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Kerry's First Trip Abroad Tackles Familiar Issues

  • Al Pessin

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s first trip abroad last week made news on a couple of issues, but largely covered familiar ground with longtime U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East.

Kerry’s first stop was familiar territory for a U.S. secretary of state, number 10 Downing Street, the residence of the British prime minister.

Xenia Dormandy of London's Chatam House said it was a "soft introduction" to his new role delivering American soft power, President Obama's preferred approach to global issues.

“America is choosing to have a different approach," she said. "That's not necessarily about less power. That's about using your power differently."

Kerry took that approach to European allies early in this trip and also applied it to the Syria conflict at a conference in Rome, announcing the first direct American aid for Syrian rebel fighters, but only food and medical supplies.

“I am absolutely confident from what I heard in there, from other foreign ministers, that the totality of this effort is going to have an impact on the ability of the Syrian opposition to accomplish its goals,” he said.

But Syrian opposition leaders complained that the aid is not enough to change the desperate situation inside Syria...or at refugee camps in neighboring countries that now hold more than one million people.

And as Kerry moved into the Middle East, dissatisfaction with U.S. policy came even more into focus, even though he stuck to traditional allies like Egypt.

The United States sees itself as a champion of human rights and is a leader in providing humanitarian aid and economic help to struggling countries. But many in the Middle East see U.S. policy in a different light, including Said Sadek of the American University in Cairo, who spoke via Skype.

“As long as they don’t clash with American strategic interests, they don’t care what really happens inside those countries," said Sadek. "And this is the moral question regarding American foreign policy in the area. All they care about is the cheap flow of oil.”

American officials likely would not agree with Sadek on that, but they might agree with his view that U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East, and indeed around the world, remain constant.

And that leads Xenia Dormandy to conclude that the new of secretary of state won’t bring big policy changes.

“You’re going to absolutely see something different in style," she said "The substance is led by the White House, more than most presidencies. So I think the substance won’t change quite so significantly, but style absolutely.”

For Kerry, four years of difficult and intractable issues lie ahead, coupled with often hostile foreign populations. Along the way he'll look for some opportunities to advance U.S. interests and perhaps to do some good in the world.
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