Donald Trump's incoming national security team would do well to clip John Kerry's op-ed from Thursday's New York Times and keep it on file. It's a cautionary tale about the limits of diplomacy not backed by a credible threat of force.
Kerry of course defends his record as America's top diplomat. "I will leave office convinced that most global trends remain in our favor and that America's leadership and engagement are as essential and effective today as ever," he writes.
Does Kerry really believe this? Most global trends right now are dangerous for the U.S. national interest. During Kerry's tenure at the State Department, European states have been succumbing to right-wing populism fueled by a refugee crisis created by the war in Syria, which Obama allowed to burn (over the suggestions at times of Kerry, it should be said). That negative transformation has also been spurred by the West's failure to check Russian aggression until after Vladimir Putin and his little green men annexed Crimea.
In the Middle East, Jordan and Lebanon are now threatened by that same refugee crisis, Turkey is in the midst of a brutal campaign against its Kurdish citizens and America's gulf allies worry about meddling from Iran. In Asia, North Korea's nuclear proliferation has gone unchecked, and China's assertion of its territorial claims in the South China Sea has become more aggressive.
But let's get back to the nub of Kerry's case. He says U.S. foreign policy has been successful because President Barack Obama "restored assertive diplomacy as our foreign policy tool of first resort and deployed it time and again to advance our security and prosperity."
There are a few problems with this. To start, Kerry's examples of success are often things the U.S. did to mitigate a crisis that emerged under Obama's watch. For example he says assertive diplomacy was used to work with Europe to sanction Russia â€¦ after its annexation of Crimea. He attributes Iraq's decision to form a more inclusive government in 2014 to this diplomacy-first approach â€¦ after the rise of Islamic State. Indeed, even if the coalition fighting the Islamic State in Raqqa and Mosul is a product of this diplomacy-first approach, it's something of an ex post facto achievement.
Kerry's unstated implication is that Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, didn't practice diplomacy first, and instead was too quick to go to war. It's a tired talking point, repeated by Democrats since the mid 2000s. Bush, like all presidents, of course did practice diplomacy. He built a Coalition of the Willing to support the invasion of Iraq. His State Department developed a new multilateral group to target illicit proliferators. He negotiated a nuclear agreement with India.
Kerry might say that the decision to invade Iraq was a rush to war and that all diplomatic options were not pursued. But in some cases, an accommodation with rogues is not desirable. You can't resort to diplomacy with the Islamic State, for instance. What's more, a willingness to use force makes diplomacy more effective. Kerry, though, sees it the other way around. "I am not a pacifist," he wrote. "But I learned as a young man who fought in Vietnam that before resorting to war, those in positions of responsibility should do everything in their power to achieve their objectives by other means."
The problem is, some people will always argue more diplomacy can be tried, even if it's only buying time for an aggressor. Kerry has some experience in this. For a while, Kerry took the diplomacy-last view of Bashar al-Assad, the dictator who has ravaged Syria. He even acknowledges in Thursday's op-ed that he urged Obama to intervene in Syria, and he lost the debate. Nonetheless, Kerry spent his last year in office trying for a peace conference for Syria in endless talks with the Russians.
In this sense, the outgoing secretary of state made the classic error noted by the UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden: He mistook activity for achievement. Even as Russia was establishing airbases in Syria in the fall of 2015, Kerry pursued his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov with fervor. He came close to what he thought were cease-fire agreements, only to see them fall apart at the last moment. In September, Kerry was so frustrated he accused the Russians of war crimes, after evidence emerged that Russia or Syria had struck an aid convoy on its way into Aleppo. The siege there finally ended after Syrians, Iranians and Russians had killed enough rebel fighters and civilians that there was no one left to starve. Eventually a ceasefire was negotiated between Russia and Turkey.
We are about to see Kerry's diplomacy-uber-alles approach again put into practice. Donald Trump has made it clear that he will seek a new bargain with Russia, even though the U.S. intelligence community has concluded Russia interfered in the presidential election by hacking and leaking the e-mails of prominent Democrats. Kerry's predecessor, Hillary Clinton, also pursued such a bargain with the Russians. She ended up being the political victim of a state that should have been deterred, not courted.