Interview With Elizabeth Arnold of NPR

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Anchorage, Alaska
August 30, 2015

QUESTION: So I want to get right into this.


QUESTION: So what is the Administration hoping to get out of this conference in terms of deliverables, but also just the tone in terms of the next two years of chairing the Arctic Council?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’ve set a pretty ambitious schedule and set of goals for the Arctic Council because we believe the Arctic is threatened, deeply threatened; because we believe that there are serious choices to be made about fishing regulations, about transportation, about search and rescue, about security. And Alaska particularly needs focus from Washington on some fundamentals like economic development and modernization of communications in terms of connectivity and so forth. So I think the President wanted to come up here – not I think – the President wanted to come up here in order to highlight these challenges and to get people to focus on the Arctic itself. We are an Arctic nation. We have been ever since the great purchase of Alaska from Russia, and thank God we are, because I believe we bring a vision for shared responsibility – not one country, not for military purposes, but for stewardship. And I think stewardship is really a hallmark of what President Obama wants to create out of this visit, and a greater awareness that is the key to that stewardship.

QUESTION: There’s been a lot made of the so-called mixed message of on the one hand coming up here and talking a lot about needing to address climate change, and on the other giving the green light to Shell to drill. I understand the whole – I get it, the transition. We need – we still need oil. But I was just on a Russian icebreaker out there in the Chukchi Sea and it was 20-foot seas, and Shell just suspended drilling. Why this risky place? Isn’t it – how does that jibe with wanting to protect the Arctic from greenhouse gases?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think the President went to great lengths to make certain that he was putting in place regulations, restrictions, requirements that were strong enough to in fact provide that protection. We are operating now in a post-BP Gulf incident world, and out of that came greater knowledge, came better technology, came redundancy, came other technological advances that provide greater certainty of outcome. And what the President has done is sort of put this to the test. This is not a rampant opening to all comers. It is leases that existed prior to the President becoming president – they already existed. He’s taken that and he’s going to put to test whether or not this can be done. Why? Because we have still a need for production and consumption, obviously, with sensitivities to global climate change, which is critical. But this particular type of oil in this particular place in this particular lease, he felt, was in keeping with what had already been committed and what can be managed in a sound fashion. And that will be put to the test, obviously.

QUESTION: Instead of ramping up production in other places that we – that aren’t as risky?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we drill under the ocean in many places in many parts of the world. In point of fact, and I’ve always been very leery of it and very concerned about it, but as I have learned more about it, particularly the new technologies, there are precious few incidents when you measure it against the amount that is taking place and what is happening. I believe the lessons that came out of the Gulf incident, properly applied, could ramp up the confidence level very significantly, and that’s what the President is putting to the test.

QUESTION: What’s your vision for the Arctic? Is it the – I mean, some nations are really looking toward something that’s more like international cooperation like Antarctica. Or other nations are thinking about economic gain and territorial access.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, my vision is one of shared responsibility. It is one where those Arctic nations that have continental shelves and have rights under the law – the Law of the Sea and other maritime law – have a right to take the benefit of where they are. I mean, Russia has the longest border of all with the Arctic. But other nations share in that too – Iceland, and Denmark, and Norway, Sweden, so forth, and Canada obviously very significantly, and the United States.

We are the responsible stewards within the Arctic Council of that land area and sea area. I think it is important for us – and so far, there’s a consensus on this within the Arctic Council to recognize this as a global resource, even as there are some economic benefits that may accrue to certain countries. But with respect to fisheries, for instance, in international waters, we think it’s absolutely critical that there be a regulated structure for that fishing to take place. That’s why we put out recently a ban on unregulated fishing in those areas. Now we have to try to codify that ban and how, in fact, the fishing will take place. And we hope that observer nations and others will live by that. We’re going to have to find the mechanism for enforcement, obviously, as we go forward. We don’t have that yet.

But my vision is that the Arctic should be viewed as a global resource that – I mean, I don’t – while I think Denmark historically claimed the North Pole; I think Canada may well do so; Russia obviously has – in the end, I don’t think anybody ought to be able to take rights, so to speak, of claiming the North Pole per se. That’s just a personal feeling about it. But I think that short of that, clearly there are legal rights that will extend to nations under existing law with respect to the exploitation of certain undersea minerals, rare minerals, and other things. And I think that’s perfectly legitimate. But what’s important is that we have an overall approach of shared responsibility and global responsibility and stewardship.

QUESTION: What about Russia? They have been sort of flexing – they’ve been – they did a military exercise. They resubmitted their claims. They’ve talked a lot about protecting their interests, although they really haven’t been challenged except by Greenpeace in the last two years. What do you make of that posturing and --

SECRETARY KERRY: I think we have to be very cautious, very much vigilant about what Russia is or isn’t doing. Within the Arctic Council, Russia has expressed a complete willingness to be cooperative. They have not indicated anything except a shared responsibility that I described. They do not want to see it militarized. They don’t – so they say. Yes, there have been some exercises and increased presence, but not outside of what Russia’s sort of global responsibilities could be determined to be. And others have also had military exercises. So that’s why I say we have to be vigilant. We have to watch it carefully, try to defuse any potential conflict, if there is any, and keep the Arctic Council on the track it’s been on for a consensus-driven approach that recognizes this broader responsibility. And we’ll see what happens.

Russia clearly has a more dedicated – has had a more dedicated presence and commitment in some ways than we have. We have one operational heavy icebreaker and another that is available but currently, I gather, mothballed; we have some smaller ones. But we pale compared to their icebreaker capacity, which is somewhere over 40 vessels. We need to get going. We need to get that commitment increased. We cannot do the things we need to do with respect to the leadership that we want to exert, but also just a fundamental sort of search and rescue, protection, management of shipping, humanitarian disasters, other things we may need to respond to – none of that could be properly marshaled with our current level of seagoing capacity within the Coast Guard. So we’re going to have to augment it. We’re in favor of that. I think the President would like to see that happen, but it’s going to have to be done with the consent of Congress. Congress is going to have to step up and put the budget there.

QUESTION: Will we see it in the President’s budget? Would I be incorrect --

SECRETARY KERRY: The President would like to try to do that, but it’s choices that get made within the budgets. Part of the compete – the competition is that the Coast Guard is required to do so much more than it ever was historically. So there are counternarcotics efforts going on, counterterrorism efforts going on, counter –, port security efforts, so much going on that the budget, unfortunately, in a budget-tight era has gotten stretched in a way that has made it tougher to commit to those new icebreakers. But my hope is that part of this trip and the purpose of this trip is for the President to raise the profile of these issues and for us to be able to point out to people what Russia is doing, what other countries have done in terms of their commitments, and how important it is to us – to our security, as well as to our basic responsibility – to plus up those budgets over a period of time.

QUESTION: Would I be incorrect to report that the President’s likely to put funding for another icebreaker into the budget?

SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t know where he’s wound up with OMB and DOD and Homeland Security on that at this point in time, so my suggestion is that that be one of the questions you ask him when he’s here.

QUESTION: Okay. (Laughter.)

What about the Law of the Sea? I mean, you’ve spent umpteen years in the Senate; you know what’s going on with that. What’s it going to take? Is this Administration going to really fight for it, and how does it --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we do fight for it. But unfortunately, we have a Senate that is even less inclined to do it than when I was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. We tried to get it done. We failed by very few votes. It’s really regrettable. It requires 67 votes and we had 60-some, but we lost a few at the end because people were basically being beaten up on a political basis for their willingness to tackle it. And I think it’s the kind of thing where you’re going to have to cobble the votes together and people need to know they’re there and then they’re willing to jump off the cliff and do it. But they’re not there in the current Senate.

QUESTION: Will it be part of this trip, though, making the case for it? I mean, is that --

SECRETARY KERRY: We’re always making the case for it. I’m never not – whenever asked about it, I make the case for it. It hurts the United States of America not to be a sitting member at the table of the governing body of the Law of the Sea. They have reserved a seat for us. That is one of the things that has happened. We secured that. Ronald Reagan actually managed to secure that. So we have a seat sitting there waiting for us. We don’t use the seat. Decisions are made about the implementation of the Law of the Sea that affect the United States of America, and we’re not even at the table. That is ridiculous. It’s a self-inflicted wound that takes place on a regular basis. And this was a treaty, by the way, that the United States of America initiated under a Republican president and has continually tried to pass. Even – most recently George W. Bush wanted to get this passed, and people who are opposed to any and all treaties or people who are suspicious of the UN or people who have other ideological and political reasons for opposing it have regrettably blocked it to date. And unfortunately, the Senate is less inclined to move on that treaty now than it was even when I led the effort a few years ago.

QUESTION: How badly does it hamstring us?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it hurts us. I can tell you when I go to a conference, for instance, in Asia and we’re talking about the South China Sea and the need to be able to resolve those questions of jurisdiction over the islands in the South China Sea, people say to us – I’ve heard this phrase on any number of occasions – “Well, you guys aren’t even members. Who are you to assert this interest?” And we try and we do and we live by it anyway. Every president to date has nevertheless agreed to live by the standards of it. But living by the standards of it and wholly embracing it by ratifying it and sitting at the table to help implement it are very different things.

QUESTION: A lot of attention has been focused on indigenous people for this trip. How can you ensure that their concerns will be addressed and that they’ll have a voice in decisions that are made about their lifestyle?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, you ensure it by exerting leadership and by keeping your promises. And I’ve made it very clear in the context of my stewardship as chairman of the Arctic Council, and all the other countries are committed to this. This is not a unique thing to America. People recognize fully the historic moral imperative of respecting the folks who’ve lived there for centuries and who have really a better sense of that stewardship in many cases than other nations that have come along over time and industrialized and done other things. So I think it is very, very important to have that balance. Native peoples everywhere need to be respected. We argue that in our foreign policy in many countries in the world. It is absolutely imperative that we apply it to our own.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.