Earlier this week Barack Obama became the 17th president in the history of the United States to be inaugurated for a second term. After more than a decade of war, the foreign affairs record of the president-elect from here onwards will largely determine whether or not he goes down in history as a great president. Obama enters his second term without Hillary Clinton - widely seen as the star of his first administration - who leaves her post with a staggering 69 percent approval rating. In Clinton's place comes John Kerry, best known for his unsuccessful presidential bid in 2004. Kerry joins the distinguished company of Henry Clay, James Blaine, William Jennings Bryan and Charles Evans Hughes - all defeated presidential candidates who went onto serve as America's top diplomat.
While Kerry may lack Clinton's star power and may not have even been Obama's first choice (the President seemed favourably inclined towards UN Ambassador Susan Rice until her withdrawal from consideration), he nevertheless possesses impressive credentials and a crisp knowledge of global affairs from his two decades on the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee - a body that he recently chaired as well. Interestingly, prominent Republicans have also broadly supported his nomination unlike that of Chuck Hagel as Obama's putative Defense Secretary and crucially, Kerry has already shown his capacity to speak for the administration by acting as Obama's envoy to some of the world's more volatile hotbeds.
Kerry's appointment sends a host of signals about Obama's second term foreign policy. Firstly, the new secretary's focus is likely to rest on traditional diplomacy between states: building and maintaining alliances with friends whilst containing foes and potential rivals. Issues that Clinton championed such as economic development, women's rights and access to education are now likely to take a secondary role to geopolitics. Kerry also believes that allies act as a multiplier, rather than a constraint, on American power: "Even a nation as powerful as the United States needs some friends in this world," he told the Democratic Convention in 2008. Kerry's experience of Asian affairs from his military service in Vietnam through to his more recent work concerning nuclear proliferation in North Korea also make him well suited to continue America's pivot to the Pacific, an Obama foreign policy buzzword if every there was one.
Equally important, though, is the more traditional trans-Atlantic alliance - an example here is the US administration's recent concerns regarding Britain's possible exit from the European Union. The French speaking Kerry is a committed Atlanticist whose worldview was profoundly shaped by Europe's centrality in the Cold War as well. Under Kerry, combating terrorist threats in South Asia and the Middle East will also remain a top priority. Although the US is scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan next year, the overriding objective of defeating terrorist sanctuaries remains at large. During Obama's first term, Kerry was charged with smoothing out often-fraught relationships with the Afghan and Pakistani governments. This is likely to continue, as both parties are key stakeholders in a successful Afghan endgame. But while Kerry pulls the diplomatic levers, there is no sign of abating US drone strikes in the region. John Brennan, President Obama's select candidate to head the CIA, is in fact one of the administration's leading proponents of drone technology and warfare. Hagel, too, has lauded it as a cost effective way of fighting terrorism without committing boots on the ground.
Though Obama may no longer have Clinton, in Kerry, Hagel and Brennan he still maintains an A-list foreign policy team. The newest recruits will, however, need to draw on all their experience and expertise to ensure that US foreign policy during the president's second term does not become his Achilles' heel.
Alexander George - International Reporter