The metaphor became a clever laugh line even before John Kerry took the reins of the State Department from Hillary Clinton. Kerry spoke respectfully of his predecessor, saying he had “big heels” to fill. Richard Haass, head of the Council of Foreign Relations, expressed his admiration for Hillary by joking that Kerry would have to fill “very large Manolo Blahniks.”
Designer labels would never pose a challenge for the suave new secretary of state, who embarked last week on his first big trip as the country’s top diplomat. For Kerry, one of the tasks — along with countless substantial issues on the agenda — is forging his own style, as he takes the helm from Hillary, a global superstar.
And the styles could not be more different. Kerry predictably kicked off his tour in London, meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron at Downing Street. The photo-op brought back the traditional images of old-time diplomacy: two powerful white men, making bad jokes for the cameras before they got down to the important business of deciding the fate of the world behind closed doors.
Hillary’s first trip, by contrast, started in Asia, signifying the beginning of the “pivot” to the East that Kerry may now pedal back from a bit. In her first stop, exactly four years ago, she went to Japan, where after speaking with that country’s prime minister she had tea with the empress, someone known to have a kinship with the former first lady built on knowledge of the pressures that can befall an intelligent woman living in a glass cage.
Later, Hillary starred in an extraordinary event, a town hall meeting at Ewha University in South Korea, the largest women’s university in the world.
Kerry will not try to emulate one of the trademarks of the Clinton era at the State Department. Hillary has a passion for women’s issues that she has carried to every job she has held.
The new secretary of state is apparently trying to continue the important work of connecting with regular people. He held a town hall meeting with Berlin students at an Internet café.
He is as well-prepared as anyone could hope to be for the job, and he will undoubtedly do it well, even managing the occasional unscripted moment with the not-so-powerful. His performance with the students was not dazzling, but he will probably get better at it.
The bottom line, however, is that Kerry is a very different kind of diplomat, a very different kind of politician from the woman he succeeds. Kerry was bred in a diplomatic family, to enter the halls of power and join the establishment. He had his days as a rebel, campaigning against the Vietnam War. But he did not stay an outsider for very long. He moves with old-style diplomatic grace and know-how.
Hillary, on the other hand, has always been something of a bomb-thrower, someone who set out from an early age to change the world. She has become a consummate charmer, and nobody disputed her diplomatic skills, but her emphasis — what contributed to her immense international popularity during her four years at the State Department — was her personal attention to connections with everyday people.
That was partly because President Obama did not allow a lot of latitude on foreign policy. The White House kept tight control of policy, so she delved more into developing connections, in promoting Brand America, but particularly aspects of the brand that should sell well, such as democracy, secularism, and equal rights.
Kerry may try to keep the connections alive. But he will not be a man-of-the-people diplomat. He will not travel as extensively as Clinton. And he will try to influence policy more than Hillary was able to do.
In that effort, he will have some advantages over Clinton. First, the president doesn’t have to run for reelection, so he will be more willing to take risks than he did in the first term, when he rejected proposals from the State Department that might have carried a political price. Second, Kerry, unlike Clinton, has no interest in running for president again. So he, too, will be willing to take risks, to make an occasional mistake, without worrying about it becoming a bat with which his opponents could clobber him during a campaign.
With this first nine-country trip, Kerry has started the process of setting aside Hillary’s shoes, the ones so many people told him he would have to fill. He is walking “Kerry style,” a very different walk from the one we saw with the previous secretary of state.