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John Kerry finds his calling

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Franz Josef Strauss Airport in Munich, Jan. 31, 2014.

Ten years ago this week, John Kerry barely held off John Edwards in Wisconsin’s Democratic primary, prolonging for another few weeks his plodding, uninspiring march to the party’s presidential nomination. Kerry went on to lose an eminently winnable election, after which most Democrats in Washington expected him to disappear, like Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis.

Kerry went the Ed Muskie route, instead. He persevered, and now, exactly a year into his tenure as secretary of state, he is enjoying the most widespread admiration of his long political life. In September, even before he managed to restart peace negotiations in the Middle East, a Gallup poll put his approval rating at 60 percent, 15 points ahead of President Barack Obama’s. As the journalist David Rohde wrote in an excellent Atlantic piece titled, “How John Kerry Could End Up Outdoing Hillary Clinton”: “It’s looking more and more possible that when the history of early 21st century diplomacy gets written, it will be Kerry who is credited with making the State Department relevant again.”

So why do we like Kerry so much more now?

In part, it’s probably because, as Rohde and others have pointed out, Kerry at 70 seems bolder and less tethered to his own ambition than he was as a candidate. (I experienced that more cautious and suspicious version of Kerry up close in 2004, when I conducted three long interviews with him on foreign policy, during which he seemed to approach every question as the bomb squad might approach an abandoned suitcase in Times Square.) Kerry has almost certainly run his last campaign, and the knowledge of this may free him from paralyzing self-doubt in the public arena.

It’s also true that Kerry, the son of a foreign service officer, just seems better suited, temperamentally, to being a diplomat than he was to being a politician. As a senator, Kerry was never better than when he and Sen. John McCain were trying to resolve the status of soldiers left behind in Vietnam. Treaties and foreign capitals exhilarate the man; bingo night at the union hall, less so.

But as much as any of this, it may also be that the very things that made Kerry a less-than-compelling presidential candidate turn out to be exactly what the moment demands of a secretary of state.

After all, what was so maddening about Kerry in 2004, and what may have cost him the presidency in the end, was the total lack of any overarching worldview. Kerry had no discernible argument to make about his party or the country that might define progressivism for a new time, no evocative theme like Howard Dean’s “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” or Edwards’ “two Americas.” He wasn’t George W. Bush, and he’d make sensible decisions, and this was supposed to be enough.

Although he was too afraid of looking weak to say as much, Kerry almost certainly believed then, as some of his closest advisers did, that Bush’s entire concept of a “war on terror” was flawed and dangerous (and no more accurate, literally speaking, than talking about a war on poverty or a war on drugs). “The Domino theory” was what had landed him and his entire generation in Vietnam to begin with; in Kerry’s experience, grand constructs led to inflexible thinking and usually ended nowhere good.

In presidential politics, this kind of larger argument — what George H.W. Bush, who was similar to Kerry this way, called “the vision thing” — can matter a lot. It frames the choices you’re asking voters to make, and it informs the way you’ll govern if you happen to win.

In the realm of diplomacy, though, Kerry’s aversion to sweeping themes may come as a welcome relief. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it the framework for all modern statecraft, secretaries of state have tended to impose their own global agendas, so that the office has often felt like a giant classroom from which to lecture and experiment.

Madeleine Albright preached the concept of humanitarian intervention and the “indispensable nation.” Colin Powell got stuck arguing the "axis of evil" brief, even if it wasn’t really his. Condoleezza Rice pushed Bush’s spreading-of-democracy doctrine. Hillary Clinton made women’s rights her signature issue.

All of these secretaries did the hard backroom bargaining around the world that has always been the purview of the nation’s top diplomat, and often brilliantly. But that was considered the behind-the-scenes, boring stuff. The public aspect of the job was more about imposing some universal framework on an unruly world.

Kerry, though, seems almost retro this way — a throwback to the old-fashioned Cold War diplomats who sought nothing so much as balance and stability. Eschewing any one-size-fits-all design for remaking the world, he styles himself instead as a kind of roving superenvoy, dashing about the globe and immersing himself in whatever negotiation he can find, like a poker hustler looking for a late-night game. 

On a day last week, the New York Times on my iPad featured Kerry in not one but two lead headlines at the same time — one on his personal intervention in Syria and the other on his climate change speech in Indonesia. Even the latter issue, which could be fashioned as a kind of overarching doctrine for our times, is for Kerry just another intractable problem that requires his presence. He’s looking for a deal, rather than a cause.

There’s plenty to criticize here, and some who work in the vast bureaucracy Kerry oversees — about 70,000 public servants in all — are less enthralled than the media or the public might be. They will tell you that while Kerry is off touching down in whatever troubled country catches his interest (last week, for a few hours, it was Tunisia), the building in Foggy Bottom is in need of tighter management.

There’s a feeling, too, that Kerry’s Tasmanian devil routine may ultimately come to not very much — that after he’s finished buzzing through Geneva and Jerusalem and Jakarta the conflicts that consume him will be essentially unchanged, not least because he can’t seem to focus on any of them for very long. You can see how this might be true. If he couldn’t persuade Americans to dump a president whose approval rating dipped below 50 percent, I wouldn’t put money on his persuading the Israelis to stop building settlements.

And yet there’s something refreshing about a secretary of state whose projection of American power is mostly about fixing what’s broken, wherever he can, rather than remodeling the world. And there’s something cool about watching a guy Kerry’s age, written off after the most public kind of failure, finding at last the right fit for his passion, and daring his detractors to do their worst. You could almost call it inspiring.

Follow Matt Bai on Twitter.

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