He’s been a national figure since his days as a Vietnam vet protesting the war. He carried his party’s banner in 2004. And as secretary of State, he negotiated a major nuclear deal involving the world’s most powerful countries.
Now John Kerry is reporting for duty as Joe Biden’s climate envoy, and the exact parameters of his new role remain undefined, raising concerns that he might create confusion and complicate the Biden administration’s diplomatic lines of effort.
In particular, it’s not clear how Kerry’s job will mesh with the activities of his former deputy, incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken — who now technically outranks his old boss — and what role he’ll play on the National Security Council, where he’s expected to attend every top meeting and will likely enjoy direct access to Biden, his longtime Senate colleague and peer.
Kerry’s large personality and “maniacal” pursuit of diplomatic wins, as two former colleagues described it, has consequently raised questions in Biden’s orbit about whether the 76-year-old statesman might overshadow other key figures, including Blinken, who has a quieter and more understated temperament, according to those who know him.
And while Kerry is known as a grinder who bores in on whatever mission he’s given — be it the Iran nuclear deal or diplomatic talks over Syria — his reputation for “diplomatic adventuring,” as one 2013 Atlantic profile put it, could make for an awkward dynamic, at least at first. Kerry, who last reported directly to the president, will soon find himself working out of the State Department again—but this time, as a subordinate to Blinken, who is “closer to Biden on foreign policy than anyone else,” as a former Obama NSC official put it. Kerry will also have a domestic counterpart focusing specifically on climate issues in the United States with whom he will be expected to coordinate fairly closely.
“It’s an unusual setup,” one former Obama NSC official acknowledged, requesting anonymity, as did several others, to speak candidly. “He was secretary of State. It’s something that by definition you have to work through.”
“Everyone is kind of wondering about it,” this former official added, noting that climate issues cut across a number of portfolios, from energy to security to economics. “But that’s a good thing, so it’s not going to take anyone by surprise.”
There are also questions about whether foreign officials, who have grown accustomed to the scattershot diplomacy practiced by officials and non-officials around President Donald Trump, will try to take advantage of the unique nature of Kerry’s assignment.
“There is some consternation within the incoming NSC team on this issue,” said one person close to its senior members. “There is a sense that foreign leaders might see [Kerry] as an alternative route to the president, so if they don’t like, for example, what the secretary of State is doing, they can just call Kerry.”
Perhaps the most complex issue for Kerry will be negotiating a deal with China on climate, as Blinken simultaneously works to build leverage over Beijing to confront what Biden has described as that government’s “abusive behaviors and human rights violations.”
Several former officials who worked with Kerry during the Obama administration said they didn’t think he would intentionally step on Blinken’s toes in the new role, which will empower him as both a roving diplomat — albeit with a focus on climate — and a member of the NSC’s Principals Committee, a senior interagency forum for Cabinet-level officials.
Kerry, who by many accounts has an excellent relationship with Blinken, is keenly aware of the need to coordinate and get out of the way when needed, they stressed. The fact that Biden, Blinken, and Kerry have long been aligned on key foreign policy and national security issues will also likely minimize the negative impact of any backchanneling.
“I’m not saying he won’t have long talks with Middle Eastern leaders about the Iran deal and this, that, or the other thing,” said Daniel Russel, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs while Kerry led the State Department. “But that’s not what he’s doing. He won’t purport to be doing that. He is not going to do anything that would undercut or complicate the work or success of someone that he really loves, Tony Blinken.”
Wendy Sherman, who served as undersecretary of State for political affairs under Kerry, said foreign governments “may well try” to use Kerry as a backchannel. But she predicted that any such efforts would get “pulled back” into the appropriate policy channels. “This is going to be an administration with a policy process,” she said.
Kerry addressed Blinken directly last month when he publicly accepted the new role, though he described his former No. 2 as a “partner” rather than a superior. “We’ve worked together for many years — on the Foreign Relations Committee and at Foggy Bottom — and it will be a pleasure to partner with you again,” he said in prepared remarks. “You will be a terrific secretary.”
A transition official emphasized that Kerry’s role will be woven into and not distinct from Biden’s broader diplomatic agenda, which Blinken will lead.
“President-elect Biden wants climate on the agenda in the Situation Room, which is why he created this role, appointed Secretary Kerry to it, and made him an NSC principal,” the official said. “In this capacity, Secretary Kerry will be the point person for international climate issues and negotiations. His role will be fully integrated into the Biden-Harris administration’s broader diplomacy, which, as always, will be helmed by the secretary of State.”
Still, a former Kerry aide called the possibility that Kerry will attempt to insert himself into issues under Blinken’s purview “a risk.”
“But it’s a risk they are well aware of,” he said. “It comes with the territory with Kerry. I think Blinken will know how to draw boundaries.”
Along with his office at State, Kerry will have a perch at the White House. The exact structure of the climate office is still being hashed out, such as whether there will be an interagency coordinator on climate. But Biden has made it clear that he wants climate on the agenda at most, if not all, Principals Committee meetings, and has emphasized the climate credentials of other top officials, such as Treasury Secretary-designate Janet Yellen. One of Biden’s “Day One” priorities is to re-enter the Paris Agreement on climate change, a global framework that secured commitments from nearly 200 countries to work to reduce global warming. Trump announced in 2017 that he would pull the U.S. out of the treaty.
“He will have a seat at every table around the world,” Biden said last month when announcing Kerry’s new position. “For the first time ever, there will be a principal on the National Security Council who will make sure climate change is on the agenda in the Situation Room. For the first time ever, we’ll have a presidential envoy on climate.”
A spokesperson for Kerry, Matthew Summers, said the former chief diplomat would maintain a “laser focus” on the climate issue.
“John Kerry has worked closely with Secretary-designate Blinken for more than 20 years from the Foreign Relations Committee to the NSC and the State Department as friends and colleagues, with deep mutual respect,” Summers said. “The constant has been their friendship and warmth toward one another. John Kerry couldn’t be more excited for these new roles for each of them. Addressing the global climate crisis is a 24-7, up-at-dawn challenge that requires a laser focus for this new position.”
There is an inherent tension in the “special envoy” role more generally. Presidents of both political parties have often relied on such delegates to tackle specific issues, such as promoting religious freedom, protecting the LGBTIQ community or even trying to resolve the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some have had more success than others, and some presidents, such as Barack Obama, were criticized as having too many such posts.
President Donald Trump’s first secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, slashed the number of special envoys. But his successor, Mike Pompeo, brought such posts back with a vengeance, especially as the Trump administration struggled to obtain Senate confirmation for many of its nominees for traditional positions.
A special envoy’s presence can free up other officials to focus on other matters, but it also can cause discomfort for traditional government offices. Legendary diplomat Richard Holbrooke clashed with Afghanistan’s then-President Hamid Karzai when he was a special envoy tasked with trying to end the conflict in that country, while complicating U.S. relations with India and Pakistan.
A good deal of Kerry’s success could depend on how well he coordinates with the array of other U.S. officials. Seeing as climate change affects everything from U.S. energy policy to its relations with China, Kerry and his team will have their hands full just keeping schedules straight.
“There’s no question that diplomacy is going to be led by Tony Blinken,” Sherman said. “He also knows there’s a huge amount to get done — huge. So if John Kerry is in a country working on climate, and Tony wants a message sent about something other than climate, he might ask Kerry to send it. There aren’t going to be sharp elbows about this. There’s just too much work to be done.”