Photograph by Eric Draper
“He unfolded a bike out of a box — a gift from the Prime Minister of Singapore — and took it for a spin in the Oval Office and the hallway. It was funny watching a nearby Secret Service Agent try to keep a straight face with the President riding by.”
July 12, 2005. President Bush enjoys a break in his afternoon schedule as he rides a fold-up bike, given by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore.
See more from Draper’s new book on LightBox here.
Baroness Margaret Thatcher attends the G7 summit at Rice University in Houston, Texas in 1990 with other G7 leaders including U.S. President George HW Bush.
I wrote this piece in February 2013, before Secretary of State John Kerry’s first international trip to the Middle East. It didn’t go anywhere, so I am publishing it here since it provides some relevant points for his current trip to the Middle East and Asia, where Kerry will likely focus efforts on Syria and North Korea.
Secretary of State John Kerry sets out this week to Europe and the Middle East on his first international trip, which the State Department characterized as a “listening tour.”
Sure, listening comes first. But based on President Obama’s use of Secretary Clinton during his first term, one hopes this time around, Secretary Kerry will be given a longer leash and the opportunity to reclaim American diplomacy abroad by owning foreign policy agenda. After all, engaging tends to produce greater outcomes than just lending an ear.
Maybe the American people want a Secretary of Stasis. Foreign policy ranked low among voter priorities this election and it is tempting to turn inward and hope nothing disastrous happens overseas while ensuring the United States isn’t the culprit of any international incidents. Secretary Kerry understands this temptation – which is why he stressed the domestic nature of foreign policy in his first public address at the University of Virginia.
But domestic priorities are the President’s job. And these last four years, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton produced numerous fruitful outcomes but her attempts at engagement were counter-balanced by a President who wanted to maintain full control of U.S. foreign policy.
If the last term is a preview of the next, America will have the type of stasis on the international stage that runs completely counter to the words heard numerous times on Obama’s campaign trail: “change” and “forward.”
Given Secretary Clinton’s directive under President Obama – which seemed to focus more on rebuilding America’s image abroad than actively pursuing and solving tough diplomatic and foreign policy challenges – she did a phenomenal job. But the fact is: she could have done better.
We saw Clinton rack up the air miles and hold press conferences with diplomats and heads of state in countless countries instead of emerge from closed-door meetings and negotiations with diplomatic breakthroughs.
She ushered in 21st century statecraft to bring diplomacy to a technologically savvy generation, a remarkable achievement I had the opportunity to be a part of through the Virtual Student Foreign Service program. But for one reason or another, she was not empowered or encouraged by President Obama to directly engage or maneuver on tough foreign policy challenges.
There is much to question in President Obama’s handling of his closest advisors. Regarding his secretary of state, as former State Department official Aaron David Miller notes, the president tends to dominate, not delegate, on foreign policy. Maybe it was the politicized climate of Obama’s first term. The president’s appointment of Clinton was a post-election grace that turned his biggest political rival into his biggest advisor – and his most popular one, at that.
Further, the recent news that President Obama opposed several top advisors’ attempts to push for arming the rebels in Syria paints an image of a president who has at times surpassed political heavyweights in his administration to meet “tactical domestic political considerations,” as former administration official Vali Nasr notes in his upcoming book The Dispensable Nation.
Key breakthroughs in U.S. foreign policy – whether opening up diplomatic relations with China or convening the Madrid Peace Conference – occurred when presidents placed their full confidence in their secretaries of state. President Obama has shown thus far that he does not want to encourage grand foreign policy initiatives or even provide opportunities for his team to chase after risky, but important, goals.
Obama’s reelection proves this decision politically savvy on the domestic front, but it will be a long-term mistake for U.S. policy. The world continues to turn even if the United States decides to stay away.
Recent cyber-attacks from China and provocations from North Korea and Iran require solutions that involve both defense and diplomacy.
In the Arab world, the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are at a standstill, and President Obama is traveling to the region when it would appear more opportune for a new, fresh face to restart discussions – say, the new Secretary of State. Syria remains in turmoil and it is easy to see a post-Assad landscape unfavorable of the United States given the lack of involvement on the issue.
If left as an afterthought of U.S. policy, these monumental challenges will drastically reshape the international landscape in less than amenable ways for the United States.
John Kerry’s address shows that he wants to restore American diplomacy internationally and embolden U.S. foreign policy. As a 27-year veteran of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee whose father was a career Foreign Service officer, he has vast experience in this arena. He knows the players. His appointment comes with numerous opportunities to engage seriously, and not just listen.
What is needed now is a Secretary of State who is granted the opportunity to lead and own, not just sell, the U.S. foreign policy agenda. We can turn the stasis into a spark, if President Obama decides to let go of the leash.