In many ways, John Kerry has lived the greatest foreign policy challenges of his generation. The son of a foreign service officer, he spent much of his childhood in divided Cold War Berlin, where boyish mischief for him was riding his bike into the Soviet sector. As a young man, recently graduated from Yale University, Kerry enlisted in the Navy and probed the rivers of Vietnam in enemy territory. As a 28-year-old, he gave dignified voice to misgivings about the Vietnam War, famously asking in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Kerry has grappled with those questions of war and peace, confrontation and compromise, and occupation and abandonment ever since, perhaps most notably as a presidential nominee during some of the darkest days of the war in Iraq. Few in Washington share his depth and breadth of foreign experience. At age 69, he has spent nearly half his life — 27 years — on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He’ll be an able replacement for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Kerry brings a long list of his own achievements. They include coaxing Vietnam to provide unprecedented access to files to determine the fate of Americans missing in action, negotiating an end to the impasse over the election results in Afghanistan, keeping the lines of dialogue open with key figures in Pakistan at a time of worsening relations, and successful shuttle diplomacy to prevent Sudan from sliding back into civil war.
Kerry shares President Obama’s willingness to engage America’s enemies. He was the first senior American government official to meet with members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Although his tendency towards dialogue has sparked some criticism — notably for his friendly dinners with Syrian President Bashar Assad before the current turmoil — US interests are better served by leaders who are willing to test the possibility of improved relations rather than those who are unwilling to think outside the status quo.
Kerry takes the helm of US foreign policy at an exceptionally challenging time, with conflicts in the Middle East and economic stresses in Europe and Asia. But his broad experience makes Kerry the right person for this job at this delicate moment.