Does John Kerry Matter?

Why Obama's new secretary of state might not have much room to run.

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.

First, Kerry in his initial speech and in private discussions at the State Department has stressed the importance of climate and related issues like oceans. He has also underscored his intention to focus on the economic impact on Americans of successful foreign policy. Both were priorities of his predecessor Hillary Clinton, but Kerry has seemed to give them special prominence. He also, in going to Europe and the Middle East on this first trip, seems to be playing to his strengths, to areas to which he devoted special attention during his years on the Foreign Relations Committee (he even lived in Europe as the son of diplomat).

Some have sought to read something into his decision not to visit Israel on this trip to the Middle East. But he is going with the president in a few weeks. Besides, not only have the Israelis sent high-level visitors like their national security advisor to Washington to help negotiate the details of the president's visit, but it also seems unlikely that the visit will really break new ground. The hope, rather, is to restore the U.S.-Israel relationship to a stable footing and lay the groundwork for initiatives in the months and years to come.

Instead of focusing on Israel, Kerry will on this trip hone in on other top priorities that demand immediate attention, from Syria to Egypt to Mali to Iran's nuclear program and stability throughout the Middle East. The complications associated with whether the Syrian opposition would be appropriately represented at the planned meetings with Kerry in Rome on Thursday indicate just how fragile and worthy of his attention these issues are.

None of this is to say that Kerry's role is somehow fully predetermined. Several factors are likely to give him the opportunity to rise up and tackle the kind of issues that have distinguished his more important, successful predecessors. One is that the world is likely to keep him running from crisis to crisis throughout his term in office. If, as seems likely, the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, China, and even East Asia are all the scenes of emerging, deepening or complicating crises, then no matter what the White House's intentions or plans, then managing the situations that arise will demand Kerry personally play an active and central role in each of these areas.

For example, Kerry is likely to have to play an important ongoing role in managing the consequences of the fall of Bashar al-Assad. These will not only require helping to build an effective international coalition to assist with shaping, supporting, and influencing a successor regime, they may also require humanitarian action to help refugees or to stop the retaliatory slaughter of Alawites, widely seen as the backbone of the Assad regime. Further, as Syria decays, Iran and Hezbollah are likely to shift their arms and attentions elsewhere. If they send arms to Lebanon, for example, Israel will likely respond with force. This could have consequences in Gaza or the West Bank. Instability in Syria and a wounded Iran could have ripple effects in Iraq or make a deal over Iran's nuclear program even trickier to handle. Egypt, too, is in a precarious place, as could be Jordan. Emergency, high-level, activist diplomacy may therefore be required of Kerry throughout his term -- and his measure will be not necessarily the big, new foreign-policy vision he offers so much as his energy, capability, and creativity in dealing with managing these problems on a daily level. Think tactics, not strategy.

The same is true of a U.S.-China relationship likely to feel strains over the emerging "cool war" in cyber as well as around China-Japan tensions and economic issues. The same is true with regard to the saber rattling in North Korea or the military's escalating tempo in Africa. And of course, some potential crises remain just below the surface -- such as, to choose one example, the ones we might face if Pakistan is rocked by instability.

Finally, Kerry will also have several areas of opportunity. One, mentioned already, is to be a champion of raising climate as an American foreign policy and national security priority. Another might be building on initiatives to establish a U.S.-EU trade deal to revitalize the transatlantic relationship and find new ways to collaborate with our most important partners in the four years ahead.

Kerry will have to make scores more trips like the one on which he has embarked this week before we know whether he will be successful or not, a player in his own right or not, a gamechanger, or just a senior-level aide carrying out the president's wishes. But one thing we can say for certain is that even if the White House is counting on continuity and playing the lead in setting foreign policy, the current and emerging global situation will not take a back seat. As it has been throughout history, the world will play as big a role as anyone in Washington in shaping the opportunities and challenges by which Kerry's tenure will be measured.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

The Cool War

Cold War technology made war unthinkable. Cool War technology makes it irresistible.

We are now in the midst of what could be called the Cool War. This successor to the Cold War shares the trait that it does not involve hot conflict on the battlefield, but is different in the nature and expectations surrounding the sub-rosa thrusts and parries by which it is conducted.

This new war is "cool" rather than "cold" for two reasons. On the one hand, it is a little warmer than cold because it seems likely to involve almost constant offensive measures that, while falling short of actual warfare, regularly seek to damage or weaken rivals or gain an edge through violations of sovereignty and penetration of defenses. And on the other, it takes on the other definition of "cool," in that it involves the latest cutting-edge technologies in ways that are changing the paradigm of conflict to a much greater degree than any of those employed during the Cold War -- which was, after all, about old-fashioned geopolitical jockeying for advantage in anticipation of potential old-school total warfare.

The Cool War is largely different not only because of the participants or the nature of the conflict, but also because it can be conducted indefinitely -- permanently, even -- without triggering a shooting war. At least that is the theory.

The latest sign that this war is on-going is Tuesday's New York Times story focusing on the revelations produced by a U.S. cyber-security firm called Mandiant regarding China's People Liberation Army Unit 61398, a Shanghai-based operation that has allegedly been conducting "an overwhelming percentage" of recent attacks on U.S. companies and government agencies, according to the Times account.

What is striking about the story is that it has such a "dog bites man" feel to it. Everyone who is paying attention knows the Chinese are doing this -- as are other countries from Russia to Iran and beyond -- and no one has any sense that such attacks will cause the kind of rupture to the U.S.-China relationship that might have been expected in the era of spy scandals past. This feeling is pervasive, damaging, and, save for periodic demarches and statements of outrage from high officials, likely only to produce more business for companies like Mandiant and more resources for cyber-units in the U.S. Department of Defense to counter the nerd armies of our adversaries and rivals.

Via these attacks, the Chinese gain access to valuable U.S. intellectual property, insights into how the U.S. economy works, and an increasing ability to interrupt the functions of individual companies, important elements of our critical infrastructure and significant sources of America's strength and security. And while we will publicly denounce them, we are tempered in our criticism because we know we are doing the same thing worldwide. The most famous illustration of these is the "Olympic Games" initiative against the Iran nuclear program -- better known as Stuxnet -- which was designed by the U.S. and our allies to do via streams of electrons what did not wish to do with commandos or bombers and that is disrupt Iran's progress toward creating an atom bomb. Almost certainly, the successor to Olympic Games is now in play or will be ratcheted up as we seek to find ways to both "engage" and pressure the Iranians simultaneously.

And as we do that to them, they will also seek to do it back to us. When you drop a bomb on a country, it not only devastates its target -- it also disintegrates. But when you launch a worm against a facility, that worm or its elements remain intact and discoverable and thus re-usable by the victim of the attack. In other words, while cyber conflict may avoid "hot" exchanges, it has to date produced almost constant escalation.

It should also be noted that cyber intrusions will become ever more effective and difficult to defend against in the world of big data and "the Internet of things" that we are entering. With the combination of ubiquitous sensors and data-gathering mechanisms, unlimited memory and massive processing capabilities, the planet's ocean of bits and bytes is growing ever larger and each and every company is becoming a data company. Each will have ever-greater data assets to protect, and each will face ever-greater data liabilities should it fail to protect them. That is why so many companies that have never been engaged in these issues are now not only looking to hire companies like Mandiant, they are becoming deeply interested in the future of cyber policies -- from the White House's recent executive order to issues like Internet governance and privacy protection.

The Cool War is of course, not just limited to the possibility of permanent phantom warfare via cyber attacks. It goes further, to the ongoing discussion of the use of unmanned agents of surveillance and destruction, such as drones. All these new technologies make it easier for the technologically empowered to strike out against and dominate adversaries without putting human lives or hard military assets at risk -- or to give their traditional forces special advantages when they do enter conflict, thus reducing risk. The purpose of the Cold War was to gain an advantage come the next hot war or, possibly, to forestall it. The purpose of Cool War is to be able to strike out constantly without triggering hot war while also making hot wars less desirable (much as did nuclear technology during Cold War days) or even necessary.

That's not to say there will be no hot wars. But it does suggest that in the world of Cool War, they will be fewer and they will take place against a backdrop of a new, different, constant kind of warfare. Instead of killing adversaries, the new technologies allow for the possibility of just giving them a nasty fever, of reducing their capacity, of confusing them, of depriving them of key assets when necessary. It also, of course, gives technologically advanced countries a great edge over those without the same resources.

It's early days. It's a new game. Undoubtedly, it is one that will involve many twists and turns and may undercut some of the assumptions that have led Chinese and U.S. planners to think that playing at this new game is indeed safer than old approaches. But it is impossible to read stories like the one in Tuesday's Times without concluding that we are in the midst of a sea change in the way nations project force.

Peter Parks-Pool