LONDON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry, barely more than three weeks into his new job as the nation’s top diplomat, on Sunday opened a nine-nation swing through Europe and the Middle East, where a volatile international scene will test him in a role he has spent a lifetime preparing for.
Kerry will attempt to find a new path to tamp down an array of crises — from Iran’s nuclear program to Syria’s civil war — during his debut as the primary American deal maker on the world stage.
But even in the first hours of the trip, his skills were being tested. Some members of the fractured Syrian Opposition Coalition, who have been planning to meet with Kerry in Rome as a centerpiece of his trip, said they may boycott the meeting. The coalition is the umbrella organization trying to oust Syria’s president, Bashar Assad.
State Department officials scrambled to make sure the meeting would still occur, dispatching top officials to talk with opposition leaders in Cairo. The coalition has been recognized by President Obama.
“We believe that this meeting is an opportunity for them,” said a senior administration official, who was granted anonymity to talk about sensitive diplomatic matters. “It’s also an opportunity for them to meet our new secretary of state, to speak directly to him.”
In another potential complication, Iran announced on the eve of the trip it has discovered new uranium deposits and plans to build 16 more nuclear reactors. Those facilities could be used to make atomic bombs.
Kerry, who until last month was the senior senator from Massachusetts, is hoping to make an impression on the world stage, one more profound than those he had as a senator, a presidential candidate, and a chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
In a matter of weeks, Kerry has assumed his new role with vigor, building a staff at the State Department while planning his overseas trip. He boarded a plane at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington just after dawn for the 11-day whirlwind journey.
But it was not all pomp and circumstance. As the blue jean clad Kerry boarded the plane — a hulking 757 aircraft, emblazoned with the American flag and “United States of America” — he forgot to turn and wave to photographers waiting to capture the moment.
Once he arrived in London, Kerry bounded down the stairs and embraced Louis Susman, the US ambassador to the United Kingdom.
The early days of the trip will have echoes from Kerry’s biography. He will stop in Berlin, where he lived as a boy; in France, where he vacationed at a family estate; and in Rome, where he will rendezvous with one of his best friends, David Thorne, the US ambassador to Italy.
After the still-scheduled meeting with Syrian opposition figures in Rome, Kerry will travel to Cairo, which has been the epicenter for the Arab Spring. And he will meet with leaders in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, with discussions ranging from sanctions on Iran to peace among Israelis and Palestinians to the ongoing conflict in Mali in North Africa, where militants aligned with Al Qaeda had taken control of large swaths of territory.
“We have no illusions of how difficult this is,” a State Department official said several times, on separate issues, during a briefing on Kerry’s plane.
On Monday, Kerry will meet for breakfast with Prime Minister David Cameron, followed by a lunch with Foreign Secretary William Hague. He also plans to meet with John Sawers, the head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, according to a senior State Department official, and will stop by the US Embassy to thank employees.
In Berlin on Tuesday, he will hold a town hall-style meeting with German youths, followed by lunch with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and meetings with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In Paris on Wednesday, Kerry plans to meet with President Francois Hollande and have lunch with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
Much of Kerry’s agenda in Europe will focus on common threats elsewhere in the world, especially in the Middle East, where Kerry will go on the second leg of the 11-day excursion.
For example, he is expected to huddle with officials from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Russia, who along with China are spearheading negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program. Other meetings will focus on the draw down of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
A major focus will be the civil war in Syria, which Washington has tried unsuccessfully to defuse since 2011. The situation has grown more complicated as the regime of Assad, who Kerry once considered a potential reformer, has stepped up a bloody crackdown that has killed tens of thousands of civilians. Meanwhile, militants with links to Al Qaeda have reportedly taken control of some of the opposition forces seeking to oust Assad.
While in Rome, Kerry will meet with European leaders about Syria. To persuade Syria’s opposition members to meet with Kerry, Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, was sent to meet with them in Cairo. Ford withdrew from Syria more than a year ago because of the violence.
“The Syrian opposition leadership is under severe pressure now from its membership, from the Syrian people, to get more support from the international community,” a senior administration official said. “The point that we’re trying to make, and what we’re stressing in all of our conversations with them . . . is they have an opportunity in Rome.”
Kerry’s meeting in Berlin with the Russian foreign minister on Tuesday could also have major implications. With a veto in the UN Security Council, Moscow is considered essential in dealing with virtually every thorny international issue, from Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program to North Korea. In Syria, Russia is a key weapons supplier and political backer of the Assad regime and could hold the cards to a peaceful transition.
US-Russian relations have remained testy under Obama. Late last year, Russia kicked out US aid workers. A new Russian policy bans Americans from adopting children from Russia, a topic that Kerry is expected to raise.
Yet some believe Kerry may be uniquely suited to persuade Moscow to use its influence with Assad to prevent a complete collapse of the country and the war spilling over into neighboring countries.
Kerry and Lavrov have had a series of long phone calls and have many items to discuss. US officials are hopeful — but say the odds of a major breakthrough are not good — that they could persuade Russia to take a leading role in Syria.
“With a new secretary, I think he’ll have a chance to say to minister Lavrov, ‘Let’s get beyond who’s to blame for the difficult patch that we’ve been in. There’s no use in this sort of tit for tat and who’s responsible for this. We have common interests, let’s focus on them,’ ” said the senior State Department official.
Kerry’s selection of Europe and the Middle East for his first overseas trip took some foreign policy observers by surprise. There was an expectation that, like former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s maiden trip four years ago, he would travel to East Asia.
But others pointed out that calling on some of America’s historic allies is more traditional — and in Kerry’s comfort zone.
“After all the talk about the pivot to Asia, he is going to assure the allies in Europe and the Middle East,” said Joseph S. Nye, the former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School and a longtime Kerry confidante who was on hand for his first day at the State Department.
Nye, who held top posts in the state and defense departments and who coined the term “soft power,” predicted that much of the trip will focus on Syria, Iran, and the lack of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
“I am not expecting a breakthrough on any of them, but they are the front-burner issues and it will be important for him to lay some groundwork,” Nye said.
“He calls it a listening tour,” he added. “But I assume he will also be delivering some quiet messages.”
Another challenge for Kerry — on this trip but also in the coming months – may be squaring his own ideas for how to advance American interests with what Obama is willing to pursue.
It is no secret that Kerry wants to accomplish big tasks, from jump-starting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to addressing climate change and charting a new path toward nuclear disarmament.
“He understands this is his last rodeo [in public life] and he does have ambitions . . . to have a significant tenure as secretary of state,” said Gary Schmitt, a foreign policy expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “Secretaries of state like to have their names go down in history, [but] we’ll see how that plays out with the White House.”