After breezing through his nomination hearing, former presidential candidate John Kerry was sworn in late Friday as the nation’s 68th secretary of state, reporting for duty Monday with a big burst of enthusiasm for his new post. Noting that he will have “big heels to fill” in replacing Hillary Clinton, Kerry outlined his priorities. While we know that he will soon confront immediate priorities such as Syria and Iran, there are a few more long-running themes that may emerge during his tenure.
First, and most conspicuously, Kerry has promised to focus on the stalled Middle East peace process, perhaps opening the door to a fresh start.
“We need to try to find a way forward, and I happen to believe that there is a way forward,” Kerry said during his confirmation hearing last month. “But I also believe that if we can’t be successful, the door, window, whatever you want to call it, to the possibility of a two-state solution could shut on everybody, and that would be disastrous.”
In a round of phone calls over the weekend, Kerry reportedly reached out to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, along with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Although perhaps a less high-profile focus, nuclear weapons policy is an issue that the former Senator has been vocal about in recent years. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in 2010, Kerry played a key role in pushing New START, an important nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, through the Senate. And though it may be on the back burner right now, nuclear weapons policy remains an issue President Obama cares deeply about.
With Kerry in Foggy Bottom, it would not be surprising for the issue to take center stage once again. Further cuts to the nuclear weapons arsenal in conjunction with Moscow could be on the table in the near future, along with, possibly, an effort to secure ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which has been gathering dust in Senate files since its failure in 1999.
Finally, in this age of fiscal austerity, Kerry will be tasked with protecting the State Department’s budget as further cuts to national security programs come down the line.
“One discussion that I particularly look forward to beginning with you, my colleagues, and with our country, is about the commitment we make in our foreign affairs budget – less than one percent of the entire budget of the government,” Kerry’s confirmation hearing statement reads.
And Kerry isn’t the only one concerned about this. A group of former top national security officials recently called upon Washington to address this issue, stating that the State Department’s budget “is woefully small as a proportion of our overall national security posture.” The issue is one Clinton grappled with during her tenure, but as the threat of further cuts looms, it is clear that Kerry will have a tough fight ahead.
Kerry is spending most of this first week getting acquainted, but if his tweets are any indication, it won’t be long before the enthusiastic new secretary of state is off and running. With the eagerness of a fresh-faced intern, but the experience and connections of a veteran statesman, Kerry could be a great force for change in Obama’s second term.