Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour
John Kerry, the second secretary of state appointed by the US President Barack Obama, who is 69 years old and the 68th US secretary of state, embarked on an 11-day tour of Europe and the Middle East on March 6, 2013, at the end of which he returned to Washington. During his trip, he visited the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar and discussed various issues with their high-ranking officials. He also took part in various gatherings organized by the US citizens residing in those countries and also met with various political parties and groups. However, the situation in Syria and a meeting between Kerry and the leader of the Syrian opposition [Moaz al-Khatib] in the Italian capital city, Rome, were major highlights of his trip. On the whole, issues related to Syria weighed heavily down on various legs of his first foreign tour. How this trip can be analyzed? This is the first foreign trip by John Kerry as secretary of state. Before that, he had been engaged with the US foreign policy at the US Senate for about 28 years and the trip was a good test of his command and awareness of international issues. The answer which may be given to the above question by the analysts and their views on the performance of Kerry in his foreign tour will draw attention to three major aspects of the trip: 1. Symbolic aspects of his diplomatic trip; 2. Diplomatic and other kinds of negotiations and discussions during the trip; and 3. Diplomatic analysis and various interpretations of his trip.
Diplomatic symbols in Kerry’s trip
Symbolic aspects of Kerry’s diplomatic tour were of high importance. Various symbolic aspects can be identified in his foreign tour both in view of John Kerry’s personality and diplomatic capacity as the United States secretary of state, and in view of the significance of countries visited by him. It was symbolically very important that Kerry started his foreign tour with Britain, which is the most important US ally among world countries. However, personal symbols may be even more significant. Firstly, during his trip, Kerry showed that in every step of his trip and at any place, he is able to establish contacts with other people by focusing on past records, memories and issues of interests to both sides. His good command of French and German, in addition to relative command of Italian, greatly helped him in creating such personal symbols. In addition, his good knowledge of the United States positions on such delicate and technical issues as Washington’s position on Falkland Islands, which is a totally legal and well-calculated position and should be expressed with carefully chosen words, shows that Kerry is good at establishing close rapport with different kinds of issues and environments.
Secondly, Kerry’s meetings with the staff of the United States embassies in those countries and their families were another symbolic aspect of his tour. He put such meetings on his agenda almost in all countries where he stopped in order to show that he is well versed about the ups and downs of diplomatic life. He wanted to make it known that since he has been born at a diplomat’s house, he is well aware of the conditions in which the American diplomats are currently living. It is noteworthy that despite its outer façade, the diplomatic life is actually very challenging and difficult. At present, the life outside the United States is not quite easy for the American diplomats and their families. In addition to usual difficulties of a diplomatic career, which are common to all diplomats, those working for the United States live in special conditions. Kerry, however, tried during meetings with the staff of the US embassies and their families in different countries to show his appreciation of the work they do and the hard life that they live and, as such, managed to establish close rapport with them. Of course, another part of his remarks was focused on the situation inside the United States and the US Department of State. Kerry frankly told the staffers of the US embassies as well as employees of the Department of State that he is not unfamiliar with the situation in the United States, but has good grasp of the middle and lower layers of diplomatic life. Such a tactful handling of diplomatic staff is quite worthy of mention and very important from the standpoint of an executive official.
In addition to personal symbols, another symbolic aspect of Kerry’s trip was his emphasis on the continued friendship of the United States with special countries, especially in Europe and the Middle East, which will be discussed below in more depth.
All the above facts show that the role played by Kerry in the US politics is changing from a mere politician and member of the Senate to a secretary of state. At the same time, he sent the message to the White House that he is the secretary of state of the United States. To do this, he insisted on the symbolic aspects of his mission to show that despite exhaustive records in foreign affairs, he will not act independently. He strongly emphasized that “John Kerry” is the secretary of state of the Obama administration. These symbolic aspects are all valuable, but one must see what steps have been taken with regard to promotion of diplomatic negotiations.
In general, two groups of issues have been raised in Kerry’s meetings with different state officials. The first group included bilateral issues. There are issues of significance in the United States’ relations with each of the visited countries, which include the United States’ relations with the UK, Washington’s relations with Germany, relations between Paris and Washington, as well as the relations between the United States and the littoral states of the Persian Gulf. There are special bilateral issues in every one of those relations. For example, providing aid to France in the North African country of Mali is a bilateral issue in the United States relations with France. Therefore, although it can be also raised within framework of cooperation among the member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), bilateral dimension of this issue is more prominent. As for Egypt, the best way to manage the transition period in Egypt is of special concern as is the role of the United States in this political and economic process. Of course, Kerry’s trip did not go totally smoothly. Holding of various kinds of protest demonstrations as well as unwillingness of some leading figures of the Muslim Brotherhood for meeting with Kerry were only some examples of problems faced by the new US secretary of state. When it comes to developments in Egypt, the United States has been already accused of taking sides with an alliance of the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood and this general political notion was totally reflected in his visit to the Arab country. As of Turkey, in addition to traditional cooperation between the two countries, different positions taken by the United States and Turkey on Israel have been highlighted. As a result, the remarks made by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who equated the Israelis’ actions with genocide, elicited a sharp reaction from Kerry. In other countries bilateral issues of relative importance were discussed.
The second group consisted of international issues. In this front, a number of issues were in the focus of attention. They included the current situation in Syria, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear issue, and the situation in Palestine. The latter issue, of course, was less prominent than the former two and Kerry’s focus on Palestine was limited to a meeting with the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. The situation in Syria, on the other hand, attracted the highest amount of attention. The highlight of the meeting on Syria was relative change in Kerry’s tone as the US secretary of state and a sharper position which was taken by the United States on the crisis in Syria. As a result of this change, the United States clearly announced that it is planning to provide direct aid to the opposition forces that are fighting against the government of the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Of course, the announced aid did not include provision of heavy and advanced weapons, but it is clear that the US stance is shifting toward military support for the Syrian opposition which is quite different from the position that Washington had maintained during the past months. It is noteworthy that before accepting an executive post, Kerry was among staunch supporters of providing serious and effective aid to the Syrian opposition at the US Senate.
The issue of Syria, however, was the most prominent issue over which the United States is apparently at odds with some of its key allies in the region. The differences were more profound in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. During a joint press conference with Kerry in Riyadh, the Saudi Foreign Minister [Saud Al-Faisal] emphasized that Saudi Arabia firmly believes in the necessity of providing military aid within framework of its ‘moral obligation’ toward the opposition in Syria. This issue was more pronounced in Turkey and Qatar. It was quite clear that the tone of these three regional allies of the United States on the Syria crisis was sharper that Washington’s stance. Issues related to Europe were also among important concerns of the United States. The US administration has been trying to show that it still sees a powerful ally in Europe and this issue can be remarkable from an analytical point of view.
The collection of Kerry’s remarks, his meetings, as well as the analyses of his visits to various countries during his aforesaid trip will make us conclude that, firstly, his positions are far from the change that the United States had declared last year for shifting the gravitational center of its foreign policy from Europe and the Middle East to Asia. The fact that Kerry started his foreign trip from Europe and stayed for a long time in the Middle East, and also analysis of his remarks show that the United States is trying to demonstrate to its old allies that changing the gravitational center of its foreign policy does not necessarily mean that Washington will actually forget about its strategic allies in its foreign policy. As for Europe, it should be noted that the free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States was among major issues which were discussed between the two sides during Kerry’s European visit. The United States is bent on increasing trade volume with Europe as this will reassure the European countries and help to maintain Washington’s links to its European allies. With regard to the issues in the Middle East, it should be noted that the United States chose the Middle East countries as one of the first stations for the diplomatic tour of his secretary of state to show that the Middle East is still important to the United States. In fact, the US foreign policy has been vacillating between its declaration of changing the gravity center of Washington’s foreign policy, and laying renewed emphasis on the realities of its traditional centers of gravity. Kerry’s trip laid renewed emphasis on this challenge.
The second remarkable point was paying less than adequate attention to one of the oldest maladies in the Middle East, which is the conflict between Arabs and Israel. This conflict has been also the root cause of many challenges with which the US foreign policy has been dealing in the Middle East. Of course, the American officials have noted that the future visit by Obama to Jordan and Israel will make up for this shortcoming. However, in general, the issue of Arabs and Israel was on the sidelines during Kerry’s trip to the Middle East. Perhaps, this reality somehow reflects that the United States has a limited maneuvering room with regard to this issue and is trying to marginalize age-old issues in the Middle East by getting engaged in more pressing issues such as Iran’s nuclear issue and the ongoing crisis in Syria. It should be emphasized here that despite positive views about Kerry’s previous remarks on Iran, his position on Iran during his recent trip was almost harsh. He actually took sides in his remarks with the member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council and reaffirmed their concerns about the Iran threat and Tehran’s nuclear issue.
The third and more important point is that Kerry’s visit has shown that the United States is not at the helm of the political developments in Europe and the Middle East. Undoubtedly, three regional countries, namely, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are playing a more important and prominent part in the case of Syria. In fact, those three countries are trying to get the United States to agree with their military stance on Syria. Another important issue is that despite allegations by the American officials, when it comes to political developments in the Middle East and Europe, the United States lacks a well-defined framework for leadership and mostly reacts to the situation on the ground and just tries to manage the situation. It is noteworthy that the United States and its European allies have taken a united stance on Syria. However, it is a reality that not only in the case of Syria, but also with regards to other issues such as the situation between Arabs and Israel, issues related to the rights of Palestinians, security matters in the Middle East and even democratic transitions following the recent developments in the Arab world, the United States is mostly riding the wave rather than having a consolidated and accurate framework for dealing with these important issues.
On the whole, Kerry’s diplomatic visits to nine countries in a matter of 11 days clearly proved that like his predecessor, the former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Kerry is also trying to present old ideas in new casts. This proves that the foreign policy of the Obama administration during his second term in office is more willing to somehow deal with the existing issues instead of presenting an accurate, clear-cut and new outlook for the future.
*Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour is the former Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative for the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations in Geneva. Prior to taking up this post, he was the Director of the Institute for Political and International Studies, the research branch of Iran’s Foreign Ministry. Seyed Sajjadpour received his Ph.D. in political science from George Washington University and was a post–doctoral fellow at Harvard. He has taught at the College of International Relations of Tehran University, as well as at Azad University and Iran’s National Defense University.