It was just after 1 a.m. in Istanbul when John Kerry emerged from the Friends of Syria meeting, flanked by Turkey's foreign minister, Qatar's prime minister and Moaz al-Khatib, leader of Syria's political opposition.
The meeting between the Syrian opposition and foreign ministers from 11 of Syria's main backers ran hours past the original deadline. The gathering was intended to get the opposition and international community on the same page about the pace and scope of aid, but it devolved into an extended argument about what one diplomat called "competing agendas" among the supporters.
Kerry took the reins in negotiating the communique, line by line, not letting anyone leave the room until it was finished. In the statement, the group agreed to channel all military assistance through the military council of the U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition, a significant stab in curbing the escalating influence of al Qaeda-linked groups that have joined the effort to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Kerry also pushed the opposition to make strong and verifiable commitments to reject extremism and adhere to pluralism and human rights.
After taking questions from the press, Kerry went back into a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and al-Khatib, returning to his hotel well past 3 a.m.
The agenda of such international meetings are usually arranged in advance by lower-level staff, producing watered-down statements that placate all the countries at the table. But aides say the Istanbul meeting was a textbook example of Kerry's style.
"Things are not precooked or predetermined at the beginning of the day because he wants to see what he can get done in the meeting," said State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki, who was also on Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. "There is a balance between patience and seizing the opportunity to move things forward."
Like a kid in a candy store
Having coveted the secretary of state job for his whole career, Kerry is like a kid in a candy store. In the three months since taking office, Kerry has traveled just short of 70,000 miles and visited 20 countries in 37 days. He has breathed new life into the Middle East peace process, worked with President Barack Obama to broker a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, traveled to press China for more support reining in North Korea and pushed for the first nonlethal direct aid to Syrian rebels, while helping to unite the fractious political opposition and working with Turkey, Jordan and Israel on contingencies should the United States get more involved in the crisis.
Kerry's predecessor, Hillary Clinton, was a prolific traveler as well, having logged just short of 1 million miles as the nation's top diplomat. Clinton's engagement around the world was largely credited with improving the battered image of the United States after eight years of war under the Bush administration.
On name recognition alone, Kerry is not Clinton. He is well-respected around the world, but he can't just show up.
And unlike Clinton, who was believed to have approached the job through the lens of a possible presidential run in 2016, Kerry has nothing to lose. He is not running for anything. It's his swan song.
Clinton's tenure was animated by "smart power" in which the United States worked to expand liberty and economic opportunity to make the world more peaceful and prosperous. Under Clinton, issues such as human rights, women's rights, food security and Internet freedom were brought to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy for the first time.
For Kerry, it's back to the basics. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 29 years, four years as its chairman, Kerry has a long history with the issues and relationships with many of the world's leaders. And as an unofficial envoy for the Obama administration, Kerry already had experience in diplomatic troubleshooting. Now he is eager to get his hands dirty with classic diplomatic deal-making.
Last month Kerry brought together Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani military chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in Brussels, Belgium, as tensions between the two neighbors reached new highs. The White House had feared the meeting could backfire, but Kerry convinced skeptical officials his longtime relationship with both men could help move the two countries closer to reconciliation with the Taliban.
In a photo-op before the meeting, Karzai and Kayani looked downright uncomfortable. But when they emerged afterward alongside Kerry, the atmosphere was far more upbeat. Kerry did not speak of breakthroughs, merely saying everyone had "homework" to do. But appearances suggested forward movement, and the meeting is believed to have opened some space for further talks.
'A fearlessness about him'
"There is a fearlessness about him," said David Wade, Kerry's chief of staff at the State Department who worked with him in the Senate and was on his 2004 campaign. "He has an instinct that you don't have a whole lot of time in life, and the job is to try and leave something behind."
As North Korea's war-mongering hit a fever pitch last year, Kerry traveled to Asia. Sensing a growing uneasiness in China about North Korea's behavior, Kerry was both good and bad cop, pairing flowery praise about China's importance and helpfulness with a not-so-subtle threat about a continued U.S. military presence in its backyard if it didn't rein in the North.
It's impossible to say how much Kerry's backroom diplomacy had a part, but North Korea's rhetoric is decidedly lower, and there is fresh evidence the regime has pulled its medium-range missiles from their launch pads.
Kerry's diplomatic skills will be put to the test again this week in Russia, which the Obama administration and some Arab states see as one of the main obstacles to ending the crisis in Syria. Russia has moved little over the past two years of the conflict, but Kerry seems confident he can cajole President Vladimir Putin into supporting a political agreement between the regime and opposition.
"He has a very hands-on style," Wade said. "He believes that some of these relationships need face-to-face tending"
As much as he enjoys the title of secretary of state, Kerry often seems to think he is still a senator responsible for no one but himself. He often speaks about his personal views on U.S. foreign policy that don't comport with White House talking points.
More than once the State Department has sent journalists "clarifications" about what Kerry meant. Case in point: While in Brussels, Kerry said that Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev became radicalized after traveling to Russia. Given that the administration had not determined Tsarnaev's motivation and was remaining tight-lipped about the case, Kerry's comments caused a stir in Washington.
"There is an honesty and frankness to him that is a quality that makes him effective because people appreciate that in him, but it's part of a natural adjustment," one senior State Department official acknowledged.
Kerry has made no secret that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is his single most important foreign policy goal. In addition to three trips to the Middle East, where he shuttled between Israel and the Palestinian territories, he is on the phone constantly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and their aides to revive long-stalled talks. He is working with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a longtime international envoy on the peace process, on rallying corporate giants to invest in the Palestinian economy.