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United States

John Kerry unlikely to bring foreign policy shift

President Obama has officially nominated Hillary Clinton's successor: John Kerry. The Democratic senator and former presidential candidate has extensive foreign policy experience.

It is a Herculean task for US President Barack Obama: finding a new secretary of state to replace Hillary Clinton. He or she has to feel at home on all continents, be just as well versed in the Middle East as in Asia and Europe, and is constantly traveling.

In addition, the future secretary has to be able to manage an army of diplomats posted all over the world, for which he or she has to demand the necessary budget from Congress, and keep pace with constantly changing technical challenges.

Incumbent Secretary of State Clinton announced several weeks ago that she would step down at the end of this presidential term. Her current ill health most likely strengthens this decision. Clinton has been off work sick since early December when, dehydrated from a stomach virus contracted during a trip to Europe, she fainted and suffered a concussion. She has been resting at home since.

Rice's withdrawal paves the way for Kerry

For a long time, the US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice was the favorite to replace Clinton. But she withdrew her name from consideration last week following intense Republican criticism for her statements on the September attack on the US mission in Benghazi. Several leading Republicans had declared they would never approve her nomination.

U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice speaks with the media after Security Council consultations at the U.N. headquarters in New York, in this June 7, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Allison Joyce/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)

Susan Rice maneuvered herself out of the running

So, after Clinton and her Republican predecessor under George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, it looks like a man will once again take over the international diplomatic representation of the United States.

In all of the ongoing discussions, just one name was being mentioned: Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. The 69-year-old has held a Senate seat since 1984 and has headed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for some three years now. The Vietnam veteran played a significant role in uncovering the Iran Contra scandal under Ronald Reagan in 1987-88, and has been active in seeking reconciliation between the US and Vietnam on a political level.

In Hillary Clinton's tradition

Michael O'Hanlon, director of research for the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said he considered Kerry "a good choice."

"John Kerry is about the most continuous kind of choice to succeed Hillary that you could imagine," O'Hanlon told DW. Both Clinton and Kerry know how to move on the international political and diplomatic stages, he added.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton turns away from the podium after delivering remarks following the G8 ministerial meeting, in the Benjamin Franklin State Dining room at the State Department in Washington DC, USA, 12 April 2012. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

One thing is certain: Clinton is heading off the international stage

"They're both pragmatic, they're both hard-working, they're both conscientious, they both certainly can handle the stature and prestige and the spotlight," he said. In addition, as former presidential contenders, both stand on a level playing field with the president.

When it comes to asking Congress for State Department funding, the longtime Senator can fall back on his good ties. He can also expect to face few difficulties in getting Senate approval for the post as secretary of state.

"I think we all know who John Kerry is," O'Hanlon said. After all, the entire American people got to know him as the presidential candidate for the Democrats in 2004. The Republicans have subjected him to close scrutiny. The animosities from back then, which culminated in the accusation that the highly-decorated Navy veteran betrayed his comrades through his later pacifistic remarks, appear to have taken a back seat.

Major cabinet reshuffle

Kerry's Republican colleagues in the Senate have in any case already signaled that they would approve his nomination - foremost John McCain, himself an unsuccessful presidential candidate like Kerry. The Republican senator already called Kerry "Mr. Secretary" at a press conference earlier this month - albeit in jest.

Kerry himself would like to take on the task as secretary of state. He has been building up his foreign policy merits for years, and has been consistently travelling on missions for President Obama, among other places to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Graphic showing globe and US flag. Fotolia/mucft

Kerry's foreign policy would be marked by continuity

Kerry is not expected to set his own agenda. He will not fundamentally change the direction of US foreign policy in the main areas of Middle East conflict, or nuclear dispute with Iran, Russia or Asia. His good relations to Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his interest in the Middle East peace process can only be beneficial, if the president gives the respective signal, O'Hanlon said. And his mediation skills with Vietnam could help in possible negotiations with North Korea - but only if the North Koreans reciprocate.

"So to have a big Kerry agenda, that would require that there's some opportunity that Hillary just didn't see," O'Hanlon said. However, Clinton did a good job, he added.

The only thing that speaks against Kerry is the fact that he is an older white male, just like Republican Chuck Hagel, a former senator from Nebraska tipped as Obama's leading candidate for defense secretary. The president could hesitate to assemble such a homogeneous cabinet. After all, he has to date endeavored to achieve diversity, also in his nominations for the Supreme Court.

However, Hagel's nomination is considered significantly more uncertain than Kerry's. Further prestigious posts to be filled are the director of the CIA and the treasury secretary.

But there is only one man who knows when the cabinet reshuffle will take place, if all posts will be filled at the same time and whether the new secretary of state will be John Kerry: the president himself.

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