Blinken blessed and supported the trip, a State Department official told CNN. Still, Kerry’s charge overseas to launch himself into diplomacy before Blinken makes his first trip next week led to concerns that he could overshadow the current secretary of state right out of the gate, according to department four officials.
Kerry posted photos showing him chatting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, speaking at a European Union climate meeting, walking with EU President Ursula von der Leyen, conferring with foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and bumping elbows with senior European climate official Frans Timmermans, all in advance of a final stop in Paris where he met with President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday.
The montage underscored the unusual nature of the trip and the unusual break with protocol. While Blinken has spoken to many of these leaders by phone, Kerry met with some of the secretary of state’s counterparts face-to-face before Blinken has had a chance to — and even leaders with whom Blinken might not get formal meetings.
It also highlights what might be the Biden administration’s most unusual partnership: a former secretary of state working alongside a current secretary. The situation has the potential to boost diplomatic productivity, State Department sources say, but could also lead to confusion and awkwardness.
Differences and overlaps
In London, Kerry also met with British government officials hosting COP26, the next annual UN meeting focused on climate issues. In Paris, he met with French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and was expected to meet with Ecology Minister Barbara Pompili, Foreign Minister Yves LeDrian and the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, officials told CNN.
While Kerry and Blinken are very close, some officials fret that their personality differences and portfolio overlaps might also create a dynamic that blurs the lines between the two. Kerry has enjoyed the spotlight since his 20s and is known for his relentless pace on the global stage, while Blinken is seen as more reserved and methodical and has worked to support other officials for most of his life.
State Department officials said there was some nervousness about Kerry’s debut trip as climate envoy precisely because of his love for hitting the road and engaging in face-to-face diplomacy and his eagerness to do so. These officials cited worry in the ranks about how to manage Kerry’s drive to get out there, meet people and make appearances, and the concern he might overshadow or be seen to overshadow Blinken. And while the secretary supported Kerry’s trip, some officials close to him were irritated by it, a second State Department official said.
Asked what signal it sent to European allies to have Kerry visit before the secretary, a State Department spokesperson said that Kerry, “with the support of President Biden, Secretary Blinken, and his hosts in London, Brussels, and Paris, believes it is vital that we make substantial progress this year to confront the climate crisis. He traveled to Europe at this time because he and our partners were confident that a handful of in-person meetings could advance that progress meaningfully, including ahead of the President’s Leaders Summit on Climate next month.”
The spokesperson made clear that Kerry would be sticking to the climate issue. “Special Presidential Envoy Kerry is focused squarely on the climate change, and he makes that clear in every conversation he has,” they said.
The first State Department official told CNN that Kerry is able to do things Blinken cannot because he can travel without a big footprint of staff — an advantage in the ongoing Covid pandemic. Another official familiar with Kerry’s travel plans said he traveled commercially and with only one aide.
But the Europe trip highlighted the fact that there is sensitivity surrounding Kerry’s role, and some kinks still need to be worked out.
The administration official familiar with the planning for Kerry’s trip said it was weeks in the making and required the normal White House and State Department approval. But some State officials felt the trip came together at the “last minute” and others were not aware that Kerry’s travel was officially approved until von der Leyen put out a statement on Friday about a call she had with Biden and mentioned Kerry was coming, one department official said.
The White House readout of Biden’s call with von der Leyen made no mention of Kerry.
After weeks of video meetings, Kerry felt like he needed to see his counterparts in person, particularly because of the upcoming April 22 climate summit hosted by the Biden administration and then the “sprint to Glasgow” for the UN Climate Change Conference in November, the administration official said.
Trip caused some stress
Another official noted that faced with Kerry’s drive to travel, it is hard to say no to a former secretary of state. A third State Department official said that staff think that “as Blinken starts to travel more it will be fine,” but like others, acknowledged that this first trip caused some stress.
That’s partly because in diplomacy there are always the important considerations of protocol and rank as meetings are arranged, particularly at the beginning of a new administration.
One official said Kerry’s former standing, expertise and well-known love of chewing over policy questions could mean he gets called on to answer questions about issues that are no longer his purview, but Blinken’s.
“Who knows what he’ll say when he’s out there if someone asks him about non-climate issues: Iran, or the GOP, or insurrection or whatever,” this official speculated.
The State Department spokesperson, perhaps anticipating these concerns, made clear that Kerry would be sticking to the climate issue. “Special Presidential Envoy Kerry is focused squarely on the climate change, and he makes that clear in every conversation he has,” they said.
For State Department officials, Kerry’s enthusiasm to get things done dovetails with the challenge of managing European allies’ eagerness to engage in personal diplomacy with Biden administration officials after four strained years with Trump. “Kerry has all of these contacts who find out he’s coming and then want to meet with him,” said the second official.
Under Trump, diplomacy became less disciplined, as White House officials and the former President’s associates conducted outreach while sidestepping an often marginalized State Department. Some foreign officials, now familiar with that ad hoc approach, might see Kerry as another avenue to reach Biden and convey messages or requests through him instead of the more proper route of speaking through Blinken.
In Paris, French officials were lining up to see Kerry. “All I can guess is that the French suppose he is coming with Blinken’s blessing, so they will meet with him,” said a fourth State Department official. “I imagine the French are thrilled to have an interlocutor on the ground,” said this official. “While they might prefer for protocol reasons that it be (the Secretary), they will go forward on the assumption that everyone is playing nicely.”
One specific protocol concern is that Kerry knows France’s Macron and the UK’s Johnson well, but ordinarily wouldn’t necessarily be granted a formal appointment with them, officials said.
Even Blinken would not normally get a formal meeting with the French President or British prime minister because protocol is that the secretary of state meets with his or her counterpart, the foreign minister. What traditionally happens on these visits is that officials in the State Department and Foreign Ministry arrange for the prime minister to make a seemingly impromptu “drop by” visit.
That is precisely what happened in the UK, where Kerry became the first Biden Cabinet official to pay a visit to London to mark the “special relationship.” Kerry tweeted that during his meeting with COP26 President Alok Sharma, he had a “surprise visit” from Johnson and signaled future diplomacy and travel ahead. “Only eight short months until Glasgow,” Kerry said, “thrilled to have both these leaders as strong partners in the work ahead.”
It wasn’t clear how France handled Kerry’s meeting with Macron, but the climate envoy emerged from their conversation and told reporters that the US was “back to being partners.”
On the 7th floor, where the secretary and his senior staff have offices, Kerry is seen as potentially powerful force multiplier for Blinken, who could help make the secretary and US diplomacy more effective.
“It certainly helps things that they are close friends,” a source told CNN.
Blinken, Kerry and their teams talk regularly because climate issues are threaded throughout the Biden administration’s approach to foreign policy, this source said, and dealing with climate change is a central administration priority.
“Secretary Blinken recognizes the importance of the US being engaged on this and that is why he, from the start, has been a champion of this office and of Secretary Kerry in this role,” said the official. “He has confidence that Secretary Kerry can make progress.”
CNN’s Zahid Mahmood in Coventry and Pierre Bairin in Paris contributed to this report