'America was Rome, it has become Athens, and is now in danger of becoming Sparta," was the comment made to me a few years back by an outspoken Chinese ambassador in Europe.
In the ancient world, Rome was the dominant centre of economic, cultural, and military power taking over from an Athens known more for its cultural entertainments, sports and arts, which in turn had subdued a Sparta based solely on military prowess.
At his confirmation hearings, new US Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry argued that America "can't be strong in the world unless we are strong at home", and urged that America must first put its economic and fiscal house in order. "More than ever, foreign policy is economic policy," he said.
So it seems just being a Sparta or even an Athens is not what Mr Kerry has in mind. This is a welcome reaffirmation. He even added that "American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone."
Emerging from a decade of wars, with the Obama administration looking to disengage by 2014 from the war in Afghanistan, it had seemed that the bureaucratic-military-academic establishment of America was already looking to discern new "challenges" and "threats". Many focused on China.
So it was fortunate for this region that Mr Obama decided to nominate Senator Kerry as secretary of state rather than his reputed first choice of Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN.
Mr Kerry, 69, has already brought an air of reassuring calm and experience, and a sense of there being "an adult in the house". With a gravitas that can override bureaucracies, he has the stature to look at the wider picture and to engage with world leaders beyond position papers.
As a decorated war hero for service in Vietnam who later became a leader of the anti-war movement, Mr Kerry is uniquely qualified to reflect and expound on the cause, effect and limitations of the use of military power, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. In his confirmation hearings, he has already shown the strength to buck conventional wisdom. "I want to take on the word 'pivot'," he stated.
The highly touted and publicised "pivot" of a few additional ships to the vast Pacific Ocean, and the stationing of a handful of military personnel in northern Australia, had looked set to form part of a new American strategic "vision", pandering to the apprehensions about China and catering to the urge to continue deploying American military might.
But the so-called pivot smacked of a return to the containment policies and military alliances of the Cold War, threatened to set off a spiralling regional arms race, and to become self-fulfilling in terms of creating an enemy state.
It has also raised tensions in this region, as well as unrealistic expectations among some allies. At the same time, it has generated concerns in other regions that their problems will be left to fester.
Mr Kerry has made clear that "pivot" does not imply that America will turn away from "anywhere else", and he says he is unconvinced that the US needs to ramp up its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. In fact, at the Senate confirmation hearings, Mr Kerry said he supports deeper ties with China. At the hearings, Mr Kerry quoted extensively from the writings of former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. In the context of relations with China, this is another welcome sign.
Much as we have never been able to replace former foreign minister Thanat Khoman, America has not been able to replace Mr Kissinger who combined strategic balance-of-power vision with pragmatic diplomacy, and has influenced American policies and attitudes toward China for the past 40 years.
In his seminal 2011 book on China, Mr Kissinger made a stark distinction between Western and Chinese concepts of strategy, one in which "the Chinese ideal stressed subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage", while "the Western tradition prized the decisive clash of forces".
As commentators have pointed out, Mr Kissinger illustrated well the key differences between Chinese players of the board game weiqi and Western practitioners of the contrasting game of chess.
While chess is about the clash of forces, about "decisive battle" and the goal of "total victory", all of which depend on the full deployment of all the pieces on the board and elimination of those of the opponent's, weiqi is a game of relative gain, of preventing encirclement, which starts with an empty board and only ends when it "is filled by partially interlocking areas of strength".
There's every indication Mr Kerry understands well these differing strategic philosophies. He is also known to be a good listener. But it means Thailand and Asean will have to have something worthwhile to say.
Pax Romana lasted for 200 years, until Rome was eventually eclipsed by the Byzantine Empire to the East and later the Ottoman Empire. It could have lasted much longer if Rome had remained economically strong and politically united and worked in tandem with the Byzantine Empire which was its eastern half, and eventually with the Ottoman Empire.
There's no reason why Pax Americana cannot last way beyond its current 70 years, especially if America can achieve a strategic economic collaboration with the new re-emerging power of the East.
Secretary Kerry is the right person at the right time in the right job to help bring this about, and to thwart an unwitting slide into chaos and war in this region.
Kobsak Chutikul is a former Thai ambassador and member of parliament.
About the author
Writer: Kobsak Chutikul