Today the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, began his maiden voyage as dean of American diplomacy. He is headed to nine countries; specifically, to London, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Ankara, Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. According to the State Department and sources quoting Secretary Kerry’s entourage, and according to Kerry himself at a February 20 speech delivered at the University of Virginia, the main purpose of the trip is to consult with our European allies and Middle Eastern friends about the current ongoing tumult once mindlessly labeled the Arab Spring.
It is by no means unusual for the first trip abroad of an American Secretary of State to be to Europe. Presidents may appropriately go to Canada or Mexico on their first journey outside the country, but since the time when Secretaries began traveling extensively—after World War II, really—most have gone first to Europe, almost invariably starting in London. Outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton did not do this; her first official trip was to Asia—and that was before the temporarily famous (or infamous, depending on one’s tastes) ”pivot” to Asia. But she is the exception.
The reasons for the Europe focus are easy to list, since there are really only two that matter. First, Europe is where the heart of America’s most important Cold War alliance was, and long before that Europe has been at the very core of American strategic concern. Despite the end of the Cold War, legacy relationships between the United States and Europe remain strong, as do our extensive economic ties. They remain so strong because, second, Europeans are the forebears of America’s 17th- and 18th-century founding population and Europe is the source of America’s foundational political principles and cultural expressions. All of Europe in its considerable diversity is not created equal in this regard, of course; Britain and France clearly stand above all others, albeit differently, in that regard.
If those two reasons explain the past behavior of travelling American Secretaries of State, do they also explain present behavior? America’s population as a whole is today less traceable back to Europe than ever. Its dominant Protestant origins, indelibly linked with Britain and its history back at least to Henry VIII, stand diluted as never before. Beyond culture there is a changing strategic landscape. Having pivoted to Asia, and having sharply reduced the post-World War II American military–strategic footprint in Europe, many observers take it for granted that those Obama Administration decisions ratify Europe’s lack of strategic importance to the United States.
Indeed, prominent ex-policymakers and academics—some of them European—have in growing numbers and confidence dismissed the strategic significance of Europe. They point to a group of countries that punches well below its weight in global affairs on account of its protracted failure to invest in defense capabilities, and that stands in what seems to be an endless political muddle amid a careening economic swoon. The European Union’s internal problems, which are epiphenomenal of key decisions made (or avoided) in Berlin, Paris, London, Rome and Madrid, are more political than economic, but they nonetheless contribute much to the current pall of economic uncertainty and the broadly psychological distress it brings in train.
If all that is the case, then why is Secretary Kerry heading off first to Europe? If we have pivoted to Asia, why not go to Tokyo, Seoul, Manila, Jakarta and New Delhi first? Does he think the Europeans understand what is going on in the Middle East better than we do—assuming anyone does—and even if he does, what help can he expect from them? These are allies that could not even “do” Libya without us. These are allies that do not help their own; the French fight in Mali serves the basic interests of all of Europe, but none of France’s European partners have come forth to help them in a significant way (never mind for the time being whether French war aims and capacities even come near to matching).
And as brave as the French are in the Sahel, they are hardly brave. Against our pleadings and protests, the French government insists on refusing to label Hizballah a terrorist organization, despite the recent verdict of the Bulgarian government and new incriminating facts come to light from a trial in Cyprus. Notwithstanding the blather we hear from the French and the Germans about Hizballah having social welfare functions and political legitimacy in Lebanon, French reluctance is in truth based on cowardice. The French government wants to avoid turning French soldiers operating within the UN peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon into more prominent targets than they already are. But the underlying fear is broader: By branding Hizballah a terrorist organization, the government worries that French interests worldwide will be attacked in response. This is perversely inverted reasoning. Hizballah can smell weakness from a distance. Supine behavior in Paris is far more likely to attract attacks than to deter them. From Europeans like these Secretary Kerry expects to get wisdom and assistance in dealing with the Middle East?
Withal, Secretary Kerry is doing the right thing all the same, and for two reasons. First, to my way of thinking, for what it’s worth, dismissals of Europe’s strategic significance are exaggerated. Despite the frailties of Europe’s capabilities in military terms, everything is relative in this regard. Where else in the world can we find partners that combine both overall (not just military) capability and enough political commonality to foster effective and sustained coordination? One can point to certain countries here and there outside of Europe that make the grade, but nowhere on this planet is there a cluster of them comparable to U.S. allies in Europe. Yes, they are weak, often irresolute, divided among themselves and are thus in no few respects a pain in the ass to work with—as the illustration concerning Hizballah attests. But they are still the best we have, and they tend to come as a set. A country like Poland, which has been a stalwart ally (at least before we alienated its leadership and popular opinion alike in recent years), is far more likely to help us in a pinch in the context of the broader U.S.-European alliance framework.
Second, thanks to the drawdown in U.S. military forces there, and the rhetoric surrounding the Asian pivot, a lot of Europeans think we don’t love them anymore. We have to show the flag. We have to make nice. We have to hold hands. We have to smile a lot, and whisper when it seems engagingly appropriate. We probably have to give a speech or two. That’s how this stuff works; the care and feeding of old allies is a day job.
Wherefrom do I know this? Because when Condoleezza Rice became Secretary of State early in 2005, she did more or less the same thing. Her first trip was also to Europe and the Middle East combined, and in a moment I will discuss how those circumstances differed from the ones at hand today. But right after the Europe trip she went to Asia, a place where, at the time, our allies wondered if we even knew they existed. I remember sitting with the Secretary and about a dozen or so others in the John Jay conference room, just outside the Secretary’s suite on the Seventh Floor of the State Department building, to discuss plans for that trip. I was there because I was her speechwriter for the major address she planned to deliver at Sophia University in Tokyo; just by sitting in and keeping my mouth shut I was supposed to get some guidance for how to write the speech—in lieu of actually being able to ask the Secretary directly. I remember this meeting being rather heavily logistical in nature: Would the Secretary want to meet celebrities at airports for that populist photo-op advantage? Would she play the piano this time, as she declined to do in Europe?—and so forth and so on. After about 45 minutes of this sort of thing, one recently arrived aide (whose name I will not mention) asked a simple but probing set of three questions: Why are we going on this trip? What do we want to accomplish? What’s our business there?
Now, as it happened, there actually was some business to conduct, but it was not the sort of thing properly discussed at large in a trip meeting like this, and it was not at all the sort of thing to be mooted directly in a speech. (Some of it had to do with communicating to the Indians and the Pakistanis our concern about a prospective energy pipeline deal with Iran; some of it had to do with communicating some facts to the Chinese government about recent North Korean behavior, which is probably why General Ray Odierno, the Secretary’s military adviser at the time, was on the trip; but I’ll say no more about that “business” here.) The answer in the room that day, after an appropriate stunned silence, was that we were going to Asia to refute the impression that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had pushed that entire continent completely off our radar screens. We were going to show the flag. You can imagine, perhaps, how much speechwriting guidance I got from that….
In short, as with Secretary Rice’s trip to Asia in March 2005, a lot of what Secretary Kerry’s first trip is about is symbolism. And there’s nothing wrong with that. So if he returns from Europe and the Middle East without having accomplished any actual business, it won’t really matter. State Department mattress mice by the hundreds will create a thick briefing book filled with background on a whole range of issues, from the idea of a Transatlantic free-trade zone to the Hizballah issue all the way to the continuing scar of Gitmo. There will be plenty to study on joint and parallel U.S. and European program efforts to promote reform in the Middle East over the past two decades, a legacy of at least three previous Secretaries of State. Secretary Kerry and his senior staff will not lack for stuff to study and talk about. But this is really a gardening phase, get-to-know-you symbolic trip rather than a serious business one.
It’s also a test drive in a way. Every Secretary has to learn how to use his 24/7-capable Executive Secretariat, which includes an amazing group of professionals who take his office onto Air Force II and around the world with stunning alacrity from one five-star hotel to another, coordinating travel, security and all the multinational liaison that goes with it. These folks do their jobs with consummate skill; it’s the new Secretary who has a learning curve to draw.
Precisely because this trip is largely symbolic, I have a problem with the itinerary. Actually, I have two problems—and avoiding Israel is not one of them. The Israelis have just barely put together a governing coalition after their January 22 election, and they are not in a position to properly receive an American delegation. These days, too, if an American Secretary of State goes to Israel, he also has to visit Ramallah to talk to the Palestinian Authority. And if he does that that he is immediately asking to be swamped by the highly emotional, very telegenic and almost completely futile exertions of the so-called peace process. That’s enough to swallow an entire trip whole. Believe me, that’s best avoided, whatever the reasons.
No, it’s okay that Kerry is not going to Israel. It’s not okay, in my view it, that he’s not going anywhere in Central/Eastern Europe—to the “new” Europe, and the newest members of NATO. The first Obama Administration made a hash of relations with Poland, and this would be a good opportunity to start repairing them. But if Secretary Kerry thinks that too many Secretaries of State have gone to Warsaw and not enough to Prague, then that would’ve been a suitable destination, too. To leave out Central/Eastern Europe altogether is a mistake. Within a few years of the end of the Cold War too many American observers of international affairs checked the box for this part of the world, as if the entire region was in the bag, so safe for democracy and inextricably pro-American that nothing really could go wrong there. For years now we have been taking this entire part of the world for granted, and that’s just not a good idea, as recent fairly ugly developments in Hungary testify.
Part of the first problem, perhaps, is that he is also going neither to Brussels nor to Dublin, the capital of the current rotating president of the European Union. If we really mean what we say when we claim that we support more mature forms of European integration, then why not symbolize that support on this trip?
The second problem is that Kerry is going to Qatar but not to Jordan. The Qataris are big time troublemakers. By going there he more or less gives them undeserved equal status with the Emiratis, who are genuinely useful and sincere allies. But the sin of commission with respect to Qatar pales compared to the sin of omission with respect to Jordan. There is no end to the failure of American statesmen who are not expert in the Middle East to underestimate the importance of this little country. Jordan is a critical buffer in both a north-south and an east-west fashion; that’s the reason Winston Churchill created it after World War I. Jordan’s very existence keeps Israel and Iraq apart, and it keeps both Egypt and Saudi Arabia at a healthy physical remove from the Fertile Crescent. If the country falls apart or its moderate government collapses into the hands of salafi hotheads, there will be lots and lots of trouble both near and far. And Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy is itself in more trouble today than it has been since the middle 1950s.
Maybe King Abdallah II doesn’t want the Secretary of State in Amman. Maybe he and his senior aides think a visit would be counterproductively inflammatory at this point. If that’s the case, and we have been so informed, then not going to Jordan isn’t a mistake. But if we are the ones who are spurning a welcome, then we are indeed making an error. If the Jordanians will host us, it’s a propitious time to buck up the Hashemites, and to come bearing some palpable help for the enormous burden of dealing with Syrian refugees the kingdom faces today.
With the new Secretary’s trip about to begin, I can’t help being reminded where I was eight years ago. I accompanied Secretary Rice on Air Force II as she set off for Europe and the Middle East on her first trip abroad as Secretary. Whereas Secretary Kerry is going to nine countries, that trip involved eleven, plus a refueling stop. That trip took us from London to Berlin to Warsaw to Ankara to Jerusalem and Ramallah to Rome to Paris—the site of the Secretary’s maiden speech at Science Po on February 8, 2005—to Brussels to Luxembourg (which then held the rotating EU presidency) and then to Shannon, Ireland for refueling before heading back across the Atlantic to Andrews Air Force Base. That’s a total of 22 takeoffs and landings, if I’ve counted correctly, in less than two weeks. That’s enough to make a person feel like a kind of galactic yo-yo.
Obviously, there are differences as well as similarities between the business—even the symbolic business—to be conducted now as opposed to then. That trip back in 2005 preceded a presidential trip to Europe. Maybe the trip this coming week will also do so, but there is yet no indication of that. That trip back then was a “clear the decks”, “clear the air”, “let’s put the past behind us” sort of trip. This trip is not entirely clean of bad feeling; several European governments are none too thrilled with the whole Afghanistan caper we dragged them into. But this is nothing like the bad Transatlantic air produced by the Iraq War. The “old” Europeans, to recall Donald Rumsfeld’s unfortunate terminology, did not like the American President in 2005, but by and large the “new” Europeans did. Today, the “old” Europeans like the American President, but by and large the “new” Europeans do not like him nearly as much. Why, and what does it matter?
There are many reasons, but the main one is that the “new” Europeans do not chafe from strong American leadership. To the contrary: They wanted to be part of Europe, but the Transatlantic link mightily reinforced their post-Communist trajectory. They are not wildly fond of the Obama Administration’s passive “lead from behind” body language. That leaves them in the company of a bunch of Germans, Frenchman, Brits, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese and Greeks, among others, who cannot seem to make any purposeful common decisions and actually stick with them. And that’s why this maiden trip by a Secretary of State to Europe should remind us not so much of Condoleezza Rice’s journey, but of Warren Christopher’s.
Secretary Christopher sallied forth to Europe for the first time in office in May 1993 during one of many odious stages of what I call the Wars of Yugoslav Succession. In that same month the then Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Peter Tarnoff, set off a tempest when he told the press that the United States, after the Cold War, would pare down the definition of its vital strategic interests in the world. Tempest or no, he was indeed speaking accurately for the Administration, whose President had determined to be a domestic policy, not a national security, President.
When Christopher arrived in Europe, our allies, whatever the history of their complaints about our overbearing nature, expected, as before, American leadership. It would not be too much to say, I think, that at that moment they desperately sought it. And what did Christopher, in essence, say to them? Something along the lines of, well, what you guys think we should do? The Europeans were appalled. They wanted leadership, but they got highly uncharacteristic, and utterly unhelpful, modesty instead. Fecklessness, some would (and did) say. It is therefore not entirely without interest that Secretary Kerry has characterized his forthcoming trip as a “fact-finding” journey, one in which he intends to be a good listener.
Yet what else can the new Secretary do? Everything about President Obama at the start of the second term suggests an unusually passive American role in the world. Everything suggests that, like Bill Clinton in 1993, he wants his second term to be a domestic policy and not a national security presidency. A diplomatic duck-and-cover drill looks to be in prospect for every crisis that comes down the road during the next four years—at least until the cumulative damage of that passivity prompts the White House to do something, somewhere. Every Secretary of State knows, or ought to know, that the policy of the United States is the policy of the President, because he is the one who got elected, and all of his cabinet members serve at his pleasure. A wise Secretary, whatever his personal inclinations and analysis, can never let too much blue sky show between himself and the President who elevated him to high office.
I doubt this will be a problem for John Kerry (or for Chuck Hagel, assuming he actually becomes Secretary of Defense), a man who seems as reluctant to want to actually do anything as Barack Obama. That is probably the watchword to keep foremost in mind for this trip: It may be the Secretary who travels, but it is the President’s brief he ultimately carries.