The face of John Kerry is well-known in Pakistan, and his recent appointment as US Secretary of State to succeed the generally popular Hillary Clinton is likely to receive a cautious welcome in our corridors of power. Kerry and his boss President Obama are known to have a good relationship – the same could not always be said of the Obama-Clinton pairing – but the big policy decisions are still going to be made in the White House and not at the State Department. The good news for us is that Kerry is a genuine believer in the power of diplomacy and believes it is generally better to talk than fight a war. The same is not true of all his colleagues in government. America is a martial state in a world where wars have become a lot smaller and are less clearly defined as to their boundaries – or even the definition of who is or is not a combatant. There are conflicts on the horizon, with Iran being the one that preoccupies armchair strategists who do not have to take the hard decisions. Kerry is unlikely to want to fight the Iranians and will stick with sanctions and some robust sabre-rattling. He may fret more about North Korea which is now upping the nuclear ante to the point at which it presents a credible threat to the US – which in real terms Iran does not.
One thing he is almost certainly not going to do is curtail the ever-expanding use of drones, both as platforms for surveillance and as fighting vehicles. The State Department does not itself run the drones, and wherever they are regularly used they fuel anti-Americanism, making Kerry’s task all the more difficult. His diplomatic skills – and they are acknowledged to be good – are also going to make little impact on the churn currently underway in the countries of the Maghreb – the Middle East and the Arab world more generally where there is perceived to be a rising fundamentalism, often of the democratically elected variety. The American Secretary of State carries the grails of ‘vital interests’ and ‘national security’. There are no threats from foreign armies, but there are threats to vital interests such as global energy sources and the sea lanes they travel along. The geopolitics of energy is shifting as well and China, having outplayed America in Sub-Saharan Africa, is going to be weighed as a partner rather than an adversary. It will be an uneasy relationship. Pakistan can expect an early visit from Secretary Kerry and there is much to discuss – but rowing back on drone strikes is unlikely to be an agenda item for him.