried domestically. In one cable, Hun Sen is seen recalling, "Senator Kerry had always sought the means to make the court a success."
Kerry's instinct for engagement is particularly evident in his trips to the Arab world, where he has hop-scotched around the region -- meeting in 2006 with leaders of what was then the ruling coalition in Beirut to help guide the effort to investigate former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri's assassination, then talking to the Lebanese opposition and its patron, Syria's Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus.
Climate change, another uphill slog, is one of Kerry's abiding interests. On a trip to the Bali convention on climate change in 2007, he met with at least 10 national delegations, including partners like France to the more reticent countries like China, as well as representatives of 25 NGOs. Kerry has given China, a particularly squeaky wheel on climate change issues, special attention. He made a special visit to Beijing before the 2009 Copenhagen talks to pass along a message from the White House "that the world needs to ‘change its energy base' to chart a path to more sustainable economic growth," and to try to move Chinese officials toward accepting different metrics for measuring their greenhouse emissions. Initial assessments of the conversations were positive -- a cable about Kerry's conversations with China's vice premier stated, rather optimistically, that the "overall frank exchange of views with Senator Kerry and straightforward expression of interest in concrete projects should be taken as a signal that China has caught on at a top level to the new U.S. administration's identification of climate change as a key bilateral priority." Seven months later, however, the Copenhagen talks stagnated over many of the same issues Kerry discussed in Beijing.
The WikiLeaks cables don't depict Kerry as naïve, however. Even as he was talking to Chinese officials about climate change, the senator was encouraging other countries to press ahead without China, or the United States for that matter, which he feared would have its hands tied by electoral politics as early discussions began in 2008. If talks moved forward, the United States could catch up and pass proposed legislation later, he suggested. This proved overly optimistic.
Kerry's most controversial appearances in the cables touch on the delicate subject of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. In 2009, he told the Lebanese president that the United States felt the "clock is ticking" on negotiations, and in a meeting with the prime minister cited George Mitchell's recent appointment as a special envoy as a sign of U.S. commitment to resolve the conflict. He made unrealistic promises to Arab leaders, telling Syria's vice president that U.S. policy would be to oppose new Israeli settlements. He even outlined the framework of a potential agreement -- including a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, something for which he caught criticism when the cables were leaked -- in a conversation with the Qatari emir.