Secretary of State John Kerry had hoped to spend 2014 accomplishing two historic tasks: a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, which collapsed in April, and a nuclear deal with Iran, which has been postponed.
Much of his energy had to be spent trying to halt the spread of unexpectedly virulent and destructive forces: Ebola in West Africa, ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and Russian incursions into Ukraine. Instead of a year of momentous achievements, it has been 12 months of damage control.
As a result, US foreign policy victories in 2014 have been modest, fragile, and reversible. Yet, they are notable nonetheless. Iraq’s central government unraveled at the seams. But it’s considered a diplomatic success that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki finally stepped down — and was replaced by Haider al Abadi, a more unifying figure. ISIS still controls vast swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. Yet, State Department officials tout the fact that 60 nations have joined the US-led coalition to fight it.
More than 7,000 people have died from Ebola. Yet data show the number of new cases is declining in Liberia, and parts of Sierra Leone. Russia retains its grip on Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. But it’s a success that US sanctions and the low price of oil have pushed the Russian economy into a free fall. The Russian ruble has lost 70 percent of its value.
As underwhelming as these successes may sound, history shows that steady, patient, incremental diplomatic efforts can prove more consequential than grand gestures, or “shock and awe.”
Kerry has approached foreign policy crises with a relentlessness and a personal touch more common in retail politicians than diplomats. Despite the collapse of peace talks, he still speaks to the parties on a near-weekly basis. During the spate of attacks in Jerusalem, Kerry requested a detailed telephone briefing with a US diplomat there. He personally flew to Afghanistan — twice — to convince two political rivals to create a unity government, rather than go to war with each other. He recently hosted Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi at his home in Boston, introducing a level of intimacy unheard-of in China that may have paved the way for a landmark climate deal with China announced a month later.
The trouble with this intensely personal diplomatic style is that there’s only one John Kerry. At a time when crises are erupting in every corner of the globe, it’s tempting to try to tackle every problem. But that’s not a recipe for success.
“When you try to do too many things at once, it is easy for other actors to drag their feet and thwart most of what you are trying to accomplish,” said Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who has long argued that the Obama administration should be more selective about its foreign policy priorities. “This problem is especially acute when you are trying to accomplish something ambitious.”
Next year, Kerry should look for opportunities to achieve success, even if they are modest. For instance, Kerry will assume the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which can provide a platform to elevate the issue of climate change. He could help shore up support for US allies in Asia — such as increased intelligence sharing — that will serve as a counterweight to an increasingly assertive China. He could help the coalition against ISIS unite behind a single, achievable goal.
Such efforts may not sound as grand as brokering an historic peace deal, but they could prove crucial in the years to come.