Mr. John Kerry has been confirmed as the United States secretary of state and has officially taken office. Although his predecessor, Ms. Hillary Clinton, left a big legacy to live up to, the five-term senator from Massachusetts is well suited for the job. Mr. Kerry’s new post caps a distinguished political career thus far and is a chance for redemption after his failed presidential bid.
Mr. Kerry is a real Boston Brahmin, a scion of a distinguished family that can trace its roots all the way back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony; one ancestor was the colony’s first governor.
He served in Vietnam, for which he won a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. He later became an antiwar activist and famously joined hundreds of other veterans in throwing his medals over a fence at the Capitol Hill steps as a way of demonstrating their opposition to the war.
After stints as a prosecutor and Massachusetts lieutenant governor, Mr. Kerry ran for the U.S. Senate in 1984, a race he won even though his Democratic primary opponent had the support of the party establishment. From that perch he built a career as a liberal Democrat — one of the most reliably progressive voices in the Senate — focusing on foreign affairs.
In 2004, Mr. Kerry won the Democratic presidential nomination to challenge U.S. President George W. Bush. He lost that race, with Mr. Bush winning 50.7 percent of the popular vote and 286 electoral votes to Mr. Kerry’s 48.2 percent of the vote and 251 electoral votes.
Mr. Kerry was touted as a possible secretary of state during President Barack Obama’s first term, a post that instead went to Ms. Clinton. He worked assiduously on foreign affairs in the Senate, rising to the post of chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He sometimes served as the president’s special envoy to such hot spots as Pakistan. When Ms. Clinton announced that she would not be serving a second term, Mr. Kerry was one of the leading contenders to replace her.
He got that chance when Ms. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who many believed was Mr. Obama’s first choice, was undone by Republican opposition to her nomination. Officially, GOP resistance to Ms. Rice reflected critics’ take on her handling of the Benghazi incident, in which four U.S. State Department personnel, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were killed by terrorists.
As her role was merely reading talking points provided by the intelligence community on the Sunday morning talk shows, that explanation falls short. It is more likely that the GOP had political motives in mind: giving Mr. Obama a black eye after his election victory and shooting down his presumed nominee, and forcing him to nominate a Democratic senator, a move that would call an election and give the GOP a chance to reduce the Democratic control of that chamber of Congress.
Whatever the explanation, Mr. Kerry was confirmed last week by the entire Senate in a 94-3 vote.
Mr. Kerry faces a wide array of challenges, the most pressing of which is managing a sprawling bureaucracy with a $50 billion budget, more than 50,000 employees and nearly 300 embassies, consulates, missions and other posts around the world. He must prepare his department for tough budget cuts despite new and an ever lengthening list of diplomatic concerns. He must maintain morale as staffs shrink and responsibilities grow.
His inbox is already full. He will soon be working to galvanize international reaction to a third North Korean nuclear test, a process that will prepare for efforts to build a coalition to push Iran to seriously negotiate the future of its nuclear program. The crisis in Syria continues to grow and the recent events in Mali and Algeria are a reminder that the U.S. must remain ever mindful of the Islamic terrorist threat even as it draws down from Afghanistan.
Mr. Kerry will need to get quickly acquainted with his Japanese counterpart, Mr. Fumio Kishida, so that our two countries are ready to tackle the myriad challenges in East Asia, not least of which is a muscular Chinese foreign policy that threatens Japan and other nations of the region. Our two countries will also be working together to combat climate change, promoting nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, and a long list of other shared concerns and priorities.
Questions have been raised about the direction and contours of U.S. foreign policy after Ms. Clinton’s departure. Those concerns are misplaced. First, it is the president, not the secretary of state, who sets U.S. foreign policy. Second, while Ms. Clinton will be sorely missed, we should remember that four years ago people were asking whether the former New York State senator (and first lady) knew much about Asia.
Ms. Clinton was a diligent student and worked hard to learn about the region, especially after Mr. Obama made it the focus of his foreign policy. We should expect no less from Mr. Kerry. He is just as smart, and will work just as hard to ensure that Mr. Obama’s second term is a success. We wish him well.