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Senator John Kerry steps into Clinton's shoes

Senator Kerry leaves a Senate Foreign Relations Committee markup in Washington, DC, on January 29, 2013
US Senator John Kerry leaves a Senate Foreign Relations Committee markup after they held a vote on Kerry as Secretary of State, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 29, 2013. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved Tuesda

Few people can boast such impeccable credentials to represent America as its top diplomat as John Kerry.

He has met most of the world's top movers and shakers, from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to Afghanistan's leader Hamid Karzai, to the politicians steering Europe through the euro-zone crisis.

Now the veteran senator, 69, has landed his dream job after his confirmation as the next secretary of state by his Senate colleagues Tuesday, taking up the helm of the State Department and helping shape America's future foreign policy.

"He really does see this as a capstone to his career," said Tyson Barker, director for transatlantic relations at the Bertelsmann Foundation North America.

Kerry, who is perhaps best known abroad for his failed bid for the presidency in 2004, takes over from Hillary Clinton, who has won accolades during her four years on the job.

"I think Kerry is pretty much as good a successor as Europe could hope for," Barker told AFP, adding Brussels and Berlin were "pretty excited" about welcoming Kerry teamed with the new defense secretary designate, Chuck Hagel.

Kerry is the son of a US diplomat who grew up among the rubble of Berlin, criss-crossed Europe as a child, fought in Vietnam, and returned to fight against the war. He has served in the US Senate since 1985, and chaired the foreign relations committee since 2009.

In nominating Kerry to be the next secretary of state, President Barack Obama said: "He is not going to need a lot of on-the-job training."

"It's as if John Kerry stepped out of one of those portraits on the seventh floor of the State Department. He's been in training for this job for decades," said Martin Indyk, director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.

At his confirmation hearing last week, Kerry set out some pretty clear foreign policy priorities. He warned Iran the US would do "what we must" to stop it from getting a nuclear weapon, told China he would work to strengthen ties and hinted at a "way forward" in the Middle East peace process.

He also vowed to be "a passionate advocate" to tackle climate change.

Kerry was born in Denver, Colorado on December 11, 1943 to a privileged family. His mother Rosemary was part of the Forbes shipping clan and spent much of her early life on an estate in France.

His father, Richard, was a pilot in the Army Air Corps and went on to join the US foreign service.

In 1970, Kerry married Julia Thorne. They had two daughters but divorced in 1988, and he married ketchup heiress Teresa Heinz in 1995.

Kerry's childhood, spent in private schools in Switzerland and New England, fashioned the character of the so-called "Boston Brahmin" who would eventually face blistering Republican attacks for his internationalist views.

Kerry has said World War II and following his father to Cold War diplomatic postings in Berlin and Oslo taught him that it was important for the United States to act through international alliances to address conflicts.

After graduating with a law degree from Yale University in 1966, Kerry joined the Navy and volunteered to fight in Vietnam.

During his second 48-day tour, as a lieutenant in charge of dangerous "Swift" gunboat missions in the Mekong Delta, Kerry was awarded three Purple Hearts for wounds suffered and a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for valor.

But he returned from Vietnam disenchanted with the war, and in testimony before Congress in April 1971, he famously asked: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

His remarks made him a hero of the anti-war left in the 1970s and underpinned his 2004 election-year opposition to the Iraq war.

But during that election Kerry faced charges of being a "flip-flopper" over his vote to authorize the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and his subsequent opposition to the war.

To make matters worse, a group of Vietnam veterans known as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth released a series of blistering attack ads accusing Kerry of lying about his service to win medals and aid his political career.

Kerry eventually pushed back, saying the ads were completely false, and his longtime colleague and fellow veteran, Republican Senator John McCain, also condemned them, but Kerry nevertheless lost the 2004 election.

He remained an influential senator however, and apart from the foreign relations committee, he also held senior positions in the finance, commerce and small business committees.