John Kerry’s first foreign trip: Much ado about nothing

The new Secretary of State’s nine-nation grand tour signals, among other things, that the Obama administration intends to continue its line of supporting European “integration,” appeasing Russia, and focusing on the Middle East at the expense of the larger global picture.

By Paweł Piotr Styrna | March 20, 2013

Sec. of State Kerry with Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohammed MorsiRussia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov with Kerry.
(State Department Images)

On March 6, Barack Obama’s new Secretary of State, John Kerry—who succeeded Hillary Clinton as a result of the fallout following the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last September 11 — has returned home after an eleven-day nine-nation grand tour. During his first trip abroad as head of the Department of State, he visited the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.

The main objective of this semi-European, semi-Near Eastern “listening tour” was the Middle East, and, in particular, Syria. In the latter, a civil war has now been raging for two years between an anti-Western and anti-American secularist, Arab national socialist regime backed by Moscow and Tehran, on the one hand, and an eclectic opposition coalition whose ranks happen to be filled by many anti-Western, anti-American (Sunni) Islamist militants, on the other.

In London, Kerry met with Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron. Both agreed that the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) should not be allowed to develop nuclear arms. (Of course we have heard such stern pronouncements many times before, and they have apparently not deterred the Islamist regime in Iran from pressing on with their “peaceful nuclear program”). The two leaders also discussed the idea of a U.S.-EU free trade pact, which is also being pushed by German chancellor Angela Merkel. The pact will certainly elicit the support of “free trade” enthusiasts, but will also serve as a step toward further globalist economic integration. According to the Associated Press, Kerry and Cameron also discussed Libya, Egypt, and Syria. While few details were released, it is certain that the British prime minister pushed for greater involvement in the Syrian imbroglio.

The Levantine state was also the subject of the Secretary of State’s conversation with the socialist president of France, François Hollande. As in the case of the misguided 2011 intervention in Libya—whose propaganda justification was the “responsibility to protect” doctrine—London and Paris have pushed most vociferously for greater involvement in Syria, including the termination of the arms embargo to the war-torn Middle Eastern nation.

In Berlin, Kerry met with Merkel and other German leaders, as well as with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. Again, the Syrian civil war and the Iranian nuclear program were at the top of the agenda. In fact, Kerry and Lavrov discussed Syria for approximately half of the duration of their five-hour-long meeting. When interviewed by the press afterwards, Lavrov advised the Syrian opposition to begin a dialogue with Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’athist regime, which, apparently, indicates that Kerry failed to convince the Kremlin to alter its policy toward Damascus. Given Team Obama’s long record of appeasement and docility towards the post-Soviets, the new Secretary of State had very little leverage to do so anyway.

The new head of American diplomacy also attended a “Friends of Syria” conference in Rome, where the representatives of nearly a dozen countries met with the oppositionist Syrian National Council. There Kerry offered a $60 million dollar food-and-medicine aid package, which the representatives of the Syrian anti-regime forces considered an outright affront.

As Kerry began the Near Eastern leg of his journey, he received a cold welcome by Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Erdogan. The Turkish leader was seemingly angered by Kerry’s criticism of his characterization of Zionism as one of the “crimes against humanity.”

Afterwards, the Secretary of State headed to the Arab states, including Egypt, where he promised $250 million in aid to President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Islamist (Sunni) movement openly seeking a Sharia-based state and global Caliphate. Such profligacy on the part of the Obama administration not only prompted many Americans to ask why the U.S. should continue to finance anti-U.S. regimes. It also exasperated the Egyptian opposition itself.

While assessing John Kerry’s trip, we should, as Heritage Foundation’s Daniel Kochis noted, look at not only where he went, but also where the new secretary chose not to go. For instance, he omitted Israel, under the pretext that Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is assembling his cabinet after the elections in that country. More likely, Team Obama is attempting to send a signal to the Arab/Muslim world.

Central and Eastern Europe is another region omitted from Secretary Kerry’s itinerary. He failed to visit Poland, in spite of the fact that the Polish frontier is only approximately 55 miles away from Berlin, where Kerry was meeting with Merkel and Lavrov. Since the trip was dedicated to Near Eastern issues, it is important to remember that Poland was an important U.S. ally in Europe which supported and participated in the War on Terror in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq. As Luke Coffey of the Heritage Foundation emphasized: “Many Eastern Europeans are confounded by the White House’s lack of interest in the region. This was especially the case after many in Eastern Europe offered unwavering support for missile defense in spite of Russian opposition and strongly supported the NATO operation in Afghanistan, only to be slighted by the White House.”

Daniel Kochis of Heritage added: “Although Kerry would have done well to include Warsaw or Prague on his agenda, there is much for Kerry to accomplish in Europe. At a minimum, Kerry should back away from support for European integration that empowers Brussels at the expense of European national sovereignty and undermines U.S. interests on the continent.”

It may well be that the Obama administration hopes that by avoiding the Intermarium (i.e. the CEE region between Germany and Russia) — thereby implicitly signaling to Moscow that Washington acknowledges Russia’s influence, if not outright hegemony, in the area — the Muscovites might concede on Syria and Iran. What the liberal pseudo-realists in D.C. fail to comprehend is that the cunning, Machiavellian masters of the Kremlin will, as they always have, seek to outfox them to gain maximum advantage. They will gladly accept America’s désintéressement in CEE and the post-Soviet zone, but — regardless of any illusory potential “concessions” in other areas—will continue to support their allies, one way or another. One of the main reasons they (and the Chinese Communists) will do this will be to light as many fires as possible throughout the world, particularly in the volatile greater Middle East, to grind down American power through proxy conflicts and sideshows.

Thus, the Middle-Eastern-centric nature of Kerry’s first foreign tour as America’s Number 1 diplomat is quite worrisome. It is undeniable, of course, that the greater Middle East is an important part of the world for many significant reasons. Even so, it is an imprudent case of tunnel vision to treat places like Syria and Iran as “navels of the world.” The fact that Kerry has devoted so much time and effort to Syria, the current crisis du jour, in the face of greater global threats, such as rising China and Russia, shows that the Obama administration lacks a serious global grand strategy.

Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.