As John Kerry launches his maiden tour of world capitals as secretary of state, foreign leaders are looking for signs as to how Obama administration foreign policy is likely to change during the president's second term. The short answer is: They should look in the mirror. If Obama's foreign policy changes at all, it will be because the situations commanding America's attention internationally have shifted in some material way.
In fact, because the world is likely to undergo important shifts in the months ahead, the real questions about what will change ought to be coming from the Obama team itself. The members of Obama's brain trust ought to be asking how they need to adapt to the global situation they are likely to face over the next four years. Staying the course or simply trying to reduce America's overseas exposure due to recent wars and missteps won't be adequate.
Kerry has already given some clues to the kind of secretary of state he will be. His first speech suggested that at least for a while, the United States' new top diplomat would sound rather like the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That speech was very much directed to a domestic audience. For the public at large, it made the case that diplomacy was relevant. For Washington, it made the case that it needed to be funded. For the world, it didn't really suggest a new vision.
There is a reason for this. The primary foreign-policy maker in this administration remains the president. The primary location for the shaping of major policy decisions remains the White House and the National Security Staff. Of the most influential foreign-policy makers in this administration, most of the important ones are remaining right where they were: in the White House. That includes not only the president but also Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and Donilon's former deputy and now Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. McDonough's replacement, Tony Blinken, didn't have to carry his boxes very far either as he already was the VP's national security advisor in the last term. So continuity should be expected.
You wouldn't know it from all the handwringing on Capitol Hill or media navel-gazing about cabinet choices, but neither Kerry nor his eventual counterpart at the Pentagon is likely to change very much at all about the administration's international agenda. This is true to some degree because, as just noted, the policymaker-in-chief remains the same guy supported by the same team in the same place. But it is also true because the important drivers of that agenda are beyond the control of the top guys in Foggy Bottom or at the Pentagon.
The most important of these external drivers is what's actually happening in the world. Fantasies about America pulling the strings for the planet aside, the reality is that most foreign policy is reactive ("Events, my dear boy, events."). Next, there is the important and often overlooked reality that most U.S. foreign policy conforms to historical norms and patterns. Shifts from one administration to another are much less drastic than most in the press would have you believe -- see, for instance, the striking similarities between George W. Bush and Barack Obama's foreign policies with regard to drones, treatment of terrorists, getting out of Iraq, and many other issues. Indeed, it is worth noting that while March marks the 10th anniversary of going into Iraq, this month, February, marks the 20th anniversary of the first Gulf War: Every President since George H.W. Bush has had to manage military challenges associated with Iraq (and with Middle East-linked terrorism, for that matter).
Taking these factors into account, Kerry's room to actually make big adjustments to U.S. foreign policy is very limited. To the extent that he does, it will really be at the margins. Which is not to say there are no hints of what those differences will be.