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The resumption of peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders earlier this week could mark a significant step forward in the long effort to bring a peaceful resolution to the lengthy dispute in the Middle East. It also represents the culmination of months of diplomatic efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Nicholas Burns, the Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations and former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, offers his perspectives on Kerry’s first six months in office*.
Q: Many are surprised with the speed in which Secretary Kerry was able to arrange these talks. What are your thoughts on his efforts?
A: It is a significant achievement, and it is largely his own. It is also indicative of how Kerry does business — with persistence, drive, energy, secrecy, and attention to detail, all at warp speed.
Kerry is putting diplomacy back on the map. He has embraced his role as America’s top diplomat and is reasserting America’s primacy in the two pivotal regions for US security — the Middle East and Asia. American secretaries of state are expected by the rest of the world to lead on the toughest issues as combination referee, dealmaker, and frequent flyer. Kerry has played those roles confidently since taking office in January.
Q: Secretary Kerry has had to follow in the footsteps of Hillary Clinton, herself a very accomplished and highly respected secretary of state. What is your opinion of his work thus far?
A: In just six months, Kerry has delivered progress on some of America’s most important priorities. The Middle East talks are significant. If Kerry and his capable new envoy, Martin Indyk, can generate momentum on borders, Jerusalem, and settlements, it may create the best opportunity for progress since President Clinton’s 2000 Camp David talks. It is a long way from peace but a situation no one would have predicted even a month ago.
Further East, Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden, both recent visitors to New Delhi, have begun to revive a major aim of President George W. Bush — a strategic partnership with India in troubled South Asia. And, on North Korea, Kerry worked quietly and effectively with Beijing last March to contain Pyongyang’s erratic and unpredictable young leader, Kim Jung Un.
Q: What are the most significant foreign policy challenges ahead for Secretary Kerry?
A: Kerry has many more mountains to climb as secretary of state. The Iran nuclear challenge will return to the front burner following this week’s inauguration of President Hassan Rowhani. Kerry needs to decide whether he should take the lead in the first American direct negotiations with Tehran in decades. Reaching a compromise deal with Iran will require the same unyielding personal commitment he has given to Israeli-Palestinian peace. But it is the best way to avoid a military conflict in 2014. In addition, Kerry will need to push Congress toward a more effective US position on climate change. And, Kerry has an opening to strengthen our alliance with a resurgent Japan and maintain America’s predominance in Asia. Can he find a way, at the same time, to work effectively with China?
*Professor Burns' responses are taken from his August 1 commentary in The Boston Globe