Remarks at a Dinner Hosted by Foreign Policy in Honor of Their Presentation of the Diplomat of the Year Award

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Park Hyatt Washington
Washington, DC
October 20, 2015

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I have to get back at some people now big time. (Laughter.) First of all, David and Foreign Policy, thank you so – I am so grateful for this and frankly overwhelmed by it. I don’t think I’ve ever sat somewhere and have somebody talk except maybe at the Democratic Convention, and we know that’s all politics, right? (Laughter.)

But I’m really touched by it. Let me just begin, if I may, by first of all thanking all of you for being here – distinguished ambassadors, friends – a lot of friends here. I’m honored by Bill Burns’ presence, a former winner and a colleague for a period of time, and really happy that you’re here. Thank you very much. A lot of friends of mine from the journey that you heard Tom Donilon so generously describe, and I’m very, very grateful to this classy crowd for coming here. And I have good news for you – we’re going to get out of here around 9:00, okay? I promise you. (Laughter.)

Let me join in congratulating Alyse Nelson. Thank you for the work you do. Vital Voices is vital, so vital. I am the proud father of two extraordinary, very independent-minded, strong young women, and I can’t imagine a world that wasn’t moving in the direction that ours is. And it’s happening because of people like you and others – Cathy Russell, Tom’s wife, who leads our efforts at the State Department now. It’s groundbreaking, it’s critical, and it’s making the world of difference. And we are making the difference thanks to you and others for women all around the world. I think of Afghanistan particularly, where when we went there in 2001 there were about a million, less than a million kids in school – all boys. Now there are over 7 million, close to 8 million. About 45 percent, 40-plus percent are women, young girls. It’s an extraordinary story and not enough people know it. It’s one of the things that we have changed and one of the things that defines America’s leadership. So thank you, Alyse, for what you do.

Penny is just an exquisite secretary, a spectacular colleague, and a great friend. I first got to know Penny when I was beginning my campaign for the presidency. And I went out to Chicago, and I remember she and her husband and I went out to a great dinner in Chicago, talked about a whole bunch of things. I got to know her pretty well then, and through the years she served as my finance chair, actually – one of my finance chairs out in Illinois and Chicago and that part of the country – did a spectacular job. But boy, has she done an amazing job as the Secretary of Commerce. (Applause.) It is so wonderful to have a practitioner, somebody who in her own right is a superb executive. She knows what the bottom line is. She knows how companies work. And she’s a listener. She goes out and really soaks it in, and that is a very, very special quality. And she has earned the respect of everybody around the world. She’s one of the best secretaries of commerce that I can remember. I served on the Commerce Committee for 28 years. I knew them all. And perhaps since Ron Brown we have not had a secretary with as much political skill coupled with business savvy and a vision. So Penny, thank you for being who you are and doing what you do. I really appreciate your friendship. (Applause.)

There’s a lot to talk about. Let me just say a couple words about the two introducers – first of all, Tom Donilon. Tom was one of the most – and I’ve worked with Republican and Democrat administrations. We’ve had some terrific national security advisors through the years and some very famous, as you all know, going back to Henry Kissinger, who became secretary, and Zbig Brzezinski and so forth. I think they would tell you that Tom Donilon is one of the best, because he is so precise and thoughtful and diligent. I’ve never seen anybody work harder at pulling together an NSC meeting, pulling together the thoughts for the President, knowing that he was responsible for the last word in many cases to the President of the United States. And I don’t know how many times – he was there for about five years or so, I think it was. In those five years, multiply the 365 days and take off a few here and there for some holiday or something, but almost every one of those five years this guy was briefing the President of the United States and guiding our foreign policy with great distinction, thoughtfulness, and skill. Tom, thank you for your service – extraordinary. (Applause.)

And Yusif al-Utayba – I have gotten to know his bosses – plural. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed are – they are friends, and we’ve really gotten to know each other in the course of dealing with all of the turmoil and conflict and challenges of the Middle East and elsewhere. And they have taught me a lot, actually, and I appreciate their friendship. I appreciate their leadership. And we have worked hard at a number of different issues. And Yusif himself is an extraordinarily skilled ambassador. Everybody in this city who has had a chance to work with him and get to know him knows how effective he is. He always serves his country, but he always has a special understanding of our country too, and that’s the great skill of a really good ambassador. So Yusif, thank you for your guidance. There are many times where honestly I’ve been able to solve a problem or do something just by calling Yusif and we get something done very, very quickly. So for those of you who are new ambassadors who I met tonight from various places, call him up if you need a tip – (laughter) – and he’s always willing to help, I know. But Yusif, thank you for your friendship and thank you for your leadership very, very much. (Applause.)

Now, I am genuinely bowled over by this award and particularly by the comments that Yusif and Tom shared with all of you. I’m very grateful to David and to Foreign Policy for this award. I admire enormously what Foreign Policy does, and we need more, frankly, thinking and cutting-edge ideas about how we’re going to deal with a very, very complicated world. But let me make this absolutely clear, and it is not – it’s not talk, it’s real: I am accepting this award on behalf of the entire United States State Department. And that is because, as Bill knows, there is nothing that we do – not a phone call, not a meeting that I go to, not a decision that I reach that doesn’t depend to a great extent on the advice and support and input of colleagues at the State Department.

It is a team effort in every sense of the word, and I can’t tell you how in New York when we do the United Nations and I have 66 meetings in the course of a week, I go – it was 70-something the year before – I go from meeting to meeting and the microphones are there, the tables are set up, the right people are introduced, the interpreter booths are there. It’s a really remarkable bit of organization, and that happens again and again in repetition and repetition. And Ambassador Pete Selfridge is here; he’s our chief of protocol. (Applause.) In about one week, a little more than a week, we had an India security dialogue – the Security and Economic Dialogue with Penny shortly thereafter. We had President Xi arrive, we had the Pope arrive, and then we went to the week in UNGA with some 100-plus heads of state. Pete Selfridge and his people never missed a beat, and thank you, Pete, for an extraordinary job. (Applause.)

So I want to honor this notion of getting you – not breaking the record here of keeping everybody too late. But let me just share with you a few thoughts, because that is a tradition here, and David would be upset if I didn’t try to give you some sense of what I see and what we’re feeling in the world we’re all working in today. And for all of the ambassadors here, I’m really grateful to you for coming. The work you do here is so critical.

I am now well into my third year as the Secretary of State and everything that I have seen has reinforced my belief in the importance of diplomacy. And we all know, yes, the use of force is sometimes necessary – I’ve never shied away from that, I understand it. But diplomatic solutions are almost always preferable because war is the greatest example there is of a failure of diplomacy. And unforeseen consequences always flow from the fog of war.

I also believe that diplomacy matters most often – that that which does matter most often is probably most likely to fall short on the first or the second or even the third round, because intractable challenges – and we have a bunch of them out there – have very deep roots. Even when that happens, though – even when you make the effort and you fail, I guarantee you there is a lot to be gained by clarifying options, identifying core issues, and pressing the parties to think in conciliatory terms. Now, certainly, the attempt creates a far stronger platform for future action than refusing to even try. It is my hope and prayer that that may even prove true now in the Middle East where we put a huge effort in two years ago. It fell short in the course of a summer because of really things that were almost beyond some control. But I am convinced that all of the work that was done is still there, still ready, and that given the right choices, it is possible over the course of these next 16 months to try to find that path again. History teaches us that every important diplomatic initiative does entail risk, but sitting on the sidelines and allowing problems to simply fester is more often than not the most perilous course of all.

Now, I believe that nations obviously – and I’m sure you do – are driven above all by their interests. I think we try to make certain that we’re driven by interests and values simultaneously, and sometimes the interest just overwhelms the value and sometimes the value is foremost and the interests may not be as great. And you can all work through where those applications exist. But the personal relationships in the end can actually help us to act wisely when interests appear to clash – and that is true among allies and adversaries alike. Now if solutions were really obvious, then you wouldn’t need a diplomat to find them. But there are a lot of ways of looking at almost every issue and it can take time and a prolonged effort to answer hard questions before a common vision finally emerges. Direct face-to-face conduct, I have always believed, can speed that process along. And it also helps you avoid confusion, misinterpretation, and missed opportunity.

And I also believe that although the United States often draws criticism, that goes with the territory, folks. It is precisely because of who we are and because of what we do stand for that so much is expected of our country. The truth is – and I think ambassadors here would agree, and I don’t say this as a matter of arrogance at all; I say it as a matter of honor and of reality – our leadership is still both necessary and welcome. And that is because the United States is a country with both the – blessed, I would say, with both the power and the will to be able to lead in directions that I believe most people do want to go. And it was mentioned by Tom in his very generous comments about the sort of value that we carry in the context of decency and hope and aspirations. That’s American. And we always work towards a fundamental fulfilment of a unique pledge which is founded in liberty and in justice for all.

And I might add, what makes our country – I mentioned this the other day in Spain. We were in Spain having a conversation with our friends there, who were talking about the migration and the great difficulty that Europe is facing today. And they were talking about how difficult it is to take them. And I mentioned one of the defining characteristics of America is almost every part of the world can be found anywhere in America, but they’re not distinctly of the part of the world from which they came; they are distinctly American. And what makes people distinctly American is the fact that we are beholden to an idea – not to a bloodline, not to an ideology. We’re beholden to the idea that all men and women are created equal. It’s different. It really is something that defines us differently.

Finally, I believe that what some pundits write today and what the daily headlines somehow signal to people that gives people cause to fear – and that is the notion that somehow the world is falling apart. Well, I say on the contrary; in many respects, it is coming together. And just consider a few examples.

Twenty years ago, we faced the possibility that the HIV/AIDS epidemic would sweep across all of Africa and South Asia, and that whole generations would be decimated as more and more babies were brought into the world already dying from this deadly disease. Today, because of the public health community and medical researchers, and because of PEPFAR, which I am proud that we began in the United States Senate in the late 1990s, even with the help of Jesse Helms, we were able to find a capacity to have leaders who were not afraid to tell their citizens the truth about how HIV is spread and how it can be prevented. And today, as a result of that, we are on the threshold of the first AIDS-free generation in 30 years. (Applause.)

In the year 2000, the world came together in New York to approve what we call the Millennium Development Goals. Some people scoffed, saying that the poor will always be with us and that many problems are just too big to solve. Well guess what? A child today is more likely than ever before in history to be born healthy, more likely to be adequately fed, more likely to get the necessary vaccinations, more likely to attend school, more likely to live a long life. The world’s goal was to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015; we did it by 2007. And now we have established a new set of goals – the 2030 agenda. And that’s because we know we still have a long way to go, we’re not about to stop until the job is done, but we also know we can get the job done because we’ve proven it.

Last year, many experts predicted that the outbreak of Ebola would kill a million people or more by Christmas of last year. Remember that? Instead, President Obama had the courage to dispatch several thousand U.S. troops to aid in the construction of emergency facilities, and we built capacity where it didn’t exist. And help came from Europe, but it also came from countries in Asia and Latin America. And I can remember being at the UN where President Obama brought people together in a meeting and stood there and asked country after country to contribute, and they did. And the West Africans themselves, in the end, took courageous steps to isolate the stricken – even their own family members. In a matter of months, streets that had been deserted except for a collection of vehicles were once again alive with the sounds of laughter and commerce. And we have learned in recent weeks that the three critical countries are now Ebola-free. Now, the need for vigilance remains constant, but because we came together and acted – many people who would have died are instead living healthy and normal lives.

And that’s not all.

This past summer – it was mentioned earlier – after 54 years, the United States of America and Cuba resumed normal diplomatic relations. (Applause.) And I had the privilege of going to Havana when the flag was raised over our embassy, symbolizing at long last the complete end to the Cold War – and a new beginning of greater openness for Cuba and closer ties between the U.S. and Cuban peoples.

Last month, the United States, as was mentioned, was able to support with a great deal of work – we appointed a special envoy. We took a person, Bernie Aronson, who has great expertise in the region – we worked with President Santos. We sort of quietly worked this process. But the result is that we’ve been able to help the leaders of Colombia as they reached a milestone in their effort to end one of the longest-running civil conflicts on the face of the globe – a 50-year war. And it’s my hope – I talked to Bernie tonight; we’re still working on it – that over these next months we can actually put the final crossing of Ts and dotting of Is and celebrate an end to that war. Tricky things still lie ahead, but it was a huge step forward. That’s how you start this process.

In Europe, we and our allies have held firm on sanctions against Russia while giving our full backing to a ceasefire in Ukraine that – although shaky and fragile – is still holding, and it’s been in place for 50 days.

And meanwhile, democracy has made major gains in Nigeria and Sri Lanka, and we hope to see further progress in Burma as well. And we are making progress against Boko Haram in Nigeria, where we had a peaceful transfer of power and an election that we were helpful in trying to nurse along and keep peaceful. And we are making progress against al-Shabaab in Somalia, and I believe – and you can measure it in other places, but I won’t go into all of it now.

Now, none of these results or initiatives were the result of American leadership alone. Let me be absolutely clear about that. A lot of countries stood up. Yet none, I think, of these initiatives I just talked about would have necessarily taken place or gotten where they got to without American participation and support.

And today, I want to just cite very quickly before I wrap up four additional areas where we seek to narrow divides that have been holding back America and the world.

First, here in the United States, we have to do everything that we can in order to narrow the divide between those who have never met a trade agreement they liked and those who automatically choose the other side. Now, the vehicle for that coming together, I think, can be the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It’s an accord unlike any other. It expresses a vision, a major vision, when you have 40 percent of global GDP wrapped into one agreement. But it also responds to an unprecedented way to the criticisms of prior agreements. It reflects an administration that has listened to people. This is a pact that will raise environmental standards and serve as a barrier against the exploitation of people who are underage, underpaid, trafficked, or abused.

The TPP actually empowers a country like Vietnam to be able to have labor unions and the right to strike. There are reforms in this agreement that some countries have never before seen such as this right to have an independent labor movement. And over the next few months, the agreement is going to undergo, obviously, severe scrutiny. We welcome it. It should. My challenge to opponents is to compare it not to some fantasy arrangement where we each get to write our own set of answers to every single question, but to the real world where widely varied interests have to be represented, because objectively, the high standards and responsibilities that are embedded in the TPP are a huge step up from the status quo.

The second divide that needs closing is between those who believe that a truly ambitious, meaningful, durable, global agreement on climate change is vital to our future, and those who don’t think we need it and can’t afford it.

Now, frankly, this shouldn’t be a hard choice. We met this morning at the State Department with several hundred – 300 or so – entrepreneurs, investors, philanthropies, and others about climate change. And Ambassador Doer was there and others here. The science is clear about this, folks. It’s time to stop paying any attention at all to some candidate for president of the United States who stands up and says, “Well, I’m not a scientist so I really can’t say what’s happening.” I mean, in high school, in middle school, we learned about the Earth rotating around its own axis, we learned about where the sun rises and how and where it sets. We have a pretty good sense of those, but we’re not scientists. (Laughter.) The consequences of this are huge. Life wouldn’t exist on the planet if there weren’t a greenhouse effect. That’s exactly what keeps the mean temperature – in past years – at the 57 degrees that it’s been.

But every year, we hear it’s the hottest year in history. The last 10 years were the hottest years, but they were the hottest years since the 10 years before that. This July was the hottest year in the world’s history. When do you begin to stop and understand that we’re already seeing record temperatures, storms, droughts, sea level rise? And there is an historic opportunity now staring us in the face to create jobs and build lasting prosperity by transforming the energy future. We’ll be using oil and gas for years and years to come. Countries that produce it are not suddenly going to see it disappear. But there are ways to do it with a transition from the dirtiest and worst practices so that we are building a future which can employ people, make life healthier, live up to our global responsibility, and provide greater security to every country that moves in that direction.

The good news is the momentum is building. Around the globe, mayors and governors are getting involved, civil society is mobilizing, religious authorities are weighing in, and the private sector is opening a whole new green frontier – so the time has come, frankly, to bring the former skeptics into the fold.

There is nothing liberal or conservative, there’s nothing Republican or Democrat, there’s nothing global north or global south about the potential consequences of climate change. We all have the same stake because we all share the same fragile home. So enough delay, enough excuses. This is the year, December is the time, and Paris is the place to take the first giant step together and do what we have to do to save the planet. (Applause.)

The third divide we need to close is between those who supported the recent nuclear agreement with Iran and those who did not. Now, obviously, I was a supporter. (Laughter.) I am convinced the agreement will make every region – every country in the region, the region itself, including our key allies, safer. And at the time that the deal was negotiated, not everybody saw it that way. I understand that. I respect that.

But two days ago, we entered the implementation phase – formally, officially. And in coming weeks, Iran must place some 12,000 centrifuges into mothballs, ship 98 percent of its enriched uranium out of the country, and destroy the core of its heavy water reactor. So I say to everyone who was for the agreement and everyone who was against – now is the time to join forces to make certain that this agreement is carried out fully and verifiably. We have all agreed on the goal that Iran should never be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon, and now is the time to make certain.

Finally, there is a fourth divide. And that involves the fight against international terrorist organizations. I think, in so many ways, this together with the climate challenge may well be the challenge of our generation. Millions of young people in too many countries who don’t have jobs, they aren’t educated, and they don’t see the prospect of being educated – there are more than a hundred million kids in Africa alone who need an education. They don’t need the education 10 years from now when they’re 20 years old. They need it now. And the challenge for us is to make certain that these kids are prevented from falling into the hands of these false proselytizers of religion who distort Islam and spread evil. My friends, we have to be united, because consider what happens when people are not. Daesh would never have seized territory in Iraq if the Sunni Muslim minority had felt fully represented in their country’s institutions. And Daesh wouldn’t have gained a foothold in Syria if the population there hadn’t been forced to rise up against the brutal repression of Bashar al-Assad.

The price now being paid for these divisions is the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II and the rise of a terrorist organization with global pretensions that has no vision for the future for anybody but kills, kills at random, kills because of who you are, kills because of what you believe, kills people who try to protect culture and history, rapes, uses rape not just as an instrument of war but as an instrument of life itself. They plunder and they destroy and then they brag about it. In response, we have to come together across the boundaries of ethnicity, religion, nation, and culture to defend the fundamental values of decency and law and everything that we have worked to achieve since the end of World War II. That is true throughout the Middle East. It’s true in Nigeria, Somalia, Libya, and in all of our countries.

And more specifically on Syria, everyone should understand, Assad – it’s not our choice, not me – it’s not us saying, oh, Assad’s a bad guy or (inaudible) – there’s no way in a country that has been – its citizens have been gassed, tortured, barrel bombed, starved, several hundred thousand killed, in which three-quarters of the country is displaced people and refugees – how does the person who’s done that to his own people claim legitimacy going forward? And a bigger problem – even if I said okay, not my business, you go about your business, there’s no way that the people there who feel disenfranchised in the region and who see the affront to a whole group of people on the basis of sectarianism are going to suddenly turn around and say now it’s okay. I don’t see how Assad could ever unite and govern the country, no more than the terrorists could ever unite and govern that country. And we have to bring every ounce of our collective influence together to give hope to many Syrians who reject both the tyrant and the terrorists and who desperately want their ancient, unbelievable land, one of the great cradles of civilization, these people want again to live in dignity and in peace.

None of us would be here tonight except for one simple fact: Diplomacy matters. It matters to our workers, to our businesses, to our farmers, our entrepreneurs, to our scientists, our teachers, to the men and women of our armed forces, because for diplomats the most searing challenge is not so much to make history as it is to quiet history, to create the largest possible periods of time about which no future war movies will be made, no epic battle diaries kept, no new cemeteries or genocide memorials dedicated.

Tonight I ask everyone to step back and envision such an era, a time when good people can walk unafraid through the streets of Jerusalem and Hebron, Juba, Bangui, Aleppo, and Mosul, and each of the many other areas that have known conflict and grief for far too long.

And it is for that purpose that the people of the United States State Department – your diplomats of the year every year, frankly – show up for work each morning. And it’s to that end that I respectfully summon our collective efforts going forward.

Thank you once again for your kindness and welcome this evening. Good night. Thank you. (Applause.)