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Let’s Start Asking the Right Questions about the New Secretary of State


Photo: Obama and Kerry
Source: Getty

February 6, 2013
By Kathryn Appelman, a student of International Relations at American University currently on exchange at Peking University.

Chinese press and social media alike are abuzz with speculation on how John Kerry's personality will make his tenure as Secretary of State different from Hillary Clinton's.

As everyone is quick to point out, Kerry's maternal grandfather, James Forbes, was born in Shanghai, and the Forbes family has a long history of negotiating with China. It's generally assumed that Kerry will therefore be more sympathetic towards China than was Clinton, and that it'll be reflected by a shift in American China policy strategy towards cooperation.

I've been running across some posts on Sina Weibo that counter optimism about Kerry's opinions on China by criticizing him as "just another spokesperson of American interests".

I got a chuckle out of the implication – was anyone really expecting a U.S. Secretary of State not to be a spokesperson of U.S. interests? – but the underlying meaning I agree with.

Whether or not Kerry is personally more open to cooperation with China is up for debate (and is certainly being debated), but is ultimately extraneous.

Even in the United States, people forget that policymakers like Kerry and Clinton are, above all, politicians, and are burdened with balancing public opinion, bureaucratic politics, Congressional approval, international acceptability, and the domestic political environment. No matter what he may personally believe, even the United States Secretary of State cannot stray from the path laid out before him unless these stars are in alignment – which, I might add, they rarely are.

Nixon and Kissinger are long gone and the days of unilateral policymaking with them, and today's policymakers now have a very limited framework in which to work. How a politician, even one as imminent as John Kerry, reacts to a situation has more to do with outside pressure than their own personal goals and interests.

So, if Kerry is friendlier towards China than Clinton was, will Kerry's fondness of China alter US foreign policy towards the region while he's in office? I believe the answer is 'very minimally' to 'no' -- if there happens to be a noticeable policy shift it will be because the administration is using the switch-over as an excuse to enact it --  but that's not the right question.

The right question is, will China's perception that Kerry will be more cooperative than Clinton affect his future dealings with China? That, I think, is a far more interesting prospect.


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