WASHINGTON — Waving the tattered green diplomatic passport he was issued as the 11-year-old son of a Foreign Service officer, Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Monday arrived for his first day of work, pledging to ensure the safety and security of personnel posted at US embassies and consulates around the world.
“The foreign service is in my genes,” Kerry told hundreds of employees gathered at the State Department, adding that he knows from experience “how difficult life can be for people in the Foreign Service.”
But following a series of violent attacks against US diplomatic posts — most recently in Turkey — the new head of the 15,000-strong Foreign Service faces a difficult balancing act to protect American diplomats.
While stressing the importance of security, Kerry says he wants to push them farther beyond the confines of fortified missions to advance American interests in some of the world’s most tumultuous regions. Members of the Foreign Service, financed and trained by the state department, promote US political and economic goals and assist US citizens at more than 250 facilities overseas.
The sites range from large embassies in foreign capitals to small consulates and outposts, including locations such as Benghazi, Libya, where Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in September.
In recent weeks, Kerry has said that, despite the risks, diplomacy can be effective only if diplomatic officers interact more frequently with the people and institutions in the countries where they are posted.
“We have to be on the ground outside the wire, reaching out to those people,” Kerry, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at a December hearing on the Benghazi attacks.
The often competing objectives of engaging with foreign populations and providing diplomatic security present one of the most vexing challenges for Kerry as he takes on his new post as top US diplomat.
“They are kind of dueling goals,” said Aimee Stoltz, program director for the nonprofit American Academy of Diplomacy.
“The physical threats are worse now because of suicide attackers,” added Ronald Neumann, who served as ambassador to Bahrain, Afghanistan, and Algeria. “That dimension is different. It is more difficult to strike the right balance.”
Striking that balance could prove especially difficult in the Middle East, where unrest and the rise of militant groups imperil American citizens, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan, where US military operations are winding down and greater diplomatic efforts are needed.
“The Department of State currently maintains a presence in locations faced with security conditions that previously would likely have led State to evacuate personnel and close the post,” a recent analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service concluded.
Kerry already has a series of recommendations to improve security awaiting him.