John Kerry's final run at a place in history

While the US's recent ambassadorial appointees have been an embarrassment, its current Secretary of State is one of its most ambitious

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On the face of it, this hasn't been a great week for US diplomacy. First, we had the leaked audio of a phone call during which the State Department's top official for Europe arrogantly declared, apropos of the latter's efforts to deal with the crisis in Ukraine: "F*** the EU." Embarrassing stuff and also a delightful case of the biter bit, given the National Security Agency's celebrated ability to intercept any telephone conversation on earth.

Closer to home, a new fuss has developed – rightly – over the dreadful practice whereby presidents of both parties give ambassadorships not to career diplomats who have toiled in the vineyard but to big party fundraisers. The latest examples include George Tsunis, a New York business executive, now to be America's envoy to Oslo. Tsunis has never set foot in Norway and during his recent Senate confirmation hearing was plainly under the impression that the country had a president, not a king. Indeed, he sounded as if he had never even bothered to read the Wikipedia entry on Norway. But no need for alarm. When you've "bundled" a million bucks for the Obama campaign, such lapses, whatever the bitter mirth they provoke among the people he'll have to deal with in Oslo, do not matter.

Ditto Colleen Bradley Bell, a Hollywood producer who is America's ambassador-to-be in Hungary, where politics in recent years have been decidedly fraught. At the same Senate hearing, she could do no better than blather on about peace, democracy and the comity of nations. Evidently, she was not too clued up on who's up and who's down in Budapest – but when you've raised a fortune for Obama in Lalaland, who cares?

In fact, the only person who did seem to care was John McCain, the former presidential candidate and top Republican on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, when he declared – his voice dripping with sarcasm and exasperation – that he had "no more questions of this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees". So farcical were proceedings that they drew withering op-ed pieces from a couple of former senior State Department officials. But if you're expecting any change in this perverse spoils system, don't hold your breath.

Moreover, given all this, you might be forgiven for assuming that US diplomacy these days does not set its sights very high. In reality, the opposite is true, as demonstrated by the extraordinary endeavours of McCain's old Democratic friend and sparring partner John Kerry. Kerry used to be chairman of the foreign relations panel, until he became America's 68th Secretary of State last January.

And, in truth, expectations weren't high when he took over. He wasn't even President Obama's first choice, only drafted in when Susan Rice, the former ambassador to the UN and currently National Security Adviser, took the fall for the fatal September 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. And, as Kerry himself declared in his first speech to his new staff, he had "big heels to fill" – the ones that belonged to his superstar predecessor Hillary Clinton. One way and another, he seemed the safe, boring choice: highly experienced, but basically a reversion to the lineage of elderly white males, starting with Thomas Jefferson, who had run State until Bill Clinton appointed Madeleine Albright in 1997.

It hasn't worked out like that. Kerry turned 70 last year. He was a senator for almost three decades and was narrowly beaten by George W Bush for the White House in 2004. This job, one he has always coveted, is the final act of his political career, and he's going out with a bang. Clinton still with an eye on the biggest prize of all, was cautious and unambitious in the role. Not so John Kerry. This is his last chance to make a mark and, if he fails, so what? "After you lose the presidency, you don't have much else to lose," he told an interviewer last year.

Kerry has always had his detractors. He's accused of being arrogant and pompous, a typical Senate waffler with a propensity for off-the-cuff gaffes. But these qualities, allied to an extraordinary patience and perseverance, may now be assets. Kerry is a liberated man: no more campaigns, no more fundraising, no need to soft pedal and curry favours. The conventional portrait, moreover, neglects his record as a war hero in Vietnam. The man of words is also a man of action. Clinton flew 206,000 miles in her first year on the job; Kerry already has logged 320,000.

Today, he's walking the diplomatic high wire as no secretary of state since Henry Kissinger, grappling with three all but intractable problems: the terrible civil war in Syria; the confrontation over Iran's nuclear programme; and the search for a two-state peace deal between Israel and Palestine.

The outlook is most bleak in Syria, where the recent Geneva talks sponsored by the US and Russia failed totally. Thus far, Washington has virtually stayed out of the conflict, but Kerry is hinting that that may change. On Iran, by contrast, a fragile optimism is in the air. Just possibly, the current six-month agreement to freeze parts of Teheran's nuclear programme could lead not only to a nuclear deal but an end to 35 years of estrangement between Washington and Tehran, and a change of Iran's behaviour in the region.

Most perplexing, perhaps, is Kerry's relentless drive for a comprehensive agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. More than 60 years of dispute and conflict says that it can't be done, and there is little outward sign that either side is shifting its position. Yet the man perseveres, staking his prestige and his place in history on the outcome.

The three issues overlap. Quite possibly, he will fail on all three. On the other hand, success on Iran or in bringing about a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement – the ultimate triumph of hope over experience – would see Kerry go down as one of America's most consequential secretaries of state. And, whatever happens, his efforts already show that there's more to US diplomacy than hacked phone calls and blundering ambassadorial nominees.

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