By Arshad Mohammed
ROME (Reuters) – On his first foreign trip as Secretary of State, John Kerry charmed Europeans with his flair for languages, his wry reminiscences about biking through East Berlin as 12-year-old boy and his obvious affection for France and its cuisine.
What was less clear was how much influence Washingtonâ€™s top diplomat will have on U.S. foreign policy and whether President Barack Obama will allow him to change anything of substance.
â€œWe just finished one of those wonderful French lunches that have been drawing Americans to Paris for centuries,â€ Kerry said, speaking French and drawing laughter at the start of a news conference in an ornate salon at the Quai dâ€™Orsay.
Still in French, he added: â€œNow I will speak in English, because otherwise I wonâ€™t be able to go back home.â€
Patrician and polished, the former presidential candidate spoke with ease, and without gaffes, in English about foreign policy issues from the Falkland islands and Iranâ€™s nuclear program to Syriaâ€™s civil war and Italyâ€™s topsy-turvy election.
While the trip provided few clues on the extent to which Kerry will influence Obama, analysts remarked on his facility with the issues and his friendships with foreign officials from 28 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
â€œHe is a political heavyweight. It counts that he has been an presidential candidate. Surely in the end Obama decides the main direction for the U.S. policy – but that has always been the case,â€ Ruprecht Polenz, the head of the Bundestagâ€™s foreign committee, told Reuters in Berlin.
â€œThe U.S. has always been an Atlantic and a Pacific power. So the fear that it might turn away from Europe was and is false,â€ he added, saying he has met Kerry several times at the annual Munich Security Conference. â€œBut Kerry is somebody who has a particular open ear for the Europeans.â€
Kerryâ€™s ability to speak French was a liability during the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, feeding an image of the Democrat as a wealthy elitist that his Republican opponent George W. Bush exploited. As a diplomat, it is a clear advantage.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, as if not to be outdone, at times spoke in English during their news conference – a remarkable act for a French minister holding forth in Paris.
In London, Kerry diplomatically avoided upsetting British officials when he restated U.S. policy on the Falkland Islands and said nothing of substance in public about Britainâ€™s role in the European Union.
â€œKerry is a deeply experienced foreign policy strategist and actor so none of this is either surprising or new to him and he is well known to the principal figures and foreign policy circles in Europe,â€ said Stefan Halper, director of American Studies in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.
Asked about the Falklands, where Kerry repeated Washingtonâ€™s position that it recognizes Britainâ€™s de facto administration but takes no stance on its sovereignty, Harper said: â€œHe comes on the heels of an elegant Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who was loved by everyone so these are big shoes to fill.
â€œBut I think he handled it quite well. It was a delicate matter and you know he didnâ€™t do a Romney, not that he ever would have done,â€ he added.
Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney ruffled British feathers while visiting London last July by appearing to suggest that the city was not ready for the Olympic Games.
That drew a remarkable public barb from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who suggested Romney, who led the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, faced a far less daunting task.
OLDER, AND MAYBE WISER
If Kerry gave anyone cause for offense, it might have been his fellow Americans.
While offering a spirited defense of freedom of speech, religion and thought in the United States on Tuesday in Berlin, Kerry jokingly told German students that â€œin America you have a right to be stupid – if you want to be.â€
The line got a laugh from the students.
In Germany on Tuesday, Kerry repeated an often-told story of when he lived there as the 12-year-old son of a U.S. diplomat, he used his diplomatic passport to cross into East Berlin on his bicycle and felt a deep sense of foreboding.
â€œI kind of skedaddled and got back out of there and went home and proudly announced to my parents what I had done and was promptly grounded and had my passport pulled,â€ he added, again drawing laughter.
And in Rome, he reminisced about driving through Europe with his roommate, David Thorne, now the U.S. ambassador to Italy, in an old London taxicab.
â€œWe left London one night at midnight and went to the ferry and went across to France, and went down through France and Spain and then down into Italy, and had a great adventure, running with the bulls in Pamplona and all those crazy things you do when youâ€™re 18 years old,â€ he said.
â€œAnd now we are older, I hope wiser.â€
(Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in London, Alexandria Sage in Paris and Andreas Rinke in Berlin; Writing By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Peter Graff and Michael Stott)