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Kerry faces new battles as he takes foreign policy helm from Clinton

As John Kerry prepares to take his place Friday in the long line of leaders -- including Thomas Jefferson, Henry Kissinger and Hillary Clinton -- who have served as secretary of state, he and President Barack Obama will face some familiar overseas challenges from the past four years:

  • Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions;
  • North Korea’s erratic nuclear-armed behavior;
  • China’s growing economic power and its potential leverage as a holder of U.S. Treasury bonds;
  • The horrific civil war in Syria which threatens to spill over into neighboring countries.

And there’s always the specter of a sudden, unexpected international crisis.

But there are also new and developing challenges for the administration and for Kerry, who will be sworn in Friday afternoon, such as the U.S. role in a country that few Americans have heard of or could find on a map: Mali, in north central Africa.

There, the Obama administration has broadened the post-Sept. 11 struggle against jihadists by sharing intelligence with the French, as well as providing them airlift and re-fueling support, to facilitate the French military intervention against Islamists.

This military assistance underscores again why the United States remains -- to use the well-worn phrase Clinton used in a farewell speech Thursday -- the “indispensable nation.”

On Wednesday, John Kerry said farewell to his Senate home of 27 years, as he prepares to take on a new role as Secretary of State. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

When the U.S. or its allies seek to intervene in a place such as Mali, only the United States has an adequate fleet of C-17 cargo planes and KC-135 tanker aircraft to make such an exercise of power possible; the French wouldn't be able to conduct the Mali operation by themselves.

This week the Obama administration also signed a "status of forces" accord with Mali’s next-door neighbor, Niger, allowing U.S. troops to operate in that country and suggesting a new chapter in U.S. engagement in Africa even as Obama is moving to withdraw most U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

The Mali operation is in part an outgrowth of the “lead from behind” U.S. role in the NATO operation to topple Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Professor Michael Mandelbaum of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of “The Frugal Superpower” said last October, “In order to get the full benefits of tyrant removal, it may be necessary to put American troops on the ground and that we’re not going to do.”

But with Gadhafi removed from power, his weapons depots were “liberated” and his arms proliferated all over North Africa, including to jihadists in Mali and Algeria, where earlier this month a group of militants attacked a natural gas plant, killing dozens of hostages.

The Pentagon will be Chuck Hagel’s problem (upon confirmation as defense secretary) not Kerry’s, but the new secretary of state is especially worried that America’s role as military enforcer has been hurting its standing in the eyes of other nations.

Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in his confirmation hearing that “American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone. We cannot allow the extraordinary good we do to save and change lives to be eclipsed entirely by the role we have had to play since Sept. 11, a role that was thrust upon us.”

He also knows that the traditional U.S. role as a preacher of open economies, free trade and dependable sovereign credit is being undermined by its undisciplined fiscal policy, threatening, he said last week, “my credibility as a diplomat -- and our credibility as nation.”

Kerry’s role as a diplomat and international coalition builder will be difficult for another reason. In the past, when there was a specific threat, American leaders were able to form multinational coalitions to defeat that enemy, as in 1990, when Saddam Hussein’s armies invaded Kuwait. 

But two new threats are more diffuse and can’t be attacked on a battlefield:

  • Demographic pressure in the developing world: A surging younger generation in developing countries spurs conflict and unrest, particularly in the Middle East where those citizens have played a large role in the so-called “Arab Spring.” In his confirmation hearing, Kerry noted that in his visits over the years to Syria, “President Assad said to me, I have 500,000 kids who turn 18 every year, and I don't have a place to put them; I don't have jobs for them.”
  • Climate change: How could Kerry persuade the Chinese to agree to enforceable commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions that might cause disruption in an economy that demands job growth? All Kerry could offer last week is a hope that he and the leaders in Beijing “can find a better sense of the mutuality of our interests and the commonality of goals” so that they could work towards an international accord on greenhouse gas.

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Senate votes to confirm Kerry as secretary of state