Under John Kerry, United States foreign policy has adopted a new look. Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, a measured approach to Syria and an even-handed approach towards Russia.
Gone are the years of crisis initiated first during George W. Bush's administration and the neo-conservative, some say neo-liberated, line of Hillary Clinton. No more hectoring, no lectures and a responsible tone in dealing with other nations has been the hallmarks of Kerry's tenure as secretary of state.
The reason for the shift is that the United States was constantly in a war footing, crisis after crisis. Iraq, Afghanistan and later Libya drew the nation in with no measurable success. Barack Obama's decision to leave Iraq was due to his understanding that the Shia-led government refused to be a cat's paw of the United States. Now in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai is bringing up the same objections as Iraq. In the end, as John Kennedy once said of South Vietnam, "it's their war." Libya has broken up into tribal squabbles and Syria is virtually unfathomable.
Prudence was a concept lost during the Cold War. Harry Truman's March 1947 foreign policy was one uninterrupted attempt to "scare the hell out of the American people," to quote Arthur Vandenburg's advice to the president over Greece and Turkey. Overstatement marked the way from "dominoes," a vision conjured up by Dwight Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, to "the great twilight struggle" of JFK's time. Evil Empires, or what John Quincy Adams termed "dragons to slay," abounded. And the end result was a people on a semi-war footing.
At least Adams warned against willy nilly interventionism, having been challenged by Henry Clay's romantic notions concerning the newly freed states of Central and South America. Too often minor concerns were exaggerated to draw the United States into a conflict in order to tip the scales in favor of one or the other combatants. During the Cold War, the U.S. backed a number of unsavory clients in the name of human rights.
This approach is difficult because often while the drums are beating the context is lost. Suddenly a nation's politics is lost in a maze of personalities. Saddam Hussein was the "butcher of Baghdad," Muammar Gadhafi an evil whatever and take your pick, anyone we hated could be transformed into the most-cruel man, you guessed it, since Adolf Hitler. Emotion ran amok and America found itself involved in countries it had only a passing familiarity with in the past. In other cases, emigres played a major role in having the United States Military advance their cause rather than pursuing the national interest.
Kerry and Obama have changed that approach. It has been comparable to what Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon pulled off for a brief time in 1970's. Detente helped to open up Communist China and a realistic approach was followed toward the
Meanwhile American trade, particularly in grain, exposed the bankruptcy of the USSR's agricultural policies. Tough talk was replaced by policies of shrewdness, caution and patience. Truly it was a policy of strength, not military might, but with a connection that America's overall society rested in a surer foundation than its Communist opponents. Obama has smartly taken a leaf from President Nixon's book.
For his part, Kerry has eschewed grandstanding, preferring to allow the Iranian authorities to see the precarious nature of their position. While Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advocates the failed politics of the 2001-2012 period. Kerry offers a clever and thoughtful poling of engagement. It is a welcome change to the tired policies of the past.