Good Riddance, John Kerry

The Decline of American Foreign Policy

John Kerry
John Kerry (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)
February 17, 2024

John Kerry is winding down his career as a diplomat. It can't come soon enough. The White House climate czar recently announced he is stepping down to focus on President Biden's reelection campaign. Over his decades in the Senate and executive branch, Kerry has embodied two of the worst trends in American politics: the collapse of the Northeast establishment, and the left's unserious faddishness on foreign policy.

The Northeast establishment played a pivotal role during some of the most fraught periods in American history, and the country has sorely missed the leadership it used to provide. When Germany grew threatening, figures like Franklin Roosevelt and Henry Stimson guided the country to victory. Other bluebloods like Dean Acheson and Averell Harriman set the country on the path to defeat the Soviet Union. The next generation performed admirably in World War II, but less well in high office. There were some stars, like George H.W. Bush, but others, like McGeorge Bundy, sailed into the highest ranks of the elite and confidently bungled the Vietnam war.

Kerry absorbed the WASP establishment's self-assurance, but not the discipline and skill to justify it. At one of his elite prep schools, his classmates acknowledged his ambitions by playing "Hail to the Chief" on kazoos. A Yale classmate later recalled, "Even as a junior or senior, he was a pompous blowhard," and Ted Kennedy's friends called him a "show horse." He quickly became notorious at the State Department for not reading the materials his staff prepared for him, although he prided himself on reading "an interesting article or two" to "get some history" about the people with whom he was negotiating.

This unwillingness to learn accounts for many of his mistakes. Kerry first made his name in 1971 by testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about alleged American war crimes in Vietnam, which investigators later found to be mostly unverifiable or outright falsehoods. He had nonetheless established himself in the antiwar movement and became a famous Cold War dove. He ran for Senate promising to undo the Reagan defense buildup, and the Associated Press reported that he viewed Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega "as a misunderstood democrat rather than a Marxist autocrat."

When the Cold War ended and humanitarian hawkishness became more popular among Democrats, Kerry changed his tune. He voted against the first Gulf War, but then supported the Kosovo intervention. Despite his lack of legislative accomplishments, he won the Democratic nomination for president in 2004. During the campaign, he admitted some of his earlier views were "ill advised, and I think some of them are stupid." But many of his subsequent positions were just as bad: He voted in favor of invading Iraq, then against funding for the war and reconstruction. When the war went poorly, he promised to somehow create new allies to occupy Iraq while his campaign surrogates criticized Australia for… fighting in Iraq.

Kerry continued to misjudge unfriendly dictators too. As he saw it, everyone wants "to be valued for who they are and understood for where they come from and what their life is about," and negotiations went better when they "have a sense that you know what they're about." During Barack Obama's first term, Kerry tried to rehabilitate Syria's murderous Bashar al-Assad, reminiscing in 2015 that "I had an impression that this guy had serious business plans" and "wanted to change."

Despite his inconsistency and poor judgment, Kerry was the perfect secretary of state for President Obama's second term. Kim Ghattas observed that Obama gave Kerry more latitude than Hillary Clinton because "no one around Obama is worried that John Kerry will outshine him." Although Kerry would freelance from time to time, he reliably delivered the kinds of deals Obama wanted with America's adversaries. As David Remnick put it, "To a critic, his style is reminiscent of the customer who sternly tells the salesman, 'I'm not leaving here until you sell me a car.'"

Some of his early freelancing failed quickly. He restarted the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which degenerated until Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya'alon quipped, "The only thing that can save us is for John Kerry to win his Nobel Prize and leave us alone." When the talks inevitably failed, Hamas attacked Israel, and Kerry undermined a ceasefire plan supported by Israel, the Arab League, and the Palestinian Authority in favor of a more Hamas-friendly Qatari proposal.

Kerry's most spectacular failure came early in his tenure at State. When Assad slaughtered Syrian civilians with chemical weapons, Kerry went to Moscow to beg for help setting up a peace conference. Vladimir Putin made America's top diplomat wait three hours before deigning to speak with him. Kerry eventually said that American credibility and the fate of the international order depended on the United States enforcing Obama's "red line" about chemical weapons usage, but that any strikes would be "unbelievably small." He thus managed to get ahead of his boss, who decided to instead ask Moscow for help, while also undercutting support for his own idea. As Russia and Iran crushed Assad's opponents, Kerry spent the rest of the war assembling pointless peace conferences and pushing the Pentagon into joint operations with Russia.

Over this period, the balance of power within the Democratic Party shifted from the humanitarian hawks to the all-weather doves, and Kerry followed along. Obama wanted the Iran nuclear deal as the crown jewel of his legacy, and Kerry made sure to get it. Even the French questioned the breadth of his concessions. When the Iranians subsequently violated the ban on ballistic missile testing, Kerry did nothing. When they captured American sailors, Kerry expressed his "gratitude" that the sailors were eventually released.

Kerry led the charge on climate change, which was becoming the progressive elite's top priority. He spearheaded the negotiations with China that led to the Paris climate accords, at which the United States offered verifiable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in exchange for China promising to eventually stop increasing emissions. In the process, he alarmed American allies by waving away Chinese belligerence in the western Pacific.

This blithe response to Chinese aggression stemmed from Kerry's mistaken beliefs about the trajectory of international politics. As he saw it, the world was becoming more orderly and peaceful, and would continue to do so. When Russia proved him wrong by invading Ukraine, he sputtered, "You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion." He then chased Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov around Europe, begging Russia to take an "offramp" while Moscow absorbed Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Fortunately, his tenure as Biden's climate czar has been less eventful. The Chinese have unsuccessfully tried to use climate talks to wring concessions from the Biden administration, which has frustrated Kerry. Even so, a Japanese former senior official told me that promoting electric vehicles, "like John Kerry [has done], is basically helping the Chinese."

Kerry's near-disappearance illustrates one of the main problems affecting the Democratic Party today: To the extent that the party's base cares about foreign affairs, its priorities are nearly totally unsuited to the demands of the moment. America's adversaries are openly challenging the American-led international order, but after standing by while China, Russia, and Iran gathered strength, Kerry and the ecowarriors have increasingly little to bring to the table.

During the Iran negotiations, the American diplomats discussed who would play them in a movie about their brilliant success. They picked Cheers star Ted Danson for John Kerry, but surely Steve Martin would be a better choice—he's already played Inspector Clouseau twice, so he needs no preparation.

Mike Watson is the associate director of Hudson Institute's Center for the Future of Liberal Society.