WASHINGTON — In a confirmation hearing unusual for its bipartisan comity, Secretary of State-designate John F. Kerry pledged Thursday to pursue a different brand of foreign policy — one rooted in greater cultural understanding of the developing world — while leading a global fight to combat climate change, which he described as a direct threat to American security.
Kerry drew praise from Republicans and Democrats as he spoke, sitting at the same witness table where, more than four decades earlier, he had testified as a Vietnam veteran-turned war protester. Senators nodded to his deep knowledge of overseas challenges, which Kerry said require more active diplomacy to advance US economic and security interests.
Where Kerry was most passionate was on the issue of climate change, calling it a “life-threatening issue.”
“The solution to climate change is energy policy,” he said. “You want to do business and do it well in America, we got to get into the energy race.” He cited Massachusetts, where alternative energy is “growing faster than any other sector. . . . This is a job creator.”
“I will be a passionate advocate for this,” he added, “not based on ideology but facts.”
In discussing global markets, Kerry warned that “There are some places where we are not in the game.” He noted the expanding global role of China, saying: “I hate to say, we got to get in the game. The world is competing for resources in global markets. Every day that America is unwilling to engage in that arena . . . is a day in which we weaken the nation itself.”
Kerry cruised through the nearly four-hour session, sustaining no political damage. He is expected to easily win a positive recommendation from the committee followed by confirmation by the full Senate — probably next week.
Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee often addressed Kerry as “Mr. Chairman,’’ because until he is confirmed he remains the panel’s top Democrat. He was introduced to the packed hearing room by the bipartisan trio of outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; and fellow Vietnam veteran Senator John McCain, the Republican from Arizona.
Warren cited his 90 foreign trips over the years and success in pushing through arms control treaties in the Senate as just a few examples of his readiness for the post of top diplomat.
She also said he learned key diplomatic skills as a longtime Massachusetts politician.
“Massachusetts is also a great teacher of diplomatic skills,” Warren said, citing his efforts to negotiate ends to teachers and nurses strikes.
Clinton urged the panel to confirm Kerry quickly, saying “John is the right choice. He will bring a record of leadership and service that is exemplary.”
McCain’s remarks carried special weight. Calling Kerry his friend, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee recalled their common experience in Southeast Asia during the war and their work on a special committee Kerry chaired in the early 1990s to investigate whether American soldiers were still being held in captivity.
“Through it all John led the committee with fairness to all sides . . . and unshakable resolve to get a result all members could accept,” McCain said, who was held as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for 5½ years. “It was a masterful accomplishment.” He added: “I recommend his nomination without reservation.”
The proceedings went largely according to script, with praise for Kerry mixed with a number of probing questions about how the Obama administration will address a range of thorny global problems, from Iran to Afghanistan to Mexico.
At one point the hearing was interrupted by a female protester who shouted, in part, “The Middle East is not a threat to us! I am tired of my friends in the Middle East dying!”
She was removed by US Capitol Police, but Kerry responded to the outburst by drawing on his own experience.
“I’ll tell you Mr. Chairman, when I first came to Washington to testify it was obviously as a member of group who came to have their voices heard,” he told Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who chaired the session. “That is what this place is all about.”
The appearance was deeply personal for the 69-year-old lawmaker, who first testified before the panel in April 1971 after he returned from Vietnam and became a leader of the antiwar movement.
The nomintion of Kerry, the son of a foreign service officer, was seen by some as the culmination of a life spent immersed in foreign affairs — well before his 29 years on the Foreign Relations Committee and three years as chairman.
“I think you have led a life that has brought you to this moment,” Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, told him.
Questions from the committee ranged ranged from economic development in Africa to diplomatic involvement in Syria to women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Much of the hearing centered on the US interest in the Islamic world, especially in light of the recent Arab Spring that has toppled dictators from Libya to Egypt.
“There is a monumental transformation taking place,” Kerry said. “This is the biggest upheaval of that part of the world since the Ottoman Empire . . . came apart.”
But he insisted that America must approach it’s relations with foreign nations in the midst of upheaval sensitive to their own histories and internal divisions.
“We cannot just take the American, the Western model and plunk it down,” he said.
He said there must be a greater emphasis on spreading American ideas in a “struggle for hearts and minds."
“We have to do better,” he said, citing as an example alternative media to help reach foreign populations that enjoy little press freedom.
One issue that came up repeatedly was the civil war in Syria, where tens of thousands of civilians have been killed by forces loyal to the regime of President Bashir Assad since 2010.
Calling the crackdown in Syria "reprehensible” and “inexcusable,” Kerry said his own previous hopes that Assad could be reformed are now “ancient history.” He expressed concern that Islamic militants are taking advantage of the unrest.
“Right now, President Assad doesn’t think he’s losing, and the opposition thinks it’s winning,” Kerry said. “That’s not an equation that allows you to reach a solution for transition.”
But he nonetheless said the Obama administration must try harder to broker a deal for a peaceful transition of power from Assad to a new government.
Kerry told the committee that much has changed since he first appeared before the panel 42 years ago.
“Today’s world is more complicated than anything we have experienced,” he said, citing, among others, the emergence of China, nuclear proliferation, poverty, pandemic disease, refugees, as well as “faiths struggling with the demands of modernity, and the accelerating pace of technological innovation shifting power from nation-states to individuals.”
But what the United States does at home will most determine its international position, Kerry offered.
“We can’t be strong in the world unless we are strong at home, and the first priority of business which will affect my credibility as a diplomat working to help other countries create order, is whether America at last puts its own fiscal house in order.”Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com. David Uberti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow them on Twitter @GlobeBender and @DavidUberti.