In the complicated field of American foreign policy, one of the signal successes of the Obama administration was the work of Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry emerged as a relentless and tenacious peacemaker during his time in office. He continually showed his willingness to go all-out—use diplomacy, talk to foes, pursue negotiations, issue public pronouncements, take repeated overseas jaunts, and even, on occasion, broadcast threats to help reach sensible objectives. In his efforts, he acted as a progressive and a realist about planetary affairs, especially about the need for diplomacy over war. Kerry, in his way, restored much of America’s influence around the globe and blunted much of the chronic resentment nations have felt toward the United States.
That was part of his essential character. It was evident, for example, last month in the fracas over the US decision to abstain on the Security Council resolution condemning Israel for expanding settlements in the West Bank. In a passionate speech, Kerry contended that the United States was trying to save the Jewish democratic state, not undermine it. He reminded the Israelis that the spreading of their settlements could eventually destroy the possibility of a two-state solution in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Without two states, he argued, Israel could be headed to a one-state solution where the Palestinian Arabs would ultimately outnumber the Jews. Still the US abstention and Kerry’s remarks ignited a firestorm of anger in Congress. As one who had devoted nine months of his tenure to trying to end the Israeli-Palestinian strife, Kerry stalwartly stuck by his stance—damn the consequences (though always staying in touch with his prime adversary, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu).
One can trace Kerry’s belief in the power of tough and patient diplomacy to other crises that he handled. For example, in negotiating the Iranian nuclear deal, despite loud outcries against the agreement from Republicans and even some Democrats in Washington, Kerry kept at talks with the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Geneva and elsewhere during months of difficult encounters. He ultimately finalized a deal whereby the Iranians would give up their efforts to build nuclear weapons (for a period of over 10 years) in exchange for the United States and its allies dismantling their sanctions on Tehran. The bargain has held since then—even in the face of continuing intense right-wing opposition in the US Congress.
Even more so, Kerry plunged directly into the Afghanistan political mess. First, as a senator in 2009, he helped convince President Hamid Karzai that he should agree to a runoff in that country’s presidential election because of widespread evidence of voter fraud (the runoff did not occur because Karzai’s opponent dropped out)—an accord that saved President Obama from further turmoil there. Then in 2014, as secretary of state, Kerry knocked heads together in Afghanistan’s subsequent presidential contest when it was once again found to be marred by fake balloting. This time he got both candidates to consent to an awkward co-presidential stewardship of the Afghan government, a compact that still holds together three years later.