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John Kerry Is Definitely A Secretary Of State On The Move

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

As we come to the end of this year, one man is about to break a record. John Kerry is on the path to log more miles than any secretary of state in history. Kerry's reason for all that travel is his firm belief in face-to-face diplomacy. Just listen to how he describes what drove him in the long negotiations with Iran over a nuclear deal reached in July.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEC OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Years ago, when I left college, I went to war. And I learned in war the price that is paid when diplomacy fails. And I made a decision that if I ever was lucky enough to be in a position to make a difference, I would try to do so.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us now to review Kerry's year on the road. She's been on that plane with him quite a bit, as a matter of fact. And Michele, let's start with that moment in July when he announced the nuclear deal with Iran. To what extent is this the achievement of John Kerry or President Barack Obama?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: I think, Renee, that it's safe to say the deal probably would not have happened without John Kerry. He met his Iranian counterpart many, many times in many time zones for many hours. He spent weeks in Vienna at the end to make sure that this happened. His critics say he was over eager and gave away too much. He denies that and even says that he threatened to walk away from the table several times. His style, though, is really to keep people talking until there is a deal. And I'd also remind listeners that he was also just in Paris for those final days of the climate negotiations, urging everyone to an agreement. So as you say, he's a true believer in face-to-face diplomacy and in his ability to persuade people.

MONTAGNE: And this doggedness seems to be paying off in the case of Syria.

KELEMEN: Well, he did end the year on somewhat of a high note on that. The U.N. Security Council endorsed his diplomatic plan - the one that he's been working on for months. He managed to get Iran and Russia around the table with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and others to push all of their proxies in Syria to negotiations. And those talks are set to begin as early as January. But there are a lot of skeptics, Renee. I spoke recently to a former State Department official on Syria, Fred Hof, who describes Kerry's strategy really as a wish and a hope that Russia and Iran are both going to come around to the U.S. position, and that is that there's no place for their client, Bashar al-Assad, in Syria's future.

FRED HOF: I don't think the secretary of state or the administration at large can be faulted for pursuing a diplomatic outcome to this crisis. But I think there's always the danger that a process can end up being, in effect, an open-ended permission slip for continued mass murder in Syria.

KELEMEN: And Hof tells me that, you know, if Russia can't get the Assad regime to stop besieging cities or dropping indiscriminate bombs, it probably won't be able to get the Assad government to really engage in peace talks.

MONTAGNE: So then how has Kerry dealt with Russia on the Syria crisis?

KELEMEN: Russia has had a very consistent policy on Syria since the start of the war, but Kerry keeps trying to change minds in Moscow. He went, earlier this year, to Sochi to meet Vladimir Putin, the president. And he thought that he made some headway then. Then the Russians started bombing Syria and propping up the Assad regime in September. Kerry was back in Moscow again last week. And while this might not have been such huge news here, in Russia all these trips are viewed really as a sign that Russia's no longer isolated over its actions in Ukraine, and it's a necessary partner for the U.S. in dealing with Syria.

MONTAGNE: NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Keleman. Thanks very much.

KELEMEN: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.