By Arturo Lopez-Levy
One would have to go back to John Quincy Adams, who served in the U.S. diplomatic service from the age of 17, to find a predecessor better pedigreed than John Kerry to lead the U.S. State Department. The son of a diplomat, Kerry is a war veteran, senior senator, and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Few experiences have had greater influence on Kerry’s foreign policy views than his decades-long relationship with Vietnam, where Kerry served as a swift boat captain during the Vietnam War.
Kerry’s experience in Vietnam, where visceral ideological attitudes prevailed over rational analysis, prompted the future senator to advocate for a more realistic course for U.S. policy. A decorated veteran, John Kerry became a spokesman for veterans against the war. He learned that to promote U.S. values and interests requires awareness of the relative nature of power and the force of nationalism in the post-colonial world.
Throughout his subsequent political career, Kerry has sought to correct the foreign policy mistakes that led to the fiasco in Indochina, learning to value diplomacy and engagement above force. Together with Senator John McCain (R-AZ), another veteran of the war, Kerry supported President Clinton’s steps to end the U.S. embargo against Vietnam. The result, according to Kerry, has been a “Vietnam that is less isolated, more market oriented, and, yes, freer—though it has miles to go.”
Admittedly, Kerry has not always applied these lessons properly—witness his regrettable support for the Bush administration’s disastrous invasion of Iraq. But elsewhere, as in his efforts to ease the archaic U.S. blockade on Cuba, Kerry continues to promote engagement as the fundamental tool of foreign policy.
In a 2009 Tampa Bay Times op-ed, for example, Kerry relates how the success of the U.S. rapprochement with Vietnam helped shape his advocacy for improved relations with Cuba, which he presented as a defense of U.S. interests and democratic values. “For 47 years,” he wrote, “our embargo in the name of democracy has produced no democracy at all. Too often, our rhetoric and policies have actually furnished the Castro regime with an all-purpose excuse to draw attention away from its many shortcomings.”
This evidence has informed the future secretary of state’s position against the ban on travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens. Based on the experience of tourists from other countries and the return of Cuban-Americans who “have already had a significant impact on increasing the flow of information and hard currency to ordinary Cubans,” Kerry understands that unrestricted U.S. travel to Cuba would be “a catalyst for change.”
The senator also placed a temporary freeze in 2010 on the poorly designed USAID Cuba programs, which have led to the imprisonment of Alan Gross, an agency subcontractor.
Kerry, who has visited Vietnam post-reconciliation, knows that a USAID program there helped to multiply Internet connectivity rates in the country. The USAID program in Vietnam is jointly implemented with the Japanese development agency and with the support of the local government, unlike the Helms-Burton law, which geared USAID programs in Cuba toward regime change and was repudiated in the UN for its unilateralism. The USAID program in Vietnam encourages development, which is what USAID was created for, not efforts to overthrow Hanoi’s government. The premise is that a population more affluent, better educated, and more connected will demand more democratic practices.
According to Kerry, the United States will never stop supporting human rights in Cuba, simply because they are fundamental values of American society. After all, the United States has continued pushing for civil and political liberties in Vietnam since ending its embargo. Washington does so not because it opposes Hanoi’s leaders or to impose a regime change, but as part of a rational strategy of promoting a peaceful evolution to a more open Vietnamese political system. Washington wants stable relationships with the whole Vietnamese nation, not only with the government. Peoples of the world, no matter how suspicious of U.S. motives they may be, appreciate human rights promotion within the framework of international law.
The nomination of John Kerry is also consistent with the political changes that have occurred in the Cuban-American community, expressed by the elevated Cuban diaspora vote for Democrats in the last election. Like Kerry, and as then-Senate candidate Obama stated in 2004, most Cuban-Americans believe that the embargo has failed and that it is time to influence the processes of economic reform and political liberalization that began in Cuba after the retirement of Fidel Castro.
Once public opinion turned against the war in Vietnam, the political leadership in the U.S. found it had no choice but to follow suit. Kerry is better positioned than anyone to be a leader and see that point of departure when it comes to U.S. policy and Cuba.
Arturo Lopez-Levy is a PhD Candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver. You can follow him on Twitter @turylevy.