Kerry: Cold War diplomacy was ‘easier’ than today

Secretary of State John Kerry, accompanied by Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, announces the launch of second Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review during a speech at the State Department in Washington, Tuesday, April 22, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Secretary of State John Kerry waxed a little bit nostalgic for the Cold War on Tuesday, saying the era of civil defense drills and mutual assured destruction was an “easier” or “simpler” time in which to lead American diplomacy.

“It may not have seemed so at the time, obviously, to great leaders, but it was easier than it is today – simpler is maybe a way to put it,” Kerry said at the State Department during remarks launching a regular review of U.S. foreign policy.

“We could make really bad decisions and still win because we were pretty much the sole dominant economic and military power around,” the former senator declared. “That’s not true anymore.”

Kerry’s remarks reflect a mostly academic debate about whether pursuing America’s national interest was a less high-wire affair during the Cold War between Washington and Moscow than it became after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which shifted the ground to problems like climate change, extremist groups, and so-called rogue nations like Iran or North Korea.

“Many things were subsumed and quashed by that force of that bipolar world,” Kerry said. “The choices were less varied, less complicated, more stark, more clear: Communism, democracy; West, East; the Iron Curtain, the great line of divide.”

Kerry underlined “the vast array of challenges that we face today as the world is witnessing this explosion of sectarianism, religious extremism, radical ideologies, and frankly too many failed states and failing states – a vast challenge to governance, sometimes even witnessed here in our nation’s capital.”

“Now we witness in the Middle East many forces unleashed – Sunni, Shia, other – Islamism, radical Islam, so forth. So we have to really navigate our way through this much more complicated world…a world where change is coming at us much, much faster. Whole populations that might have relied on written communication arriving at some point in time — or perhaps just television — now instantaneously are in touch with everybody in the world,” he said.

After Hillary Clinton’s relatively cautious brand of American diplomacy, Kerry has drawn notice for his no-holds-barred approach and his deep personal investment in solving longstanding problems like the Middle East peace process.

He has made clear that, in the face of long odds on issues like Iran or Syria, the greater sin is not trying aggressively to resolve them – even if his efforts risk ending in failure.

“As we face a world of multiple emerging powers and all of these other things and the existential threat of climate change, we have to be strategic, proactive, and, particularly, we have to be efficient,” he said.