Secretary of state’s choice of maiden voyage – to UK, Europe and Saudi Arabia – has a familiar 20th-century feel

The arrival of John Kerry in London on the first stop of his first foreign trip – followed by the ritual invocation of the ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK – and a joint declaration of intent on Middle East peace all point to a return to business as usual in American foreign policy-making.

Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, made her maiden voyage as secretary of state to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China, underlining the Obama administration’s intended “pivot to Asia”, where America’s greatest challenges and opportunities were widely believed to lie.

Events however have conspired to complicate this overarching global strategy, and the old neighbourhoods have proved hard to escape. In the face of the Arab spring, the continuing Syrian tragedy and the Iranian nuclear challenge, Washington has found it impossible to extricate itself from the Middle East, and that in turn has reminded Washington of its dependence on tradition allies, the UK foremost, in the bid to prevail on the world stage.

So Kerry, standing beside his British counterpart, William Hague, under the gilded ceiling of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, reminisced fondly about boyhood visits to Britain – even getting lost, and then found, by a kindly stranger in London Zoo. He talked of the “common values and long-shared ties of family and friends” that constituted the special relationship.

The rest of Kerry ‘s itinerary also has a familiar 20th-century feel, reflecting the enduring hold of old alliances and areas of vital American interests. He will be in Berlin on Tuesday, then Paris and Rome and Ankara, before going on to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The dominant themes will be Middle Eastern: Syria, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, and the familiar challenge will be how to maintain solidarity between the west and its Gulf allies in that arena.

Hague meanwhile basked in Kerry’s recollection of the fights for “freedom and survival” US and Britain have shared. For a British foreign secretary, there is no higher policy goal than staying close to Washington, and Hague had bet heavily on Kerry when the then-senator from Massachusetts visited the Foreign Office while still vying for the state department with the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice. The foreign secretary treated him as if he already had the job.

The two men now find common cause in seeking to persuade their governments to take a more activist stance on Syria, though both still balk for now at arming the rebels directly. Hague also sees in Kerry a potential ally in persuading Obama to take a hands-on role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The new secretary of state did not go as far as Hague, who declared there was “no more urgent foreign policy priority in 2013”, but he is committed to travelling with Obama to Israel and the West Bank next month.

It is no guarantee that Washington will stay involved in the normally thankless task of Middle Eastern peacemaking, and the logic of America’s long-term interests in the Pacific is as strong as ever. But for the UK and Europe this first Kerry outing on the world stage marks a hopeful sign that the Obama administration is prepared to revisit familiar, if intractable, problems.