John Kerry isn’t – or shouldn’t be – here to just brainstorm on the usual political situation or how wonderful American democracy seems. Cambodian politicians will appreciate the American logic of course, but that’s about it for either lack of willingness or means.
Having got barely one year left on his term as the secretary of state of the most powerful nation on earth, there always is an urging to accomplish a lot of things in this short span of time. Want it or not, his boss wants to see the “Pivot to Asia” succeed somehow; and Kerry knows that although the Middle East has been consuming him all this time. But while US-Asia trade relations aren’t that bad, the feeling that Asian nations can depend on the US for security isn’t as sure as it used to be.
Moreover, the gate to more prosperity for Asia has also been opening wide towards Beijing since Asian leaders are more interested in quick gains and trade-offs, to China’s liking. How much the recently signed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement could help the US in its economic power struggle with China won’t be known in (so) many years from now if all goes well. But John Kerry isn’t an average secretary of state. Leaving politics and economics aside, he has something truly special, very personal, something quite warming to the hearts if he can share that heartfelt treasure right. And that is, happiness in spite of defeat.
Non-Americans began to hear about John Kerry in 2004 when he was fiercely fighting for the presidency against the unpopular incumbent president but ultimately lost the battle by a small margin of popular votes (48.27 per cent versus Bush’s 50.73 per cent), which made the defeat really hard to swallow.
Although it took the political giant Ted Kennedy, who had been campaigning for him, to drive in the early hours to come to console him following the election day at his kitchen table, John Kerry didn’t hesitate to swallow the defeat on the election night. And he did so with such honour and grace when he uttered to crowds cheering him saying, “I wish that I could just wrap you up in my arms and embrace each and every one of you individually all across this nation” to thank them. How can he transfer that kind of exceptional courage to Asian leaders?
As an ice-breaker, he might like to begin with a common foundation which he definitely shares with many Asian leaders: that they started out as brave young soldiers. The many acts of bravery on the battlefields had certainly shaped his worldview. But, more importantly and on a personal level, it was his unmistakable courage to reveal the inconvenient truth about war atrocities allegedly committed by American soldiers that shot him to national fame overnight. This introductory message would find some resonance with his Asian interlocutors who will and should boast of their own military record.
But, quickly, the substance of the conversation should move away from old heroic memories to the realities of the world in which they live in, in which their children and grandchildren live in, precisely a world in which fair competition must be allowed and results be graciously accepted. The secretary of state is in an impeccable position to eloquently talk about being happy following his biggest defeat in 2004 and how he has been able to live with it after having let half of the country completely down.
The US in 2004, he should recall, was deeply suffering from an almost unprecedented political divide that was turning neighbours into enemies. American voters had been very angry with the direction the country was headed then and remained hugely frustrated with the previous involvement of the US Supreme Court, which some charged had handed the presidency to Bush in 2000. Kerry could have chosen to go through what he called “protracted legal process” to perhaps get ballots verified and recounted and so on. But no, he lifted himself above the mundane temptations and preferred, rightly, that results be decided by voters.
This message on the need to respect the decision of the voters must be loud and clear if peace and orderly daily life are to be restored, instead of manipulating the crowds. And in the process, as his case has clearly demonstrated, personal honour also got restored.
This was obvious when he handily won his fourth straight re-election to the US Senate in 2008, gathering 65 per cent of votes in Massachusetts.
As a career politician, there are few who have served with distinctions and retained as good a reputation as John Kerry has. His story shouldn’t be forgotten. All he needs to do is to begin telling it as passionately as he should as it relates to his honourable acceptance of defeat. of course the conditions aren’t the same in the US and elsewhere but what should be required everywhere is that one additional grain of courage and good character. Sometimes the greatest motivation comes from the most unlikely places because power is greatest when we don’t need it. One year is really short, so dear John, let’s get personal.
Dr Virak Prum, LLB, LLM, received his PhD in international development in 2006 from Nagoya University.