As President Barack Obama’s tenure draws to a close, Washington is turning its attention to one of its silliest traditions: toting up the travel statistics of the outgoing secretary of state, as if miles traveled correlated to diplomatic achievement.
In his four years as secretary of state, John Kerry has thus far (he still has six weeks left) traveled over 1.3 million miles and spent 564 days – nearly one-third of his time as Secretary – on the road. Although this easily surpasses Hillary Clinton’s 956,733 miles and 401 days, Kerry will not be able to match Mrs. Clinton’s record of 112 countries visited. Alas, Mr. Kerry will only make it to 90 countries during his tenure.
But the relevant question is whether U.S. foreign policy goals are advanced by the peripatetic travels of our permanently jet-lagged secretaries of state. The answer is not by very much.
In fact, such trips can actually make secretaries of state less effective, because they are absent from key meetings about foreign policy. And by their absence the State Department cedes policy influence to the National Security Advisor and the NSC staff.
This is not to diminish the need for international meetings – NATO, the G-7, ASEAN leap to mind – as well as accompanying the President on his trips. There are also times when the personal engagement of the secretary of state is needed to close important agreements – i.e. the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal.
What these two agreements have in common is that the heavy-lifting was done largely by lower level officials and experts on each side who cleared the way for the ministers to resolve the final differences.
By contrast, the secretary’s travel schedule in recent years has been loaded with trips that were not clearly defined, did not have clear goals and objectives, were not adequately prepared, and, in the end, did not achieve any purpose. The repeated failure to make progress in resolving the Syria conflict offers a case in point.
Secretary Kerry attended at least 20 formal gatherings of foreign ministers over the course of his tenure on Syria. Add to that at least an equal number of bilateral and multilateral meetings, consultations, and conferences dedicated to Syria.
And what was the net result after four years of these nearly monthly get-togethers? By most measures, the situation in Syria has never been worse than it is now.
The secretary’s determined but ultimately fruitless effort to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace is another instance of hours invested and miles traveled long after there was any reasonable expectation that the investment would pay off.
If this were simply a matter of the secretary undertaking quixotic missions with little to show for them, it would probably not be an issue worthy of much attention. But there are costs to U.S. foreign policy interests that are imposed by the secretary’s frequent absences from Washington.
When the secretary is on the road, he is not at the table when the president makes decisions that directly affect foreign policy. Equally, since other senior diplomats are frequently on the road, the State Department often does not have an equal voice with the other Cabinet departments in the National Security Council meetings. The net result is an imbalance between diplomatic options and military or intelligence community preferences.
A second effect of the secretary’s absence from Washington is the opportunity it presents to the NSC staff to enhance their role in policy implementation and go well beyond their legitimate purview of policy guidance and interagency coordination.
As recently as the 1980s, NSC intrusion into policy implementation was unacceptable; the root of the Iran contra scandal. Today, the NSC routinely engages in operational matters despite its inadequate staffing, experience, or capacity. It is not unheard of that they do so without consulting or informing the State Department. Congress, in particular, should be concerned by NSC’s expanded role, as the individuals conducting these affairs are neither confirmed by the Senate nor are they subject to Congressional oversight for their activities.
So to best fulfill the most important functions of secretary of state – chief diplomat and architect of foreign policy – the next nominee should leave his or her suitcase in the closet at home.
Gerald M. Feierstein was the U.S. ambassador to Yemen under President Barack Obama from 2010 to 2013. He was also part of the State Department under John Kerry until he retired this year. He is currently director of the Center for Gulf Affairs for the Middle East Institute. The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.