Remarks at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Rice University
Houston, Texas
April 26, 2016

MR LEEBRON: Good evening, and welcome to this wonderful venue at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. We are thrilled to be hosting such a remarkable event tonight and thankful to Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy for making it possible. We are very grateful to Secretary Kerry for choosing the Baker Institute for his address this evening, and we welcome him warmly to Rice University. (Applause.)

Founded only 23 years ago, the Baker Institute is now among the most respected policy institutes in the world, and indeed ranked among the top five university-affiliated think tanks worldwide. This is the result of the vision and commitment of two extraordinary men: James A. Baker III, who serves as the institute’s honorary chair and namesake, and Ambassador Edward Djerejian, the founding director, who is tonight in Armenia.

Secretary Baker has served our country at the highest levels, and I think it fair to say is one of the most legendary public servants of our time. He served both as chief of staff and a member of the cabinet of two presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Secretary Baker rearranged his schedule in order to be here tonight to welcome Secretary Kerry, but because of a longstanding commitment, must leave prior to the conclusion of Secretary Kerry’s remarks.

Please join me in welcoming the 67th Secretary of the Treasury and the 61st Secretary of State, the honorable James A. Baker. (Applause.)

SECRETARY BAKER: Thank you. Thank you very much, David. Ladies and gentlemen, it is a distinct pleasure for me to introduce tonight’s speaker, because he is someone I have long admired both as a public servant and as a politician. He represents precisely the brand of leadership that Teddy Roosevelt was referring to during his famous speech on the responsibilities of self-governance that he gave almost exactly 106 years ago to the day. On April 23rd, 1910, Roosevelt marched onto the Sorbonne campus in Paris and presented what many referred to as the Man in the Arena speech because of this famous line. He said: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming. Who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Our speaker is indeed a man who has known great enthusiasms and devotions through his tireless efforts to build a safer and a more stable world. The Arab-Israeli peace process is a good example of his fearless style. Shortly after becoming Secretary of State in 2013, he dedicated immense effort to bringing Palestinians and Israelis together. The talks broke down in the summer of 2014, but not before our speaker had demonstrated the drive and the tenacity that are his trademarks. He understands that no Secretary of State can expect to achieve anything worthwhile unless he or she is willing to fail. And he knows that true leadership lies in the willingness to address precisely those complex and contentious problems that discourage the fainthearted.

In September 2013, he became the first American Secretary of State to meet with his Iranian counterpart since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. That meeting, widely – though wrongly – criticized in many circles, played a decisive part in achieving a path-breaking international agreement on Iran’s nuclear weapons. It is a bold and broad-reaching agreement, the type we have come to expect from a man who once said this about his life. He said, “Years ago when I left college, I went to war. And I learned in war the price that is paid when diplomacy fails. And I made a decision that if I was ever lucky enough to be in a position to make a difference, I would try to do so.”

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I am very proud to introduce to you a man who has made a difference; whose face is marred by the dust and the sweat and the blood accumulated during a job exceedingly well done. Please join me in welcoming the 68th Secretary of State, the honorable John Kerry. (Applause.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Mr. Secretary, Jim, that’s one of my favorite quotes in the world. It has always inspired me. And tonight, I wipe the dust and sweat and blood off just to be presentable, but – (laughter) – thanks so much, and I have a couple more words to say.

But let me just express my pleasure and pride in being able to be here tonight with all of you. It’s a great honor for me and I am particularly gratified to be here with my friend, Jim Baker, who – we worked together a number of things and touch on it in one moment, but President Leebron, thank you very, very much for your leadership here. Friends and guests and (inaudible), I know somewhere in the audience, (inaudible) – there they are. Thank you very, very much, Martin, and thank you for sponsoring this lecture. And I want to thank the university and Ed Djerejian, who is in Armenia, and Ben Stevenson of the Baker Center for inviting me to be here. And I want to thank the students who are here. I don't know how many of you were sort of looking for an excuse to put off studying for finals, but I’m very glad to see you, none the same.

I also want to welcome two very, very special guests. Debra and Marc Tice are here. They live locally and their son, Austin, was taken captive in Syria over three and a half years ago. Austin was doing work that we all know is absolutely vital. After serving in the Marine Corps in Afghanistan, he was a journalist – freelance journalist trying to shed light on the war in Syria, partly because the experiences he had learned in war, and he wanted other people to know about it and how that terrible conflict affects the most vulnerable people. So Debra and Marc, I know that I speak for everyone here in saying that our hearts and our prayers are with you. We are inspired by your courage and by your love for your son, and I will personally continue to do everything possible that I can to see that Austin returns home safely and soon.

To all of you, this is not my first time in Houston and not the first time here at Rice, but I am really delighted to be here in Houston. And earlier this afternoon, I had the honor of saying hello and talking over world issues with our country’s 41st president and one of our greatest living Americans, George H.W. Bush. And as we all know – (applause) – as we all know, the former president is known for being a very kind man, and today, he certainly proved it by not reminding me that when I was the Democratic nominee, I got trashed here in Texas. (Laughter.)

The silver lining is that if the election had ended differently, folks, I never would have become Secretary of State and I wouldn’t be here tonight with Secretary Baker and all of you.

That, my friends, is a privilege. Rice University bills itself as a community of curious thinkers, passionate dreamers, and energetic doers. Nobody here has any doubt that Jim Baker qualifies on every single one of those counts. It may be the Houston in his blood, but I got to tell you, folks, I wouldn’t want to play poker with this guy. (Laughter.) At the same time, let me tell you unequivocally – and I have told this to him before – there is no one that I would rather have on my side in a fight.

As secretary of state, he helped to end the Cold War, he helped – he really set the model, frankly, for how to do it, and I have followed some of his model with respect to our efforts against Daesh in assembling a coalition to roll back the invasion of Kuwait. He broke that ground. Helped to reunify Germany and laid the groundwork for NATO enlargement. And that is an extraordinary resume. But I have to tell you that Secretary Baker did pose a challenge at times for our interpreters. It’s hard enough to transform English into Arabic. It is even harder when the speaker is Texan. (Laughter.) I want you just to imagine being the translator when Secretary Baker told Syria’s President Assad to his face, “If a bullfrog had wings, it wouldn’t scrape its butt on the ground.” (Laughter.) Try that one. (Applause.) Talk about speaking truth to power – (laughter) – but he got his point across and he got his coalition done.

One of Rice’s great distinctions is that it does pride itself on unconventional thinking, and so tonight, I want to walk with you through some unconventional territory – by talking about the vital but not always well understood ways in which religion has an impact on U.S. foreign policy. Now, my basic argument is pretty straightforward: The more we understand religion and the better able we are as a result to be able to engage religious actors, the more effective our diplomacy will be in advancing the interests and values of our people.

Disclaimer: It is absolutely true the State Department is a secular institution and that, from its founding, the United States has maintained a formal separation, obviously, between church and state, and nothing that we’re doing seeks to or does cross any of those lines. This means that in our foreign policy, we don’t advocate on behalf of any particular set of religious beliefs or express a preference for one faith over another – or even for religious belief over non-belief. But this doesn’t mean that religion is irrelevant to our approach to world affairs, and particularly in this globalized, different world we are living in today.

As the child of a Foreign Service officer, a Navy veteran, a senator for almost 30 years, and now as Secretary of State, I have seen firsthand the pervasive impact that religious belief – and actions motivated by religious identity – have on world events. It’s why I have often said that, if I had a chance to go back to college all over again, one of the subjects I would absolutely like to study is comparative religion.

Consider that four out of five people on Earth align themselves with one religious tradition or another, and that over the centuries, religious teachings, movements, and conflicts have done as much as any secular ideology or economic force to determine the political context and geographical boundaries that define the international arena.

Religion today remains deeply consequential, affecting the values, the actions, the choices, the worldview of people in every walk of life on every continent and, obviously, also here at home. It is a part of what drives some to initiate war, others to pursue peace; some to organize for change, others to cling desperately to old ways, resist modernity; some to reach eagerly across the borders of nation and creed, and others to build higher and higher walls separating one group from the next.

But religion is not only pervasive; it is also complex, especially when viewed from the ground up. Most religions are internally diverse, reflecting multiple schools of thought, regional variations, and complicated histories. And the actions of religious communities, like all communities, are embedded in the political, economic, and cultural environment in which they are carried out. That is why religion as it is actually lived does not always look the way that we expect or have the impact that we anticipate. It is also why our engagement with religious actors has to extend beyond designated leaders to the rank and file.

Now, historically the State Department has tended to downplay the role of religion or pay attention only when religion is deemed a problem, a threat, a challenge. The department has not traditionally had the resources or made the necessary commitment to systematically analyze the importance that religion holds for the success or failure of our foreign policy. One of my predecessors, Madeleine Albright, pointed out that when she entered the office as secretary of state, she had advisors on political, military, economic, developmental issues, but none on the key topic of religion. Now that has changed, and the purpose of my remarks tonight is to explain what we now do differently and why those differences matter.

First of all, since becoming Secretary, I have made a regular and intentional effort to benefit from the wisdom and to exchange ideas with representatives of the major religious traditions. To that end, I have met with Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sunni and Shia Muslim leaders, representatives of Jewish communities in Europe and the United States, American Hindus, Orthodox Christians, and many more.

But for obvious reasons of time, the personal efforts of any Secretary of State can never be nearly enough. And that is why in 2013, when I became Secretary, in my first year – first months – I established an Office of Religion and Global Affairs headed by Shaun Casey, who is here with us tonight, one of our country’s leading thinkers on religion in public life.

I asked Shaun to take on sort of three missions in this effort: to advise me on how religion impacts U.S. foreign policy priorities, to support the entire State Department in better understanding religion and engaging religious communities, and to establish wider and deeper ties with key stakeholders across the globe.

In fulfilling those mandates, Shaun has pulled together a team of experts who have met with thousands of religious officials from five continents. And by the way, Shaun not only is here tonight, but he’s here with his chief of staff, Liora Danan, who is a Rice grad, folks, so there you go. (Applause.) I don’t know where she is. Stand up. Are you here somewhere? Where are you? Bashful – she’s over here. Okay. Embarrassed her.

Shaun’s office also includes a special envoy on anti-Semitism, Ira Forman, and a special representative to Muslim communities, Shaarik Zafar, and he grew up, by the way, right here in Houston. And he has built – they have built, frankly, together – valuable connections to Muslim men and women in every corner of the globe.

And we’ve also greatly expanded our Office of International Religious Freedom, headed by Ambassador David Saperstein, a brilliant person who champions the principle of religious liberty everywhere, including places where people are in danger each day simply because of what they believe or who they are.

In addition, we reach out to multilateral institutions. Our acting envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Arsalan Suleman, is engaged in comprehensive dialogue with members of that body on issues that include political crises, economic development, refugee relief, human rights, and religious pluralism.

And finally, we are striving to enhance our training with the goal of having people in every single one of our more than 240 embassies and consulates who can engage knowledgeably with religious actors in the country where they are posted.

But we don’t – and this is important – we don’t establish contacts just for the sake of having interesting conversations. We do so to make progress towards our foreign policy and our national security goals, and I believe this effort is one of those multiple efforts necessary in today’s world to help make America safer in a responsible and thoughtful and perhaps even, hopefully, visionary way.

For example, last year we hosted a workshop for religious leaders in Nigeria. The topic was both a moral and a practical one: corruption. The religious leaders were deeply concerned about the impact of corruption on their country and their communities, and let me tell you, I’m going to London in about 10 days to meet with David Cameron as part of a conference that is going to be focused exclusively on corruption, because it’s stealing the future from people all over the world. And this group came together and recognized that addressing this kind of widespread challenge is obviously not easy. As one observant said, when we fight corruption, corruption fights back. So they came up with a plan of action to push for reform at all levels; to teach citizens how to become whistleblowers; and to convey a message from their own pulpits that corruption is not some inevitable part of human existence, but rather an abuse that can and must be stopped – just as we understood and started when we formed the FBI and put together federal prosecutions and created accountability in our own country and still work to achieve it.

About 16 months ago, President Obama announced plans, as you all know, to normalize relations with Cuba. The Vatican – and specifically Pope Francis and Cardinal Ortega – encouraged this diplomatic breakthrough, which has vastly improved the standing of the United States in our hemisphere and been welcomed enthusiastically by the Cuban people.

The Cold War has been slow to thaw in Cuba, and for almost three decades, the government did not even recognize Christmas. But years of official hostility did not destroy the Church. And as we know, the eradication of organized religion was a basic pillar of Communism, not just in Cuba, but also in Russia, Eastern Europe, China, and Vietnam. Well, the moment has long since arrived to pronounce that effort dead. Today, the United States is speaking up for religious liberty in each and every one of the countries I just listed – and many more.

There was a time when engaging on religion with people overseas meant having meetings almost exclusively with men – and usually very old men. Today, we are in touch with a much more diverse group of figures: female religious scholars shaping the interpretation of sacred texts in Indonesia; women in the Gambia working within their religious communities to end the practice of female genital mutilation or cutting; religious activists in many countries who speak up on behalf of inter-religious cooperation and the rights of minorities.

The importance of our outreach efforts was demonstrated even more dramatically in 2014, when the terrorist group Daesh – ISIL, as people call it – began seizing territory in Syria and Iraq, over-running major cities, murdering civilians, raping and enslaving women and girls, selling them on the chopping block to their fighters or giving them as a gift for the fight. And we learned of these outrages firsthand because of the contacts of our religious freedom office – the contacts that they had developed with religious minorities here and in the Middle East, especially the Yezidi population in northern Iraq.

And when the assault by Daesh began, Yezidis in the region started appealing for help from the world, some using mobile phones that they were literally charging in their cars while heading up the rugged roads of Mount Sinjar in search of safety. And as the deadly crisis unfolded in ways that you all witnessed in horror, we stayed in real-time communication with the Yezidis and their intermediaries. And these links were absolutely critical in helping us to be able to mobilize our aircraft, our helicopters, people, fighters on the ground in order to pinpoint where the civilians were hiding and where the terrorists were gathering and be able to rescue people from certain death. This, in turn, allowed our military to make nightly drops of food and water to the trapped civilians, and to launch airstrikes against Daesh that allowed thousands to escape, and it all happened, folks, because we had reached out and were working with different communities.

In the time since, Daesh has continued to target religious minorities. They continue to kill Yezidis because they are Yezidis, Christians because they are Christians, Shia because they are Shia. In my judgment – and I registered this last month – Daesh is responsible for committing genocide against these groups in areas under its control.

And we have worked hard to maintain our support for targeted communities, because we believe that the protection of religious and ethnic minorities is a fundamental test not just of our leadership, but of civilization itself. And make no mistake, this is not a war of civilizations against each other. This is a war of uncivilized, of barbarians against civilization. We think that people ought to be free to choose, to change, to practice, to speak and teach their religion anywhere without fear or intimidation. And this freedom of religious and ethnic identity is not contingent on numbers. Religious minorities should have the same rights as majorities; that’s our belief, that’s who we are in the United States, and that is the norm that we seek to uphold in country after country.

So it’s deeply disturbing today that Christians face persecution or repression in many countries, especially in the Middle East and parts of South Asia and Africa. In China, Tibetan Buddhists continue to suffer from official harassment and interference in the practice of their religion. Muslim minorities, including the Rohingya population in Burma, have also been singled out for discrimination.

Meanwhile, in Europe and elsewhere, anti-Semitism is again on the rise, as evidenced by a significant increase in hate crimes – many of them violent – and also frequent incidents of intimidation and examples of anti-Semitic graffiti and verbal abuse. Ira Forman, America’s special envoy, who I mentioned earlier, has quietly reached out to a number of embattled Jewish communities. In one city in northern Europe, he met with the sole remaining rabbi – everybody else had been chased out – a man so frequently harassed by local immigrant youths that he feared to make the short trip home – from his home to the synagogue. In other urban centers, Ira has worked with our embassies to alert local authorities to the need of upgrading security at Jewish facilities.

And 20 years ago this spring, Holocaust Museum Houston opened its doors with the goal of promoting awareness of the dangers of prejudice. That message matters because, as Rabbi Abraham Heschel warned, “Speech has power and words do not fade. What starts as a sound ends as a deed.”

It shouldn’t be necessary, but silence has been misinterpreted too many times in the past to risk it again. Make no mistake: The United States remains unalterably opposed to bigotry in all forms, including anti-Semitism, and our commitment on this point, I am telling you, will never weaken, never waver, and never change.

Now, of course, one of the many problems with prejudice is that, once it begins, it can be very hard to contain. The last century saw a lot of blood shed in the wake of demagogues exploiting nationalism and fear. Today, anti-Muslim feelings are also on the rise in Europe, where extreme nationalist parties have been making inroads. In France and Belgium, Special Representative Zafar has led efforts to ensure immigrant communities in those countries are aware and empowered with respect to their civil rights. But there’s a lot that we need to do and there’s a lot that we are determined to do. There are troubling indications here in the United States, where some have urged a ban on Muslim visitors and where false stories about large numbers of Muslim Americans supposedly celebrating the 9/11 attacks have been willfully disseminated by people who don’t bother to check their facts.

Let me tell you how it is. Muslims have lived in the United States since the founding of our country. They have fought on our side in every single one of our wars. They make their homes in every region, including proudly and productively right here in Houston. They pursue a broad range of occupations. In other words, they are Americans, and many – (applause) – many are from families that have been here for centuries. Others, yes, arrived more recently. But they are part of the social fabric that defines and binds our country together. Efforts to smear them collectively for the actions of a few are despicable, and no more logical than it would have been in the 1990s to hold all Christians accountable for the atrocities committed against Muslim populations in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Now, sometimes I’m asked by people here at home, why don’t Muslim leaders speak out more boldly against terrorism? My reply is they do. They are. And too many people haven’t been listening. Political leaders from across the Muslim world have condemned Daesh, al-Qaida, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and many other terrorist groups, and they are part of our 66-nation coalition now in the fight against these terrorists. In addition, individual Muslim leaders, Sunni and Shia, on every continent, have stated clearly that terrorist acts of the type perpetrated by these groups are contrary to the letter and the spirit of Islam.

The problem is that verbal condemnations aren’t enough. They don’t complete the job.

And that’s why President Obama is leading this coalition, with the active participation of many Arab and Muslim states, in order to defeat Daesh at its core in Syria and Iraq and in order to strengthen the capacity of partners to counter violent extremists wherever they arise. Now, this effort is being prosecuted on many fronts, my friends, and it is designed to deprive the terrorists of the safe havens that they seek, degrade their leadership at the same time, hammer their sources of revenue, and discredit their ideas. And we are doing that in so many different ways: with the new center that opened in the UAE in Abu Dhabi, where Arabic speakers are using all the social media and we’re countering on a daily basis; a new one opening in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia – this is happening. We’re making progress. Daesh has been driven from about a third of the populated territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria. And even as it seeks to extend its networks into other countries, more and more of Daesh’s fighters are deserting, refusing to fight, and surveys show that its appeal is declining.

President Obama and I have said from the beginning that the fight against Daesh and similar groups takes years, not months. And it’s not defined by some decisive battle in which all of a sudden you say it’s gone. Even al-Qaida, though it’s not the threat it was to us, still roams in individual bands in different places. And that’s because the real challenge is not simply to defeat one group in one place at one time, but to create a global environment in which efforts to summon terrorist recruits fall on deaf ears.

Now, this is far from a simple task, believe me, because we have learned that terrorists can emerge from anywhere, including the United States of America and Western Europe. Believe it or not, there are some Americans fighting in Syria. There are Germans fighting. There are French fighting there. And they’ve had three and a half, four years to kind of send a few people back to different places, and we’ve seen the results of that. And what we’ve also learned is you don’t have to be poor or repressed or receive special training to go be one of those recruits. You don’t even have to be religious. A couple years ago, when some British teenagers headed to Syria to join Daesh, guess what they brought with them? Two books: The Qu’ran for Dummies and Islam for Dummies. Daesh recruiting videos actually include a religious narrative, but they also point to an idyllic picture of Daesh families having picnics and going to amusement parks.

The reality is that we still don’t have a fully satisfactory answer as to why some people – married, educated, older – fall under the lethal spell of terrorism. But I got news for you: We got some pretty good clues.

For example, multiple studies show a correlation between political repression and the rise of violent extremist organizations. People are far more likely to become radicalized when they have directly experienced corruption or violence at the hands of the state. Witness that fruit vendor in Tunisia who was slapped around trying to sell his goods and slapped by a police officer and in protest went and burned himself in front of the police station, and that is what ignited the Arab Spring – not religion. Denial of fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom, deprives people of voice and dignity, and it tends to force legitimate religious and political activities underground, and it fills many with an anger that makes them far more susceptible to terrorist recruiters.

Even worse, there is an active effort by terrorist groups now to recruit children – 10 years old, 12, 14 – and indoctrinate them into radical ideologies while they are still too young to know any better. This is actually something that I have had described to me by a fellow foreign minister in a country in Africa and in the Middle East. The terrorists are actively pursuing a long-term plan, a multigenerational plan, and this foreign minister said to me, “These guys have a 30-year plan. We don’t even have a five-year plan.” And the lure of extremism can be hard to resist, my friends, if you are a child with nothing in your stomach and somebody offers you regular meals, companionship, and an upside down world view in which you have a place on center stage.

What does that tell us? It means that we have to have a multigenerational plan of our own to stop terrorists and see that hope wins out over despair. Today, the vast majority of young people live in developing countries. The median age in Germany is 46; in the United States it is 37; in the Middle East and North Africa, it’s about 21. Country after country, 65 percent under the age of 30, 60 percent under the age of 25, 50 percent under the age of 21.

Now, I got news for you: Hundreds of millions of them need to go to school tomorrow and they’re not going to go to school tomorrow. That means just to keep pace, we will have to create hundreds of millions of new jobs each year at a time when new technologies are making many old jobs obsolete.

Now, this is obviously a daunting challenge, but failure is not an option. Religious leaders of all backgrounds are constantly reminding us that we have an obligation to reach out to the poor and the marginalized, and you can find that in almost every religion. We also have a deeply-rooted interest in doing so because nothing could be more dangerous for our future than the prospect of huge numbers of young adults wandering the globe, frustrated in their ambitions, and acutely aware because they all got smartphones – most of them. They get to see what others have and they get to think about what they don’t have.

So here’s what we have to do among other things, and there’s going to be more that I’ll talk about in these next months: But governments need to improve the climate for entrepreneurial activity and investment in many of these countries. Business people should take advantage of every opportunity while giving back to the communities in which they operate. Women have to be allowed to contribute in these countries – their energy, their intellect, and their skills – in order to help economies flourish. I don't know a country in the – I don't know a team in sports that can get by or win with half the team on the bench, and that is true for us with women in the world. We have to make sure we’re empowering people. (Applause.) Civil society has to do its part by mobilizing populations in order to insist on governance that is effective and honest. I can’t tell you as Secretary how it has struck me, the absence of good governance in many places. There are more failed and failing states than one would like.

And religious leaders particularly can remind us that public budgets are not just about numbers; they are also moral documents. What we choose to invest in reflects what we consider the best measure of real success to be. A rising GDP is obviously desirable; we all want that. But other benchmarks are far more relevant to whether young people feel a greater stake in building their countries up rather than tearing them down. Most religions understand that truth. So did Senator Robert Kennedy when he said in the 1960s, “Our gross national product” – which is what we called it then – “does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” The good news that I see is that for all the challenges that our differences present today, all of the major religions share a sense of universal values. They seek to define the things that make life worthwhile, a moral truth based on the dignity of all human beings.

That’s one reason that religious organizations have been so supportive of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that we approved at the UN last fall. Read it. It’s a groundbreaking document that embraces a vision for this future. This is a global to-do list designed to make gains on a wide range of global problems. It’s also a statement of faith that real progress is possible if we continue working together to eliminate extreme poverty, to improve maternal and child health care, to guarantee access to education for every boy and girl, to enhance our capacity to fight back against epidemic disease: malaria, HIV/AIDs, Ebola, and now the Zika virus. Each day, religious and other nongovernmental organizations bring enormous resources, credibility, and commitment to assist in every one of those lifesaving, enriching efforts that I just described.

Another important component of the Sustainable Development Goals – and another area where religious groups have been raising exactly the right issues – is climate change. As Secretary of State and before that as a senator, I have been involved in the climate debate for more than a quarter of a century. And I had a chance to reminisce with 41 that it was almost 25 years ago, whatever long, that President George H.W. Bush and Secretary Jim Baker took part in the first formal attempt to respond to the threat of climate change – the 1992 UN Framework Agreement on Climate Change that was reached in Rio de Janeiro. Back then, the danger that was caused by greenhouse gas emissions was considered by many to be simply an environmental issue, but it’s always been much more than that – it’s a health issue. The largest single cause of children in the United States of America being hospitalized during the summer is environmentally induced asthma. We spend billions on it. It’s a health issue, it’s a prosperity issue, because there are jobs to be gained in it. This is not a choice between protecting it or not protecting it; there are jobs to be created, and it’s a moral issue.

Religious communities – including America’s indigenous populations – have long been aware of this intimate connection between environmental stewardship and harmony with God. And by the way, Teddy Roosevelt – Doug Brinkley knows so well – our first great environmental president – carved out our parks and our awareness of this in the beginning of the last century. More recently, the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew, asked, “When will we learn that to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin?” In last year’s Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, Muslim leaders called for clear targets to phase out greenhouse gas emissions and invest in a clean energy economy.

And in his encyclical a year ago, Pope Francis cited the physical damage being done by climate change to our forests, our oceans, our polar regions, and the economic harm to those who depend for a living on agriculture and marine resources.

Religious leaders urge us every day to pursue the common good. In this case, “good” means a revolution in energy production and consumption that can preserve our environment and create millions of new jobs. And this is, to say the least, a timely message.

In the Houston area, besides being a major energy producer, obviously – and there is going to be pumping of oil and gas for 30, 40 years to come; nobody’s talking about some sudden disparity – but there’s a transitional process, and the emissions, no matter what you’re pumping, have to be controlled. But in the Houston area, you’ve had four major floods in the last 12 months, and your vulnerability to sea level rise is alarming. In the most recent study, a scientist came out and warned us about what’s happening in Antarctica. The studies I’ve seen show Galveston, Padre, and Matagorda Islands potentially inundated before the end of the century and significant parts of this city at risk. Now, maybe those predictions will prove to be wrong, and if so and we act now to create a new energy economy, what’s the worst case? We’ll be stuck with cleaner air, a healthier environment, sources of power that are sustainable for many generations to come, better health, less cancer induced by pollutant particulates and so forth – you run the list. But if the dire predictions are on target and we don’t act, we invite catastrophe.

So the United States has to be a leader in meeting this generational challenge. But we can’t do it alone – and by the way, we won’t have to. Last December, nearly 200 countries assembled in Paris and pledged to move in the direction of a low-carbon future. What they really did was send a message to the marketplace about the future – not a mandate; no automatic, immediate transition, plenty of time for companies to move and adjust and new R&D and technology, to have battery storage breakthrough or other – solar, different kinds of energy use or clean coal or clean whatever it’s going to be. Some Thomas Edison of the future is going to appear, the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs is going to come out of a basement with a new idea, and boom. Last Friday in New York, with my granddaughter in my lap, I had the honor of representing the United States in making our pledge to live up to our responsibility official.

And one of the ironies of this whole debate is that, for years, we’ve heard people argue that there’s no point in acting because climate change isn’t happening. Now some of those same people are saying it’s too late to stop climate change and so there’s still no point in acting. Well, they were wrong before and they’re wrong now.

As Pope Francis advised us: “It is never too late. God’s world has incredible healing powers, and human choices can change the tide in global warming. It is up to us to shape our future; it is up to us to choose our destiny.” And that is the message that I would leave with you this evening – it’s up to us.

And that begins with those of us who are in government. It’s up to us to recognize that we can’t lead a world that we don’t understand and that we can’t understand the world if we fail to comprehend and honor the central role that religion plays in the lives of billions of people. And that is why, in the State Department today, our experts are engaging with religious actors more broadly and more knowledgeably than ever before – seeking their help, their counsel, their support – as we strive to improve governance, curb corruption, stop genocide, safeguard human rights, reduce poverty, and save our planet from the most harmful consequences of climate change. And this unprecedented commitment of time and resources is paying off. It is helping to make our diplomacy more effective because it corresponds – not to some arcane foreign policy theory – but to the world as it is.

And in so doing, we are drawing on values that are at the heart of virtually every enduring religious and ethical tradition. Now, this is not to say that every religion is basically the same because – that it all means the same thing, because that’s not the case. Religions differ widely in their origins, their texts, their rites, their beliefs. But amid that diversity, there are common and often eloquent commitments to help the disadvantaged, to pursue peace, to follow the Golden Rule, and respect the fundamental dignity of every single human being. Over the decades, many of those concerns found an echo in such documents as the UN Charter, the UN Declaration on Human Rights. So today, when we act to uphold international standards of justice and law, we are at the same time heeding Abraham Lincoln’s admonition to “do right as God gives us to see the right” and John Kennedy’s observation in his inaugural, “Here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”

Fifty-four years ago, President Kennedy came here to Rice to announce our nation’s goal that within the decade we were going to land a man on the moon. He said that America would make that choice not because it was easy, but because it would serve to organize and test the upper limit of our energy and our skill, and that inspired a whole nation. Today and every day, we face that test right here on Earth to work towards a future that truly reflects the better angels of our nature.

To succeed, we have to have the wisdom to embrace our duty to the planet; the courage to fight back against prejudice and bigotry wherever it appears – or they appear; and the boldness to reach across boundaries and seize the opportunities before us to translate shared values, religious and otherwise, into accomplishments that will make our world more humane, more secure, and more just than it has ever been.

My friends here in Houston, at Rice, it’s very simple: It really is up to us. Thank you all. (Applause.)

MR BRINKLEY: Well, Mr. Secretary, thank you for that. That was a broad, wide-ranging, and really brilliant speech, and to have you here on the same stage with Secretary Baker, two of the really great diplomats in recent times, is just wonderful.

I wanted to begin our talk – you covered so many different key topics – but I was thinking back with Franklin Roosevelt and the winning of World War II, and he gave as a great American aspiration in the Four Freedoms speech freedom from fear everywhere in the world, but freedom of religion everywhere in the world. And it’s such a great American aspiration, but how can we tangibly start working more or how’s the State Department work to guarantee freedom of religion, and when the planet has so many pockets of repression?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s a steady process. First of all, it’s not a – it’s not overnight, Doug, and I think you know that. It’s not an easy proposition, but it’s an imperative that – and if you look around the world, despite the challenges that I listed here today, there’s an amazing amount that is good that people don’t notice because we’re living in an age of talking head conflict and cable hookup and so forth and tweets and Instagram and whatever. People need to slow down a little bit and stop and process information more than just this instant process we’re sort of living through.

And I think part of that is to recognize the gains, what’s happening. About 450 million people have come out of poverty in China, maybe 300 and some in India, in Mexico, in Korea. Korea 15 years ago – we were giving Korea economic aid and assistance 15 years ago. Today, Korea is a donor country to other countries. So there’s an amazing amount of – and this is part – and my theory, anyway – this is part of the anxiety that is being felt in the world through globalization, because it’s compressed time, it’s compressed space, and it has forced a faster pace on people. A lot of people resent that and want to find a different way of dealing.

And I think that when you look at diseases, we’re just about on the cusp of a first generation in Africa of children who will be born free of AIDS, of HIV. We sent 3,000 young Americans into Western Africa last – a year ago, Christmas – and there were predictions a million people were going to die from Ebola, but we galvanized action, we brought people together, we put people on the ground, and guess what? It is negligible now. It’s almost not present. There are a few cases, but huge gains.

More women are participating in societies in the world. When we went into Afghanistan in 2001, there were less than a million kids in school, and there were no girls – virtually. Today, there are about 7.5 million, maybe 8 million kids in school; about 40 percent of them are women, girls going to school. Change – and that’s been happening for 10 years now, or actually 14 years now. So that transformation is going to define the long-term future, and that’s how you do it – by building over time and recognizing that it is not the work of one generation. It is the work of all of us over a long period of time.

What I worry about is that we’re turning too inwards. We’re behaving too much like a poor country when we’re the richest country on the face of the planet. We have a – what is it, $17, $18 trillion economy, but we’re behaving – we’re not investing in our own infrastructure, we’re not – now I’m wandering off my bailiwick, but – (laughter) – but I’ll give you my portfolio. We’re not investing enough in what we’re trying to do: $50 billion – one penny on every dollar – goes to everything the United States State Department tries to do in the world, funding all of our embassies, all of our diplomatic work, all of our initiatives. And all of our USAID is contained in that – for all of our development work that tries to meet the development goals that I described that the UN has passed.

So we’ve got to realize where our interests lie. You have to invest in the future. Dwight Eisenhower invested in the future when he built the national highway system, and Teddy Roosevelt invested in the future when he set aside those acres of land. And now we have marvelous parks to go to. We have to – our generation has to be equally determined to invest in the long-term future of our nation, and I go to airports in various parts of the world – their airports eclipse ours by far. They’re nicer, they’re more useable – user-friendly – they’ve got signs, you can actually get a cart inside where you get out of the plane rather than outside – I mean, it’s – we’ve got to get smarter, that’s all. And we can make these things happen.

MR BRINKLEY: What about – we have college students, Rice students here, and I’m thinking about young Americans in general. Do you feel that with – we watched bombs go off in Brussels or terror attacks in Paris. Do you think it’s safe for college students to travel abroad, and is it a concern of the State Department of – not just college students, Christian missionaries around the world – how should young people approach travel around the planet?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, always cautiously but not with a fear of going. Yes, I would urge people to travel, absolutely. I mean, the chances of being injured or hit in a terrorist incident are far less than the chances of a car accident or something else happening to you in the normal walk of life. The odds are much lower, they really are. People don’t think that because you see it on TV and it’s gripping and it spreads fear, which is what it’s supposed to do.

The problem is that you have to be cautious and thoughtful; you pick the right places. Don’t hang around in the most obvious tourist trap, don’t – be thoughtful and observant about what’s around you and what’s happening, but on the – I absolutely wouldn’t hesitate to say people should travel. My own daughter, just to put it on the record, did just a few weeks ago, and I think people should do that.

I think, though, we have to recognize that law enforcement, government, Homeland Security, border patrol, customs – all the people who are there to provide this screen have to get it right 24/7, 365. Regrettably, if you’re willing to kill yourself and you want to take some people with you, you only have to get it right for about five minutes or maybe a couple of hours of preparation leading up to it. So it’s very, very difficult, and we’ve done an amazing job – I give the credit to the law enforcement community, to the intelligence community, to the sharing that we now engage in with other countries, the extraordinary coordination. We have stopped and intercepted plots. We have been able to – knock on wood – for the most part prevent terrible things from happening, and we’re making gains. The dragnet is spreading. People are getting more sophisticated and learning.

And we’re able, even as we do that, folks, to, I think, protect privacy to the most part in the context of the modern world that we’re living in. Now, nobody should have any illusions. Anybody in this room could go online and you can buy the finance or criminal or other records of people in the world. That’s been available for a long period of time; it didn’t just start in the last few years. Well before September 11th, 2001, there have been incursions on life just by virtue of credit checks and banking records and all the other things that exist. So we’re living in a different world and we have to be able to share information with each other in order to keep the nation safe, and that’s what we’re doing.

MR BRINKLEY: You made a very impassioned plea to kind of wake up about the climate change disaster, global warming, and you even invoked Texas here, what’s going on on the Gulf of Mexico and the Texas coast. What do you think young people can do? Let’s say – you said Kennedy came here for the Moon Shot speech and we’re going to do the – what can young people do on the climate front that’s proactive?

SECRETARY KERRY: All kinds of things, I mean all kinds of things, because young people come to the table with extraordinary energy, with the idealism that we need and want, and with the ability to take risks, which I would urge them to do. I mean, nobody should – I can remember when I was young I felt, as I’m sure a lot of people do, the pressure to start your career, you got to get going. I think in today’s world, you can have any number of careers, and for the most part, in politics, it’s changed radically. I mean, it used to be you’d go to the House of Representatives and maybe to the Senate, then governor and whatever, whatever, and it’s all changed now. It’s – you come out of nowhere. Witness what we’re seeing this year – (laughter) – and sometimes go back to nowhere (inaudible). (Laughter.)

What’s – but I think young people have the ability to take time to feast on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and taking a great effort that doesn’t pay well and has lousy hours but a lot of responsibility, because you can make the difference. Every campaign that I know of in the country, presidential campaigns are not run by those seasoned pros you see on TV talking – they call some shots, sure, but they’re really put together and organized, and the grunt work that makes it happen is done in the field by people who go out and knock on doors and make telephone calls and become part of the army. And that’s – that’s really where the energy can go, I think.

MR BRINKLEY: Now, you – I know you’re a – been a climate warrior. How important was it to you personally and to the State Department to have Pope Francis suddenly come public in such a dramatic way about the climate crisis?

SECRETARY KERRY: Incredibly impactful, obviously. I mean, hugely impactful. I mean, look, I don’t understand it, folks, I have to tell you. Science is science. I mean, if I drop this glass, let go of it, it’s going to fall. And we learned that in school. Whether it’s a law of relativity or a law of gravity or whatever it is, we learn things in high school and middle school. We’ve got people in the United States Senate who don’t acknowledge any of that. (Laughter.) I mean, it’s just absolutely mind-boggling to me. We are – (applause) – it’s really beyond comprehension.

Last March was the hottest March in history, before the March the year before. The last 10 years is the hottest decade in modern recorded history, but only before the last 10 years before that, which was only before the last 10 years before that. We have 30 successive years of continual warming where each year is beating – with one exception – one year didn’t, but the decades did – in which it’s getting warmer and warmer and warmer. And this summer is predicted to be even warmer and we already had last March, just this last March, which was the warmest in recorded history.

We see already in the world communities that are being uprooted because of the effect of climate change already – droughts in places there never were, rainfall that’s changed, the intensity of storms. We spent $700 billion, I think it was, last year on storm damage – unprecedented. What happens is a lot of businesses sit there and say, “Well, we can’t afford this particular form of energy,” but nobody is doing a full cost accounting of the true cost when you finish with the intensity of the storms, the increased hospitalization, the – you run the real accounting here, it’s blown away. But we don’t do that. We just pay up. You pay up 700 billion bucks to clean up places that have higher intensity from storms.

Now, scientists will tell you – and I’m not sitting here pretending that I can designate any particular one storm to the impact of climate. You can’t do that. But climate scientists have all predicted the higher intensity because of the greater amount of warming and condensation and the cycle of – you get more rain and you – we’ve changed El Nino – I mean, countless things are happening. Now we’re seeing predictions that maybe the Gulf Stream will shift course and we’re seeing species that are moving already – I see it in Massachusetts. We have great white sharks swimming off of the Cape Cod. It didn’t take – it wasn’t there when Jaws was done, but it’s there now. (Laughter.)

So, I mean, this is – it’s happening, folks, and you just have to be following the ostrich philosophy to not do it, which is put your head in the sand and pretend nothing’s happening.

MR BRINKLEY: Well, Secretary Kerry, we’re out of time now, but I want to echo what James Baker, Secretary Baker, said. You are just an amazing American public servant and we’re honored that you came to our campus --


MR BRINKLEY: -- and keep up the good work and happy travels, and God bless you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you, sir.

MR BRINKLEY: Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all. Thank you very much. Thank you. (Applause.)