When Senator John Kerry and Richard C. Holbrooke chat about foreign policy, Iraq and Afghanistan predictably top the agenda. But Holbrooke, an investment banker, ex-diplomat, and now a Kerry adviser, says their talk often turns to another topic that is seared into their consciousness: Vietnam. In the 1960s, Kerry was a young U.S. Navy officer there, and Holbrooke was a rising star in the Foreign Service posted to Saigon. The conflict was a crucible that forged both men's worldviews -- an experience that can't help but color Kerry's foreign policy if he wins in November. "It's not that he's imprisoned by Vietnam," Holbrooke says. "He's informed by his experience there."
What did Kerry take away from his perilous stints patrolling the Mekong Delta -- and the years since? He learned that Washington often doesn't know enough about countries where it intervenes, and thus overestimates what it can achieve. Vietnam taught Kerry that the U.S. should exhaust diplomatic options before resorting to war. And when the U.S. does use force, Kerry learned, it can't cut and run. If America abandons a dependent nation, "you have to count on mass instability," says Kerry biographer Douglas Brinkley. Vietnam also taught the candidate that issues can seldom be painted in black and white, as President George W. Bush often does: Just as Kerry served in Vietnam despite his doubts about that war, today he can back the war in Iraq while criticizing its management.
Can a complex global outlook win over voters in a post-September 11 America that fears an election-season attack? Kerry sells himself as a pragmatic internationalist pitted against a reckless, ideologically driven unilateralist. Republicans counter that with his back-to-the-future multilateralism and frequent waffling, Kerry isn't tough enough to win the war on terror, beat back Iraqi insurgents, and bring such rogue nations as North Korea and Iran to heel. Kerry's response: At the Democratic convention, he enlisted a dozen three- and four-star admirals and generals who back his candidacy. While voters still give Bush higher marks on terror, pollster John Zogby says undecided voters may choose Kerry's nuance over Bush's moralism. "Swing voters appear to be more in that column," Zogby says.
Kerry maintains that his approach is the best way to restore America's standing in the world and win greater global cooperation. That's needed on a host of fronts, from intelligence-sharing to tracking and freezing terrorists' assets. "It will take new leadership from the U.S. to change the credibility of our government and its ability to bring people to the table," Kerry told BusinessWeek. To start the process, a newly inaugurated President Kerry would make a quick trip to the U.N., meet with European leaders, and launch an intensive Middle East peace initiative.
Many believe a Kerry win would yield a global sigh of relief. Bush's "religious [attitude] of good and evil, you're with us or against us -- this is alienating even many conservatives in Europe," says Karsten D. Voigt, coordinator of German-American cooperation at the German Foreign Ministry. China and other countries in Asia "consider Bush's policies too dangerous and simple," says Wang Yong, a global relations expert at Beijing University.
GET NATO TO PITCH IN
But while the tone may be different, the Kerry Doctrine's substance may not mark the radical departure from Bush policies that many expect. One reason: Bush has coopted policies Kerry has advocated, from expanding the U.N.'s role in Iraq reconstruction to negotiating with North Korea to pledging to implement the 9/11 Commission's recommendations. What's more, Kerry is more hawkish than many Democrats and won't rule out a Bush-style preemptive strike or unilateral military action if allies balk at joining a coalition. Europeans "are in for a disappointment," says Ezra Suleiman, director of European studies at Princeton University. "They think there will be a quick turnaround on policy, and there won't." Adds Kerry adviser James P. Rubin: "The goals of foreign policy don't change that much from Administration to Administration. The difference -- and it's a big difference -- is how you go about achieving those goals."
Take Iraq. Like Bush, the Massachusetts Democrat would stay the course. But he would make adjustments. While Bush has sought more U.N. involvement, Kerry wants a U.N. High Commissioner to run Iraq's elections and reconstruction. And he would invite Iraq's neighbors to a summit to pledge to protect Iraq's borders and stop meddling in Baghdad's internal political affairs.
Kerry also wants NATO troops to relieve the stress on American GIs. He believes allies have the resources but don't want to share them with this White House. "There's a political cost [foreign] leaders must pay" when they cooperate with Bush, says Rubin. "If Kerry is elected, that calculation is going to change." But will it change enough to get boots on the ground?
In a similar fashion, Kerry would preserve the Six-Party Talks for dealing with North Korea's nuclear program but would tweak the U.S. approach. Again, though, Kerry will have to contend with Bush's sudden policy shifts. Under pressure from China, Japan, and South Korea, which were tired of U.S. stonewalling, the President recently outlined for the North what it could gain by ending its nuclear capabilities -- a step Kerry had urged for months. And U.S. officials have had some tête-à-têtes with North Korean officials, a previous no-no. Kerry would hold formal direct meetings with Pyongyang. Some Kerry aides, skeptical that strongman Kim Jong Il would give up his nuclear program, think such talks could flush out his real intentions.
AN OPENING IN THE POLLS
Both candidates demand verifiable dismantling of nuclear facilities. But Kerry goes further. He might put a top adviser in charge, such as former Defense Secretary William J. Perry. The hawkish Perry "is no softie on North Korea," says Richard H. Solomon, president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. The Kerry team would state clearly that certain steps, such as building nuclear bombs, would trigger an economic or even military response from the U.S. Bush hasn't been so explicit.
In the Middle East, Kerry would make a renewed effort to push the peace process forward. He would appoint a Presidential envoy to reinvigorate the process and work with the Palestinian Authority and neighboring states to create a Palestinian leadership "that in fact can deliver across the table for the Israeli government," says Rand Beers, a counterterrorism expert who left Bush's National Security Council to coordinate the Kerry campaign's foreign policy.
How will all this play with voters? Bush's mixed record creates an opening. A July 19-21 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that by 50% to 47%, Americans believe the Iraq war was a mistake. Yet so far, Kerry has made little headway: Only 36% in the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll rated him highly on protecting U.S. interests abroad. And a July 19 USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll shows Bush with a 56%-to-38% edge on handling terrorism.
Nor will Kerry's approach necessarily bring détente with Europe. Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that as Europe becomes more unified, it sees itself as a rising great power, while the U.S. sees it as declining. "Those tensions will be present regardless of who wins in November," he says. The issue for voters is whether they want a President who sees the world in black and white or in shades of gray.
By Stan Crock in Washington, with Jack Ewing in Frankfurt, John Rossant in Paris, Moon Ihlwan in Seoul, and Dexter Roberts in Beijing