Remarks at the 90th Anniversary of the United States Foreign Service

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Benjamin Franklin Room
Washington, DC
May 22, 2014

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Bob, thank you very, very much. Thank you and your team at AFSA for everything that you do for all of the men and women of the Foreign Service. Welcome to this magnificent Ben Franklin Room. I’ve been fond of reminding people that in this day and age Ben Franklin would have never been confirmed for anything. (Laughter.) And not just because of the gridlock.

I thought that was a very private moment out there on the tarmac. (Laughter.) I didn’t know somebody was (inaudible). I was taking out my frustration on the ball. I will not tell you who I was on the phone with. (Laughter.) That’s diplomacy. (Laughter.)

It’s really special for me to be able to be here with all of you, from our 90-year-olds who are older than the service itself, ambassadors, thank you for gracing us with your presence here; to our youngest, where everything is in the future, as she gets out her cell phone and does what everybody does, which is Instagram, tweet. What’s the --

PARTICIPANT: (Off-mike.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Whatever works. (Laughter.) I’m sure there’ll be a selfie before the night is over. (Laughter.)

I had a spectacular dinner last night in Mexico City, at which we were serenaded by some mariachi band. And it was great. I had a great time. But it’s my understanding Senator Lugar used to play the cello. So Dick, there’s pressure on you here tonight. You need to perform, absolutely. (Laughter.)

Before I went to Mexico this week, I had the great honor of delivering the commencement addresses at both Boston College and at Yale University, my alma mater. And I want you all to know they were both very different experiences. It’s nice to be in front of a diplomatic audience. (Laughter.)

But it was really interesting. At Yale, when my – when it was announced that I was going to speak, in the Yale Daily News a number of people quickly contacted Yale Daily News to comment, and I went online and checked the comments section. And one of the first comments I read was: “Make sure you drink a 5-hour ENERGY to keep you awake.” (Laughter.) And I promised them all I wouldn’t speak one minute more than four hours, and I didn’t. (Laughter.)

Then another one said, “Well, he hasn’t screwed up as Secretary of State badly – yet.” I told them, “Stay tuned.” (Laughter.)

And finally – this was the best of all – somebody said, “I’m really proud that a Yalie is Secretary of State.” And then I thought I should have stopped reading there. I didn’t. I read on. It said, “But he is butt ugly.” (Laughter.) So this is a relief being here tonight, no comments section. (Laughter.)

At any rate, if those two public addresses were intimidating, I have to tell you this one is even more so in many ways because it’s like going to the dean’s office. (Laughter.) I’ve got the dean emeritus of the United States Senate and foreign policy in Dick Lugar. We have the dean of Washington media and foreign policy Andrea Mitchell. I’ve got the dean of the in-house judges of what we do in Bill Burns here. And when he gets here – Colin Powell is on a flight from New York, I am told, but just knowing Colin Powell was going to be here, he’s the dean of things that are great and good and American about America, and I think everybody would agree with that.

So I thank Andrea for hosting. I think Andrea and I have known each other for about 25 or 30 years or something.

MS. MITCHELL: Since I was a baby. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: See, that’s why she does so well here. (Applause.) The art of diplomacy.

I first got to know her when I was a freshman senator. And one of the things that I really grew to respect and appreciate about her was yes, she’d chase the story and yes, she wanted to get the truth. But you know what? She always wanted to tell the story the way it really was. And as a reporter, it wasn’t just a question of breaking the story; it was getting the story right. That is cherished in anybody today, and I think that’s exactly what journalism should bring to covering the world today, a very complicated world. She’s traveled with me on a number of trips. She is a pioneer among women in journalism. And she’s so invested in helping to tell the story of American diplomacy that she has agreed to be here with us tonight. And Andrea, we’re very grateful to you. We’re privileged. Thank you. (Applause.)

I also want to thank Bob Silverman. He’s the one who asked me to join you, and I’m very privileged to be here to celebrate 90 extraordinary years. He works very, very closely with all of us on the 7th floor and throughout the Department, and his advocacy and his partnership have really made an enormous difference in very recently breaking the gridlock with the United States Senate in helping to get a whole bunch of our folks confirmed. And the truth is that we now have thousands of Foreign Service officers who are commissioned, tenured, and promoted – and Bob is a guy who was really central in helping to bring it home to our senators to make it happen. So thank you, Bob, for your leadership. (Applause.)

I also want to thank Hans Klemm. Hans has served the State Department extremely well as Acting Director General of the Foreign Service. He’s a great manager, he’s a great recruiter, and he listens carefully, which is a key to being, I think, a great Director General. And I want to thank him for the job that he has done in the DG’s office.

I’m also pleased that Colin accepted to be here. And I know that it’s never easy flying – there he is. Colin Powell, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome, Secretary of State. (Applause.) Come on up, Colin. Come here. (Applause.) Come here, sit down. (Applause.) Obviously not just a great diplomat but a great politician – he times his arrival really brilliantly. (Laughter.)

When I – I’ve had the pleasure of working with Colin Powell when I was a Senator through those many years in his many different jobs. I always think about him as a guy who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, but I also think about how he rose up through the ranks to become the youngest and the first African American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And I think of his leadership during that critical period of time under President George Herbert Walker Bush when we rolled back what Saddam Hussein thought he could get away with. And Colin, we are forever indebted and grateful for your leadership. But especially I thank you because I really try to emulate you with respect to the personal role you played here in the Department in making sure that the troops have a sense of direction and that you’re connected to them, and I appreciate that, as everybody here does. Thank you. (Applause.)

I want to say a couple of words if I can about a fellow who’s been around here for a while, 32 years in the Foreign Service. He has worked for 10 Secretaries of State. If there’s anybody today in the ranks of professional diplomacy who epitomizes the qualities that you look for – the leadership, the steady hand, the quiet diplomacy, the ability to work through difficult issues calmly, and who leads by example and by a sort of quiet steadiness, if you will – it is Bill Burns. Bill, we are so grateful for your leadership. Thank you. (Applause.) He doesn’t just understand where policy ought to go, but he understands the politics of it all and how to work through it. And it’s really exemplary.

I’m also really proud of the team that we have assembled here at the State Department for the second term of the Obama Administration. I’m grateful to the President for his willingness to bring onboard a lot of the folks that we thought could really help make a difference as we go forward in the foreign policy of our country. Tom Shannon has gratefully agreed to serve as the Counselor of the Department, and I’m very proud of the fact that Tom is just the seventh Foreign Service officer to hold that post, including legends like Chip Bohlen and George Kennan, and the first one to do so in 32 years. So I’m glad he is doing that. We have leaders like Anne Patterson and Victoria Nuland, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who left a post she loved to take on a post that I asked her to take on – difficult – and who is now serving as Assistant Secretary for Africa and African Affairs. And I also think we’ve built a team that is capable of advancing American foreign policy effectively.

I’m also happy to see my former Chairman occasionally – thank God it was only occasionally because that gave us a chance – and Ranking Member – he was Ranking Member in my last year as his Chairman, Dick Lugar, who, whether it was nuclear weapons reduction, proliferation, treaty after treaty, energy policy, food security, the linkage of agriculture to American foreign policy, Dick was always there and always, importantly, looking for a way to try to find a bipartisan approach, a nonpartisan apolitical way of solving problems. And Dick, every single one of us are grateful that you have been a terrific statesman for years. Thank you very, very much for that. (Applause.)

We have with us also a friend of mine from the United States Congress. We worked very hard together on the special committee to try to deal with the budget. He knows the budget as well as anybody, but he also knows foreign policy as well as anybody. It’s fitting that someone who was born in Karachi and grew up in Sri Lanka now represents so many people who are part of the Foreign Service family. And on issues that matter to all Americans, whether it’s climate change or the minimum wage or immigration, Chris Van Hollen is front and center in making sure that America stays true to our values and to our responsibilities in the world. And we’re grateful to Chris for that. (Applause.)

I just looked down. I see my good friend Tom, Mary Beth, and Regina Smedinghoff here tonight. There are two families here tonight who understand the risks of service within the ranks of the Foreign Service better than anybody. And I am very grateful that Tom, Mary Beth, and Regina Smedinghoff and Adam Tomasek are here. I’ve gotten to know Tom and Mary Beth and their daughter Regina in the last year. I was able to stop off and visit with them very briefly after we all heard the terrible news of the loss of Anne. We met in Chicago at the airport. They were very kind to come briefly and we did a quick stop-off, and I was blessed to have them console me more than I consoled them.

But we’re very, very proud of what Regina is doing carrying on for Anne in the State Department, and we thank them profoundly for being here. And the work that Toni Tomasek was doing for USAID in Haiti – equally exemplary, extraordinary, totally in keeping with the spirit of both adventure but most importantly that special thing that brings people here to try to make the world safer and make the world better and make a difference and help other people by bringing our values and our beliefs to them in the best of ways. And so we thank you for precisely the gift that we celebrate in the Foreign Service. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

Now I’ve almost overstayed my welcome. I’m not going to do the 5-hour ENERGY thing on you. But I want to say a few words more generally about who were are and where we’re going here, and then turn it over to Andrea and we can eat.

Ninety years ago the Foreign Service was just absolutely unrecognizable compared to what it is today. Back then we had fewer than 700 Foreign Service officers and now we have more than 13,000. Back then we had no female chiefs of mission – none. Now we have more than 40. And I’m proud to tell you that right now in this Department five out of six of our regional Assistant Secretaries are women; four out of six of our Under Secretaries are women; and we are joined tonight – since we have two Deputy Secretaries of State, 50 percent are women, and one of them is here. Heather Higginbottom, sitting right over here. So I think that’s a great record. (Applause.)

Back then, when it started, we had only one African American Foreign Service officer. One. A man named Clifton Wharton. I happened to know of him way back when because my dad actually worked for him way back in those early days. Now we have nearly a thousand African American Foreign Service officers following in his footsteps.

It all started, as Bob reminded us, with a Congressman by the name of John Rogers, who I’m proud to say hailed from Massachusetts. And what he had seen in war as a Private in the Army seared in him the price that we pay when we don’t solve conflicts peacefully. So he set out to build a modern Foreign Service precisely to try to prevent wars and to try to provide a Foreign Service that was as strong in diplomacy as our military is in its capacity to wage a war.

It wasn’t easy. He proposed bill after bill. He summoned testimony. He drafted literally dozens of op-eds. And it took seven years to pass the Rogers Act. Isolationism and austerity ran deep. Then as now, the temptation to sort of turn inwards and to retreat from the world was gaining ground.

But he got it done. And he kept pushing. And in 1924, House Resolution 6357 passed Congress and it gave birth to the modern Foreign Service. Now to quote Rogers: “The promise of good diplomacy is the greatest protector of peace.” And our hope is that people will recognize that 90 years from that moment, that is exactly what the Foreign Service has done.

One of the greatest rewards of being Secretary of State, I will tell you and I’m sure Colin would agree, is because of our travel and because we interact with all of you and with people around the world, we get to see this every single day. We get to see people going out and making a difference. I said yesterday in Mexico City when I met with all of the embassy that they really are the envy of other people because they get to wake up every single morning believing and loving what they do when they go to work because they know they’re going to make a difference. Not everybody gets to do that.

And so it is really a special thing to be part of this family. And if you just look at last year, I ask you to measure what our diplomacy is doing. I know I listen to the sort of political currents that people who try to drag you down by asserting that you’re not doing enough or you didn’t go to war where you should have or whatever it is, but we’re getting things done. And we’re getting them done in the best traditions of what diplomacy is supposed to do. People are angry because we didn’t strike Syria at one instant. But guess what? Today, 92 percent of all the chemical weapons in Syria are out and being destroyed, and the other 8 percent will get out. That never would have occurred otherwise. (Applause.)

Likewise in Africa, we are on the brink of – we have negotiated an agreement with M23 that will – one of the factions in the Democratic Republic of Congo which is disarming, and we have agreement from all the parties to move forward and build a political future and now to sort of end these years of war. In South Sudan, once again a struggle that Colin and others have been part of for a long time, we’ve moved the parties, we’re starting to separate them, begin to build possibility, bringing the UN and other troops to the table, and trying to make peace. Same thing in Mali. Same thing in other parts of the world.

In Afghanistan, we just had an extraordinary election result. Not crowing yet; it’s not over yet, but that’s how you do this, step by step, by building things and keeping faith with the sacrifices people make to help get you there. So we have another election that hopefully will mark a real transition and an opportunity for Afghans to determine their future.

In Iran we are, contrary to the naysayers who said you don’t negotiate and can’t negotiate, we are. Now it doesn’t mean we’re going to get a result. It doesn’t mean we’re going to get where we want to go. But if and when we have to do something to assert our interests properly for the world, it will be only after we have exhausted all of the possibilities of diplomacy and all of the remedies available to us. That’s what diplomacy is supposed to do.

And I could run to many other parts of the world where America and Americans are making a difference. As I said to the graduates over the weekend, I don’t think a lot of people are really lying awake at night hoping that America will leave where we are. Most of them are worried about whether or not we might. They’re asking us to be there. And Boko Haram, Nigeria, only the United States is there offering the assistance to help find those young women. Other countries not only aren’t there invited, but they didn’t even offer. That’s a difference, and I think it’s a difference worth dwelling on.

We were the first people on the ground in the Philippines ahead of countries that lived right in the neighborhood. We were there with our Armed Forces’ ability to move goods and helping people to be able to restore their community. We are about to see the first AIDS-free generation in Africa. Colin Powell helped begin that journey, and I remember back in the ‘90s when Bill Frist and I worked with him in order to try to do that. Now we’re on the brink of something that we never would have imagined back then. It was a death sentence. Now it’s a possibility for life and a whole new generation that will be free from that scourge.

So everywhere I travel, my friends, from Bogota to Baghdad to Beijing to Boston (laughter) – I just stole that one (laughter). When I’m here at home, I really feel the importance of what we are doing and the difference that we can make. I’ve seen us create diplomatic opportunity in so many countries. I’ve seen us make a difference on the ground with education exchanges, education programs, medical assistance help, engagement, development, USAID. You name it, and we are trying to show people the story of American diplomacy.

Harry Truman, George Marshall led America’s efforts to rebuild Europe against the will of many people in the country. It wasn’t popular. It wasn’t popular in Congress. But think today how many people would say that is something that we shouldn’t have done, building the unbelievable alliances and the strength of the democracies as a result.

So I’d just close by saying to you that there’s something special about being America. It really is different. You think about almost any other country in the world, and almost all of them are defined by bloodline or defined by ethnicity or defined by lines that were drawn in a peace agreement or in the end of colonialism or by leaders like Winston Churchill and others sitting in a room and this will be this and this will be that. Not America. We must never forget that what makes America different from other nations is not a common bloodline. It’s not a common religion or a common ideology or a common heritage. It’s actually what makes us different is actually an uncommon idea that all men are created equal and that everybody has these unalienable rights. We are an idea. Unlike other countries, we are an idea. And in our idea, every American gets to fill it out and define it over time.

So that’s what the calling of good diplomacy is. It’s filling out the idea and exporting it to other people in the world. And we are working – all of us together – to try to create order where there is none, to bring stability out of chaos, to fix what is broken, and to make this complicated world just a little bit less complicated and a lot more free. And that’s really worth the effort. Thank you all for being part of it. Thank you. (Applause.)