HOW important is it that America have a terrific secretary of state? I don't really know. Put it this way: think about any course of action America itself has pursued over the past 50 years. Now, if you were to list the top ten reasons why America decided to pursue that course of action, would the diplomatic efforts of any foreign country be on that list? In a couple of instances, maybe. But not very often. Now, reverse the polarity. That's why I'm sceptical that the quality of American diplomacy has often had a major influence on what other countries decide to do. Blustering, alienating incompetence may earn you unnecessary antagonism, but whether your diplomacy is superb or just mediocre, it doesn't seem likely you'll be able to persuade other countries to radically change their mind about major policies like, oh, pursuing nuclear-weapons capability.
Take the nomination of John Kerry. Blake Hounshell thinks Mr Kerry has the potential to be "a great choice for Obama's second-term secretary of state", but for reasons I mostly don't share. He thinks Mr Kerry could do a good job negotiating between the Taliban and the Afghan government; it seems to me he'll probably make every bit as much difference as Henry Kissinger did in negotiating between South and North Vietnam. On Iran, he thinks Mr Kerry will "exhaust all the options" before signing on for a bombing campaign; I hope this is true, and that such options are designed to last at least until 2017, at which point the next secretary can revisit the issue. On North Korea, he hopes Mr Kerry will "explore engagement", which seems like a nice idea that we shouldn't count on to produce any more than it did the last time around. On Syria, even Mr Hounshell uses the term "mission impossible", and hopes for a merely "less terrible" strategy. Finally, on Israel-Palestine, Mr Hounshell blames the lousy developments over the past four years on Hillary Clinton's disengagement, which I don't understand, and holds out the bold hope that Mr Kerry will "at least pretend that the Obama administration has a strategy".
At the micro level, on the other hand, I think it can sometimes make a major difference who your secretary of state is. Take, once again, John Kerry. There is a country where America has considerable influence, where John Kerry specifically has exceptional influence, and where American diplomatic intervention can often have significant positive effects on the human rights of at least small groups of people. That would be Vietnam. Mr Kerry, the decorated Vietnam War vet-turned-peacenik, is hugely popular in Vietnam, widely praised for the key role he and John McCain played in the 1990s in settling the POW-MIA issue and re-establishing diplomatic and trade relations. Not only does he enjoy excellent direct relations with Vietnam's communist leadership, he is personally famous. His picture features in propaganda displays in a dozen Vietnamese museums, celebrating what the government presents as America's atonement for its wrongheaded policies during the war, along with Vietnam's re-emergence as an accepted member of the international community with a queasily friendly, if somewhat fraught, relationship with America.
This would put Mr Kerry in an excellent position to lobby for small but meaningful changes in Vietnamese policy, such as, say, freeing the human-rights lawyer Le Quoc Quan, whom Vietnam arrested Thursday on charges of tax evasion.
Let's be clear: Le Quoc Quan is not in jail because of tax evasion. This is his third stint in jail. The first time, he was arrested on his return from America in 2007 because he'd had the temerity to accept a fellowship to study democratic politics at the National Democratic Institute. After returning to Vietnam, he repeatedly defended dissidents and bloggers in court, demonstrated at rallies for Catholic freedom of worship and against China, and got himself involved in various other politically irritating activities. He's in jail now because Vietnam is engaged in a bout of anti-blogger disciplinary activity, clearly related to the country's lacklustre economic performance, corruption scandals and power struggles in the intertwined world of government-business cronyism, and rising popular dissatisfaction.
Vietnam has a lot of dissidents in jail. America is not going to be able to get Vietnam to stop arresting dissidents; the Communist Party is not interested in political suicide. Nor will it be able to force Vietnam to allow its citizens to do whatever they want on the internet. But Vietnam is dependent on American export markets and on American military and diplomatic backing in itsstruggle against China over maritime jurisdiction in the South China Sea. That allows America to make it clear that Vietnam will pay a limited price, in embarrassment and ebbing support, if it goes beyond certain informal lines in its oppression of dissidents. John Kerry, by virtue of his personal qualities, is in a position to draw those lines somewhat more expansively than a different secretary of state would be, one who was not considered by Vietnam to be a hero of Vietnamese-American reconciliation. He should use that position to try and get Le Quoc Quan and some of his fellow democracy activists out of jail. And I'm pretty optimistic he will.