Remarks at Oxford Union
Secretary of State
SECRETARY KERRY: (Applause.) Wow. I think I’m just going to stop right now. (Laughter.) Thank you for just an incredibly warm, tremendous welcome to this historic hall. It’s a great honor for me to be here. Bob, where’d you run off to? Where did he go? Thank you so much for your welcome. And Warden MacMillan, thank you very much. I appreciate it. (Inaudible) Baroness Cathy Ashton, my good friend, thank you so much for your incredible work for several years as you helped shape and get us down the road on the Iran nuclear agreement. Everybody here joins me in saying thank you for your many, many labors as the EU high representative. We’re very grateful. Thank you. (Applause.) I want to ask you all to join me in recognizing the United States Ambassador to Great Britain, the Court of St. James, Matthew Barzun. (Applause.)
And before I begin, I want to give a special shout-out to my chief of staff, Jon Finer, who’s now miserable that I’m doing this. (Laughter.) But he wears a second hat as the State Department director of policy and planning. And I love him. He played hockey in New England. We both come from New England. He also played soccer. We both love both games and both played them. But as you know, I went to college in New Haven, Connecticut, and Jon somehow got lost on his way to college and found himself at a small college in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Laughter.) And if you think the Cambridge-Oxford rivalry is hot, folks, Harvard-Yale is no slouch, let me tell you. (Applause.) And that said, I have to tell you that Jon offers a unique blend of intellect, humor, prose, and I will give him a pass for his wayward education – (laughter) – because of the simple fact besides having achieved the rare honor of getting a mail-order diploma – (laughter) – he is also a Rhodes Scholar and he loves Oxford and he loved his time here and I want you all to say thank you for this alumnus. (Applause.)
Now, to all of you Union members, I really am pleased to stand here. I had the privilege of serving as the president of the Yale Political Union, which is modeled on the Oxford Union, and it’s a great privilege for me to be able to be here and to stand here with so many speakers that stood before – distinguished speakers Robert Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, the woman who plays Crazy Eyes on the Netflix show Orange Is The New Black. (Laughter.) Now, that’s great company. (Laughter.) I know that some of you have also been waging a very energetic campaign, a creative campaign to bring another tall, thin American to this hall – (laughter) – so I apologize to anybody who was disappointed that I am not, in fact, Taylor Swift. (Laughter.) If I thought it would make you feel a little bit better, I’m happy to sing a few bars of “Shake It Off.” (Laughter.) But I (inaudible) put you through that; I didn’t come here to torture you. (Laughter.) And whether you disagree with me or agree with me this afternoon, I just want you all to know that I have done you an enormous favor by not bringing my guitar. (Laughter.)
Now, under any circumstances, it is a special thing to be here at Oxford today for me. I had the chance to walk around a little bit. I had lunch at St. Antony’s, as I mentioned, and chatted with a few of the students there. And this reminds me a lot of my alma mater, Yale, and of course, that’s probably because Yale’s campus was actually designed to make it look as much like Oxford as possible. In fact, at one point, an architect actually poured acid over the walls of Yale’s Harkness Tower in order to replicate the centuries of soot and sludge – (laughter) – on (inaudible) college. Now, in America, we call that character – (laughter) – sort of like buying brand-new jeans that already have holes in the knees (inaudible). (Laughter.)
But Oxford University, needless to say, and the Oxford Union are the real deal, and I’m delighted to be here, particularly because we meet at such a critical time.
Let me take a moment to put that into context. Consider that 75 years ago last night, under a full moon, more than 500 Nazi warplanes launched one of the most destructive air raids of the Second World War. Bombs tore through London’s residential neighborhoods, including, I might add, the apartment building in which my American grandmother lived – though she, thankfully, wasn’t home when they hit. The explosions rocked Westminster Abbey and Parliament and blew a hole in one of the most magnificent roofs in the world – the arches and the oaken beams of Westminster Hall.
At the time, the Third Reich controlled virtually all of Europe. Great Britain and the refugee fighters who gathered here stood seemingly alone against perhaps the greatest evil the world has ever known.
But Great Britain fought back. And shortly after the blitz, Labor Minister Ernest Bevin declared: Our bombers are growing in size and carrying capacity. Our science is developing more rapidly than theirs. We are on the up grade. Never mind the croakers, he said. We are winning.
And indeed we – we did. But as we all know too well, the joy and relief of V-E Day – whose anniversary we just celebrated a couple days ago – were soon tempered by the emergence of a new division in Europe, and the descent, in Churchill’s phrase, of an Iron Curtain that separated free from un-free, Soviet satellites from NATO allies.
This was the bipolar world in which my generation grew up, came of age.
But during the time when my father was a member of America’s Foreign Service, our family moved to Berlin, where I got a child’s-eye view of East-West tensions – especially when I rode my bicycle without permission into the Communist sector and was promptly grounded by my dad, who informed me that I could have been an international incident.
Now, later, I was an 18-year-old freshman at Yale during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nineteen when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Twenty-two when I joined the Navy and twenty-three when I deployed for my first tour in Vietnam.
By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I was in my forties and serving in the United States Senate, and the Cold War had significantly shaped my world view throughout those formative years.
The stakes of that period – inevitable – felt incredibly high because they were. But it was also a time when the challenges – and what to do about them – were pretty clear, and when the primary forces shaping our world were leaders of recognized states.
When we went to war in that era, we fought an enemy army in uniform that was answerable to an established government with a known address. We could pull out a world map and color each state clearly – our friends, our foes, the nonaligned. The ideological fault line between freedom and authoritarianism was just as clear as those colors on the map and the lines that were drawn.
Now, the world that confronts us today, confronts you today as you prepare for the day you’ll leave here and some of you will spend a few more years and then ultimately go out and make a difference – the world that confronts us today is, in many ways, much more complicated. Henry Kissinger, who wrote one of the greatest books, Diplomacy, called me once, told me not so long ago – a few months ago that he thought this was far more, much more difficult.
Non-state actors compete with national governments for influence and power. The cliche of technology bringing the world closer is, in fact, a stark reality in a world filled with extremism and conflict. Disturbing images and outright lies can circle the globe in an instant. Conflicts are fought using an eclectic mix of weapons, and often by combatants who are difficult to distinguish from ordinary civilians.
And while the world as a whole is more prosperous than it has ever been, inequality has also grown in almost every single country, fueling instability. Weak or corrupt governance has led to an increasing number of failed or failing states, robbing too many citizens of the economic opportunity and a hopeful future. And all the while, climate change – a decidedly different challenge, but one that is existential – is already impacting our daily lives, giving us a preview of the planet-wide catastrophe that we will face if we don’t change course.
The complexity of all of this is enough to make some people just want to climb back into bed, pull the sheets up over your head and wish that everything would disappear. But that’s not how you solve anything, folks, except maybe a hangover. (Laughter.)
Amid the crush of daily events, it is really important to step back and consider the full range of what we are up against. And I’ve spent more than 2,300 hours – or a full 96 days – on a plane since I took this job. That is a lot of long flights where one can take the time to sit and think. And while there are literally dozens of issues that cross my desk every day, as I see it, there are three that leap out as interrelated – but distinct – and they are generational challenges. All three demand urgent and unified action by the global community, because they cannot be solved by one country alone. And all three will require not just years, but decades of international cooperation in order to resolve. And all three must matter to every single one of us, because they are the challenges that will shape the world that our children and grandchildren will inherit.
Now, the first of these challenges – pretty obvious, I suspect, because it dominates the headlines today here in Europe and around the world – and that is the need to counter and overcome the forces that seek to impose a radical extremism on us all.
Not a single country endorses the kind of vicious and indiscriminate violence perpetrated by such groups as ISIL – or Daesh – or groups like al-Qaida, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and others, in West Africa and the Persian peninsula and the Arab peninsula – Arabian peninsula. In fact, it is opposition to these terrorists that is bringing governments and people together in every region. And that is exactly as it ought to be, because those thugs are the living definition of evil – the kind of evil that I described that Great Britain fought back against so hard in World War II. Let me just emphasize for you that the crimes of these people go way beyond theft and destruction. They’re smugglers, extorters. They destroy cultural treasures. They attack history itself. They attack schools. They butcher teachers, murder innocent journalists, abduct young boys and turn them into killers, auction off terrified girls in modern-day slave markets with notarized sales contracts, and use the term “marriage” to describe what is actually sanctioned, even encouraged, systematic rape.
This is Daesh’s standard practice. They have built a bureaucracy out of brutality – systematically murdering Christians, Yezidis, Shias and others because of where they’re from and because of who they are, because of what they believe – a reign of terror which, in my estimation, amounts to genocide.
So together, we must defeat Daesh, its affiliates, and its imitators. It may surprise you, but all the evidence indicates that we are on the path to doing just that. The international coalition to counter Daesh is now 66 members strong. Its members are drawn from every single corner of the globe, and all are taking on different aspects of this fight, dividing up the responsibilities and dividing up its effectiveness.
To date, the coalition has conducted more than 12,000 airstrikes. The United States and others have put special forces on the ground in Syria and Iraq to advise, train, and better equip our local partners for the challenges ahead. Together, we have already pushed Daesh out of roughly one-third of the territory that it once controlled in Iraq and Syria. And we’re hammering Daesh’s heavy weapons, its training camps, its supply routes, its infrastructure, increasingly pressuring and isolating its so-called capitals in Raqqa and Mosul. And the military campaign to end Daesh’s terrorism is only expanding.
We are also destroying Daesh’s economic lifeline. We are targeting and hitting the terrorists’ oil production, their refining facilities, their tanker trucks, their cash centers, their illicit banking hubs. And already, they’ve had to reduce the paychecks to their fighters by 50 percent.
So Daesh is losing ground – not as fast as some of us would like, but losing ground – losing leaders, losing fighters, losing cash. And you know what? They’re losing confidence as well. A week ago Daesh beheaded four teenagers – young teenagers, 13 and 14 – in Raqqa – kids – because they feared they might be some sort of spies. Hauled them out into the square, slashed their heads off for everybody to see and terrorize people. Kids. And as a result, we know from survivors, defectors, and intelligence reports that members of Daesh’s rank and file are also now losing hope.
But we also know that beating Daesh on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria is only the beginning of what we must do. As Henry David Thoreau wrote: There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil, to only one who is striking at the root. So we have to strike at the root – the root causes of violent extremism. And we can’t do that unless we first understand what those causes are.
Since the fighting broke out in 2011, at least 800 Britons have left this country to join Daesh. Seventeen-year-old Talha Asma was an A-student at his West Yorkshire high school, but in the spring of his senior year, Talha and his next-door neighbor left for Syria. A couple months later, he detonated a Toyota Land Cruiser full of explosives at an Iraqi oil refinery, killing himself and 11 others.
It may be disconcerting – I know it is, but it’s nonetheless true – that some of these terrorists or would-be terrorists are our neighbors – in America too, in Australia, Germany, France, Belgium – men and women and, yes, children from our communities who are somehow coming to the conclusion that Daesh or another terrorist group is their destiny, not Oxford or a job, a future.
While some individuals, we know, are driven by tribal or sectarian allegiances; others, in response to oppression. For example – for years now – Assad’s iron-fisted rule has played right into the Daesh recruitment strategy, particularly among Sunnis who view Assad as an existential threat to their communities. And having made peaceful change impossible, Assad made violence inevitable, and he thereby paved the way for Daesh to emerge and feed off each other, with the cruelty of each driving the desperate into the poisonous embrace of the other.
I want to underscore: The biggest blow that we could conceivably deal to Daesh would be to end the war between the regime and the opposition and bring about a political transition in Syria. And that is why the United States and the UK and 18 other nations, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and every major country with a direct interest and stake in Syria, have all come together to form the International Syria Support Group. For the first time since the conflict began five years ago, we have brought all the key international players to the same table – impossible a year ago. We have negotiated a cessation of hostilities and deliveries of aid that, yes, has been violated in places, and at one point a few days ago was very fragile, but we have reduced the violence. We have helped save thousands of lives. And we continue now to push for the only viable, long-term solution to this terrible conflict, which is a political transition away from Assad.
We had a spirited discussion at lunch today about, why can’t you deal with Assad? Why can’t you make something happen? It’s very simple, folks. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t end the war that way because of what Assad has done, because of the 12 million people who have been now dislodged and displaced and refugeed, and because Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, others will not stop because of Assad’s presence. The quicker we help to end this conflict, the quicker we will alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, and the quicker we can all focus on eliminating Daesh from Iraq and Syria.
Now, we also know that some people are radicalized for reasons that have really very little to do with religion or politics. Some people become terrorists because they have trouble finding meaning in life or economic opportunity in their daily lives – because they are deeply frustrated – and because they hope that groups like Daesh are somehow going to give them a sense of identity, or purpose, or power that they have not received from the normal currency of their lives.
It isn’t complicated. When people – and particularly young people – have no hope for the future and no faith in legitimate authority – when there are no outlets for people to express their concerns – frustration festers. And no one knows that better than violent extremist groups, which regularly use indignity and marginalization and inequality and corruption as a super-easy recruitment tool.
Therefore, the second great challenge that we face together today is overcoming the virulent bad governance that persists in too many places – the failed and failing states I’ve talked about. We need to do this because we need to build a strong, sustainable, global economy that unlocks opportunity, rather than stifling it.
Any government’s most basic duty – you all, I’m sure, have debated this at length in one class or another: the rights of man and the evolution of human power on Earth and governance – the most basic duty is to meet the needs of your citizens.
When governments are fragile and leaders are incompetent, or worse, dishonest, when the gap between rich and poor grows and the space for basic freedoms shrinks, when corruption is not an aberration but an entrenched part of society, the needs of citizens cannot be met.
Weak or corrupt governance invariably leaves young people caught up in the race between hope and frustration. And it’s absolutely essential that hope wins that race.
Think about it this way: Worldwide, there are nearly two billion people who are younger than 15 years old. In the Middle East, that includes three out of every ten people. In parts of Africa, such as Niger and Somalia, the DRC, roughly half the population is under 15. It matters to all of us whether these kids are going to be able to access education, have a job, find an opportunity that enables them to be able to contribute to their community in beneficial ways.
It matters because today’s globalized economy sees a connection – an intimate connection, in fact – between how we each do and how we all do. Partly, because from a moral standpoint, giving young people a chance to succeed is simply the right thing to do. But guess what, it also matters because these young people are essentially swing voters in the fight against violent extremism. We need them to make wise choices, and yet, that is a lot less likely if they grow up without faith in government, without an education, without the chance for a better life.
And that means that governments have to break down barriers to innovation. It means making it easier to start up a business. It means improving the climate for foreign investment. It means streamlining bureaucracies and preventing military cronies from crowding out private enterprise. It means giving women and girls an equal chance to compete in the classroom and in the workplace. And this is the only way we are going to meet the needs of the modern world – plain and simple.
It also means making the fight against corruption a global security priority of the first order. Bribery, fraud, other forms of venality feed organized crime. Those are your narcotics traffickers, those are your arms traffickers, and those are often the greatest links to terrorist networks. They contribute to human trafficking, discourage honest and accountable investment. They undermine entire communities.
Now, I don’t have any illusions. I used to be a prosecutor. I understand that corruption is as old as government itself. Every nation, including mine – the United States – has wrestled at some point to a greater or lesser degree with corruption at one point or another. But today, the cost of corruption globally is exploding, and it’s exploding everywhere. In the Middle East, a recent survey found that fully one-third of citizens had to pay a bribe in order to get a supposedly free government service. In Ukraine, under the previous government, corrupt governance helped trigger an international crisis that we’re still engaged in. In Cameroon, a senior inspector of police was arrested for selling local ID cards to Boko Haram – to the militants coming in from Nigeria. And just last week in Pakistan, officers seized currency and gold worth nearly 6.5 million from the home of a senior official in Balochistan province.
Now, the good news is that more and more citizens – citizens around the world are saying no to this runaway corruption. We saw this in Guatemala City last year when thousands of citizens gathered in the central square every Sunday, rain or shine, to protest the venality that they knew was taking place at the highest levels of their government. And with the help of some courageous national prosecutors, they exposed a sitting vice president, and then a sitting president, and they put their country’s political leaders on notice for many years to come.
Tomorrow, I will have the privilege of attending Prime Minister Cameron’s Anti-Corruption Summit in London, and we’re going to discuss the various ways that the international community can help citizens of the world to address this challenge. For our part, just last week, President Obama proposed new legislation that would, for the first time, require all 50 states to collect information on shell companies for law enforcement to be able to use, and shed greater light on real estate transactions in cities like Miami and New York, which are used too often to shelter illicit funds. And we have to stop and ask on an international basis how it is that a bunch of generals in a country like Nigeria, which happened previously, and the new president has run against all this, and we’re working with him now to change it. But Nigeria saw tens of billions of dollars taken out of the country. Those were schools. Those were healthcare. Those were infrastructure. There was new jobs hidden in bank accounts around the world.
Over the last four years, U.S. foreign assistance for anti-corruption programs has more than doubled. And today, we’re working in dozens of countries to help build online, automated business registries, which will reduce both the red tape and the opportunities for graft to hold people up with a bribe. We’re also expanding programs that send American judges overseas to share best practices. And we’re developing better intelligence on kleptocrats and their networks in order to deny bad actors the profits from graft and more.
Now, I will have more to say about this at tomorrow’s summit, but for now let me just underscore: Despite recent progress, as a global community, we just are not doing nearly enough to eliminate this scourge, and that needs to change if we’re going to have a chance of addressing the concerns of those two billion young people. Because we all pay for it – you pay for it, we pay for it. Corruption costs the global economy about $2.6 trillion a year. That’s 2.6 trillion that could be going towards the infrastructure, towards healthcare, towards education, towards food security initiatives, or any number of areas where additional funding is desperately needed. You can buy a lot with 2.6 trillion. In fact, that’s about 10 times the total amount the international community spends each year on all development assistance. Think what a difference we could make.
Now, the magnitude of corruption that exists today is not just disgraceful, it’s also dangerous. There’s nothing more demoralizing, more destructive, more disempowering to any citizen than the belief that the system is rigged against them and that people in positions of power – to use a diplomatic term – are crooks who are embezzling the future of their own people, and by the way, depositing their ill-gotten gains in financial institutions that claim respectability.
Good, responsible governance is supposed to protect citizens’ future, not pillage it. And that’s as true about the economy as it is about the environment.
Now, I know that to some people, because I’ve been at this a long time – when I first came back from Vietnam, I took part in a Earth Day – the first Earth Day in America, 1970, and we’ve been at it ever since trying to change things. And I know that some people still think environmental protection is a fringe issue. But the fact is that because of ignorance at first, and more recently the irresponsibility of vested interests that have consciously sought to obscure the facts in pursuit of their own short-sighted greed, the fragile home that all of us share today is changing in alarming ways.
That’s why today’s third and final generational challenge is to finally step up and deal with widespread environmental degradation taking place around the world.
Ladies and gentlemen, in just the past 40 years, we human beings have wiped out fully one-half of marine vertebrates. The vast majority of the world’s fish stocks are either fully exploited or overfished. We’re adding millions of tons of plastic trash into the ocean every year. At this point, our ocean is so polluted that hundreds of dead zones exist, where life simply cannot exist.
On land, we are destroying the equivalent of 16 or 17 football fields of forest every minute. And because of the obscene amount of pollution that we allowed into the air over the years, today 3.5 billion of the world’s population live in communities that fall short of the air quality standards that are set by the World Health Organization.
And of course, on top of these troubling statistics, there’s the greatest threat that our planet has faced in modern history: (inaudible), climate change.
Week after week, month after month, year after year, we continue to see new evidence of the danger climate change poses to our planet. We learned recently that 2015 was the hottest year in recorded history by far, after knowing that the decade before that was the hottest on record, and the one before that the second hottest on record, and the one before that the third hottest on record. And when does somebody stop and say, “Enough”? And now we already know this year is already on track to be the warmest of all.
Now, most of you who are here are under the age of 30. And those of you who are may not be aware of it, but you haven’t lived through one single month in your life – not one – that was cooler than its 20th century average.
The facts are staggering. And yet, despite all the science, one of my former colleagues thought it would be persuasive to walk onto the floor of the United States Senate with a snowball in his hand and point to it as evidence that climate change is a hoax. I hate to tell you, folks, it proves something for sure, but not what he intended. (Laughter.)
Thankfully, as we saw in Paris last December, most of the world understands the severity of this threat and is moving decisively towards collective action to fix it.
The Paris climate change agreement that I had the privilege of signing with my granddaughter on my lap in New York a few days ago is important – not because the text, in and of itself, is going to guarantee that we keep the level of temperature at 2 degrees centigrade and don’t get to the tipping point. That’s not what it absolutely guarantees. It doesn’t mean we’ll avoid the worst effects of climate change. The Paris Agreement is important because of the clear signal it sends from nearly 200 nations to all sectors of the global economy: that the future will and must be fueled by cleaner energy sources.
Now, today we know: The new energy future, the efficiencies, the alternative sources, the clean options – none of what we must achieve is beyond our capacity. It isn’t as if we’re sitting here stumped by a mathematical equation we can’t figure out or by some logarithm that is yet to be discovered. That’s not the situation. There’s only one question: Is doing something and what we need to do beyond our collective resolve?
And happily, there is now a growing body of evidence that we’re beginning to move in the right direction. Last year, global investment in renewable energy was at an all-time high – nearly $330 billion.
For the first time in history – despite the low price of coal and oil and gas – more of the world’s money was spent fostering renewable energy technologies than on new fossil fuel plants. So we’re starting to break through.
And by the middle of this century, it is projected that roughly $50 trillion will be invested in new energy – and the vast majority of that in clean energy.
Now, if these numbers don’t, as raw numbers, mean something to you, here’s the upshot: The clean energy market of the future is the largest market the world has ever seen. My state of Massachusetts made a lot of money in the 1990s because we’re a tech state and we were riding the crest of computers and communications and so forth – not as much as a couple of other states: California, Texas, others. That economic energy of the 1990s created more wealth in our nation than at any time since the 1920s, when didn’t have an income tax. And every single quintile of American taxpayer saw their income go up – everybody. The – it was a $1 trillion market with 1 billion users. The energy market today – 4 to 5 billion users today. It’s going to go up to 9 billion users if we do what we can do. And it is in the multi-trillions of dollars in the size of market.
So if, in the spirit of Paris, we continue to pursue solutions together, the enormous economic benefits of that market is going to be felt by people everywhere.
And the good news is this cooperation is actually written right into the Paris Agreement. Because we all understand that this is, in fact, a generational challenge – and it will take a full generation to address what has to be done – the Paris Agreement requires ongoing international collaboration, calling on the parties to ramp up their climate plans every five years, with a mandatory requirement that people engage in the measurement and then the ramp-up. So our collective response actually gets stronger and stronger as time passes and technology evolves.
Now, ultimately, our success is going to depend on whether we keep our eye on the ball and maintain the momentum that finally exists today.
And in the time ahead, we are going to need an all-out global commitment – not only to clean energy – but to clean air, clean harbors, clean coasts, and the preservation of our endangered ocean and marine resources. Now, if you think current conflicts are all-consuming, imagine what happens when we add food shortages, water shortages, stronger storms, longer droughts, steady rises in sea-levels, which are already being predicted, and entire countries swallowed by the sea. If we don’t make the choices available to us today, then the problems of today are going to pale in comparison with what’s coming down the road. But we don’t hear a lot of people, not enough people, laying those real choices in front.
The bottom line is that we don’t have to sit here and wait for this to happen. If we accelerate the transition towards clean energy solutions – we have the technology, we have the knowledge. Solar has now moved down – I saw contracts the other day that are being sold at about 3 cents, 3-point-something cents per kilowatt hour, less than that. In one case, Saudi Arabia did a solar contract for 2.9, I think it is. That is totally, more than, competitive with coal and other sources. But a lot of countries can’t afford to do it. They need to make the transition. And I believe, President Obama believes, that the global community needs to come together in order to help them do it. If we do this, we have time to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. And the solution here is not a mystery. Our planet is not predestined for destruction. It is, as President Kennedy reminded us, in our hands, when he said in his inauguration, “that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” And when you look at any scripture of any religion or any philosophy of life, and it will tell you something about creation and preservation and the importance of our respect for our environment.
So my friends, the same is true for each of the other challenges that I addressed today. There is nothing inevitable about succumbing to the problems that we confront – nothing. Each is a product of human choice or lack of choice. And what we have the power to choose, we have the power to change.
And that is why I am confident that in our collective ability we can meet these challenges. And when you consider that the university you attend predates not only the founding of my nation, but also the Reformation, the Renaissance – the Magna Carta – you consider that this institution survived the Black Death, endured the War of the Roses, the Great War, and the Blitz – come on, I think it’s a little easier on this campus than elsewhere to put things in perspective, and I’m sure you can (inaudible). (Laughter.) Oxford has stood through it all – with a history that reaches back to the Middle Ages – or in other words, the last time a subfusc was in fashion. (Laughter.)
So because of the creativity and the persistence of previous generations, we actually have huge advantages over them – over all of that history that I just talked about. A child today is more likely to be born healthy, more likely to be adequately fed, more likely to get the necessary vaccinations, more likely to attend school, and more likely to actually live a long life than any earlier generation. We are the beneficiaries – you are the beneficiaries – of incredible breakthroughs in medicine and education, communications, transportation, food production – you name it. And meanwhile, the number of nuclear weapons has fallen by two-thirds in the last 30 years – while the number of democracies has doubled. That is called progress. Against all the cacophony of talking heads on TV and the sort of sense of doom and gloom, we can make – we are making progress.
So on that note, let me just underscore to you – we who live in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have actually one more significant advantage. For centuries, mankind has seen governments come and governments go. Virtually every form of government imagined has been attempted somewhere – from totalitarianism to socialism, monarchy, constitutional monarchy, military junta, theocracy, republic.
It isn’t a coincidence that the course of history has led so much of the modern world to settle on democracy. And no one put it better, as usual, than Winston Churchill, born less than 10 miles from here, who called democracy the worst form of government there is – except for all the others. Democracy can be noisy, frustrating, and occasionally chaotic. But the genius in democracy is that it carries within itself the remedy for its own shortcomings. Wrong policies can – through a process of open debate, which you cherish here at the Oxford Union – be replaced by better policies. Poor leaders can – through a process of free and fair elections – be replaced by better ones.
We have a reason, I think, to look to the future not only with resolve, but with confidence, and with the understanding that there is much we can accomplish if we just dare to push the limits. If you don’t believe me, ask Leicester City fans. (Laughter.) Or consider the words of another American who studied here many years ago, T.S. Eliot. “Only those who will risk going too far,” he said, “can possibly find out how far one can go.”
So each of you will leave this university with a different path in mind. Some of you may decide to work in government. Others may continue on in academia. The world is moving so fast now that I guarantee you many of you will embark on a career in a company not yet founded, using devices not yet developed, based on ideas not yet conceived. But no matter where you end up – no matter what you choose to do – don’t underestimate the power that you have to make a difference. Participation is the best antidote to pessimism. If you have questions, ask them. When you see injustices, go out and correct them. When you dream up a solution, pursue it and put it on the table and fight for it. That is the way. And it’s only if you do that, only if you push to see how far you can go, that you’re going to find out that you have gone on as far as you can and you’ve made a difference. That will make all the difference, my friends, and I hope you have a great adventure and have some fun while you’re doing it.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
You have no idea how excited I was when I heard I get to sit on a throne. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: Thank you, Secretary Kerry, for that hugely important speech. And before we open up questions to the audience, I (inaudible) on just a couple of the things that you spoke about, and the first generational challenge that you spoke about was the existence of extremist groups around the world, in particular the ongoing conflict in Syria. And you mentioned how it’s only now, years into the conflict, that we’re finally getting the parties together, making some progress, and saving lives. And the question I want to ask is: How do you think that history will view the lack of direct involvement in 2013? Do you think that if there had been more direct action, then the deterioration of the country would have been stopped or slowed?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t want to disappoint you, but I’m just not in the business of hypothetical retroactive judgments now. I’m – I’ve got another eight months, and I’m looking forward to trying to figure out how we deal with the problem we have now. And I can’t just – it’s a waste of time for me to surmise whether or not if we did something – I wasn’t Secretary at the time or even when I did become Secretary. We have to go forward.
Now, here’s the dilemma of Syria, folks: It – when I talk about the complications, it’s – there’s probably – I don’t know – five wars going on there. It’s not just the Syrian war. It’s Kurd versus Kurd – there are different current interests – Kurd versus Turkey. Saudi Arabia right now has a major challenge with Iran, and that complicates the challenge. You have Hizballah on the ground and fighting in Syria, which has an impact on Israel’s perceptions of threat and our perceptions of threat as a result also as an ally and friend of Israel, together with Great Britain and others. You have the fight against Daesh/ISIL, the fight against Nusrah – they have different sort of interests; and then you have, of course, the Shia-Sunni undercurrent that is too much used as an excuse for doing one thing or other. You also have the Persian-Arab divide.
So you put all those pieces together, and you have a very toxic kind of cocktail that’s very difficult to work with. And there are some players who have different interests about what the long-term outcome might be. Whether or not a 65 percent Sunni country should in fact be more in the sphere of influence of the other Sunni countries and so forth, which is not a great recipe for resolving, obviously, a secular state that is disinterested in those labels and trying to move to a different place.
So what we’re trying to do is get – which is the art of diplomacy – is to define the interests of all the parties and see where the sweet spot is that those interests can come together and hopefully be able to thread a very thin needle. And that’s the challenge of Syria. It’s as complicated as any conflict that I’ve seen in the entire time I’ve been in public life.
But getting Iran to the table, getting Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC and other countries to the table, together with Russia – and the regime committed to at least show up in Geneva – is the beginning of how you try to shape an outcome. And I can’t sit here and guarantee you, President Obama can’t guarantee you, that it’s going to happen automatically. But if you don’t try, it certainly isn’t going to happen. And after 12 million people displaced and 4 million refugees-plus, and obviously the challenge not just to Europe, but to the civility of Jordan and Lebanon and Turkey, we have a profound urgency of trying to resolve this. And that’s what we’re trying to do.
So that’s where my focus of energy is. And I’m going to promote any tool that I think will make that difference. I will promote to President Obama, and you’ll respect the fact that I will reserve that for him and not all of you here today. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: Thank you. And the second challenge you spoke about is about how important it is for – to have faith in government and that the fundamental duty of government is to look after its citizens. But you were criticizing only foreign countries. And what people might think is that actually there’s a certain individual who doesn’t inspire great faith in the general public, who perhaps wouldn’t look after all of the citizens of his country equally – that person, of course, being Donald Trump. And I would like to know: What do you think has happened to America to enable the possibility of someone like Donald Trump being elected, and what do you think are the real threats of a Trump presidency to America’s foreign policy?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, this, again, is not going to satisfy you, Bob, and I’m sorry about that. But I’m not allowed under our law to get into – actually, full-throatedly into the middle of a campaign. So – and particularly in my job. It’s important that I don’t do that. Enough will be written, enough – you all see the debates. You will make your own judgments. But I – but it’s important just to talk about the issues and where people fall on the spectrum of those issues. I do think – and I’ve said this before publicly – it seems to me pretty fundamental that anybody running for president ought to be able to be declarative and clear and supportive of new energy policies that deal with climate change. And I think people have to judge whether or not one party or the other or one candidate or the other is doing that. But I’m not going to get into the other pieces of your – there are all kinds of issues like that that everybody will measure.
The American people are very capable in the end of making this decision. There are five months to go. There’s been enormous amount of back and forth on it. And I know you wish you could vote in Europe. (Laughter.) Going back to 2004, so do I. (Laughter and applause.)
Next question. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: You mentioned Europe, so picking up very quickly on Europe. Do you support President Obama’s comments that if Britain were to leave the European Union, we would then have to join the back of the queue for negotiating (inaudible)?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, look, let me begin my answer by being as clear as President Obama was, that this is a decision for the voters of Britain to make. This is not our vote. And we do not belong to – we’re not trying to put ourselves in the campaign. We don’t want to convince in an inappropriate way. But do we have a point of view about our relationship with Great Britain? Of course we do. We are security partners. We are major partners at many tables in the world, where we work together to further the interests of our countries together, our values. We share values, we share interests. And President Obama was very clear that we believe the presence of Britain in the EU magnifies its voice, it strengthens its ability to have an impact on global events, and that if indeed the decision were made – and your voters make that decision – of course we’ll respect it, but the reality is that in the trade agreement, we’re going to be looking to 27 countries, not to one. We’re going to be trying to maximize the marketplace and get the rules in as many countries as we can because that’s the way it’s effective.
So certainly it’s going to have – it’ll have impacts like that, and we’re not trying to come in here and beat a drum, but you asked me the question and I tell you from our point of view, we have an interest too in the magnified voice and strength of Britain. And we want that partnership and we think it’s stronger to have a united Europe than not.
MODERATOR: We’re going to open up to the audience. If you’d like to ask a question, please raise your hand up high, wait for the microphone to come around to you, and please stand while asking your question. Can we please go to questions with gentleman in the blue jacket first (inaudible)?
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I loved your talk. I’m from Michigan, a fellow American. And I wanted to know, Mr. Secretary, how your perspective on the United States has changed since switching roles from a senator to our chief diplomat and spending most of your time outside of America?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s a great question. The gridlock in Congress is a challenge. I thought it was a challenge when I was in Congress. I didn’t like it; I was frustrated by it. It’s only gotten worse. And I think it penalizes our country and it hurts us very, very much in terms of adjusting to concerns and needs not only of ourselves, but of our role of leader – our leadership in the world. It’s had an effect on – and you would imagine – it was very hard for me to go to a country where we’re working on a diplomatic level with our embassy, fully immersed with that country and trying to help them with their budget problems. And I sit there with the prime minister and the finance minister and I say, “Hey, you got to really get your budget done.” And they look at me – “Really?” (Laughter.) “So how are you doing on your budget?”
I mean, it just – we lose some credibility and leverage in those kinds of things. I also think we are hurting ourselves in all the things I just laid out. I feel passionately about this. These problems are solvable. But we’re not going to solve them if we turn away and pretend we’re just going to take care of ourselves or they’re going to go away by themselves. They’re not. You have to fight for it. I mean, I know how hard a fight it was in our country to beat back organized crime at one period of time. I was involved in it, in the 1970s. We had some – too much of it going on. Rudy Giuliani in New York, a bunch of us as young prosecutors started going after it. You go see the movie “The Departed,” and the newest movie about Whitey Bulger, and you’ll see the guys that we were dealing with.
So you have to fight that, because if you don’t, they intimidate everybody in the community and in society. And then you have alternative power bases and you have a struggle for legitimacy, and if you don’t fight back against those things, you lose that legitimacy. That’s the problem in the governance – it’s that it loses credibility. And so elected leaders are tragically less the validators of a particular point of view and position than they used to be.
And there are many reasons for this, by the way. We mentioned this (inaudible) I think today, but the modern world, I mean, everybody’s running around in some of these countries I’m talking about with smart phones. And they look at their phone and they’re in touch with the rest of the world – they might get an Instagram, they might get a tweet, they might – whatever it is – but they’re always – there’s a lot of communication going on, and people are obviously getting less of their input from nightly television news or the newspaper or wherever. And that changes governance. I’ve been stunned by how much that changes governance. It’s hard to build consensus if everybody has the privilege of creating their own facts. And that’s the world we’re living in now. And who’s the arbiter? Who’s the referee? And a lot of people never hear from a referee, so they’re proceeding forward in a political party or point of view that is completely based on total misunderstanding of a particular issue.
When I was growing up, if the president of the United States wanted to talk to the nation, the president’s people would call the network and say, “We want a block. We need to – the president needs to give an Oval Office speech tonight,” and the whole nation would sort of stop, because you only had four channels, basically – ABC, NBC, CBS, and public television. And everybody would watch, and the next day at work, everybody was talking about what the president said, and they’d debate policy. That doesn’t happen in the same way. A lot of television now is self-selecting. People go to the network they already know is going to give them the news the way they like to hear it.
So it’s a problem for governance. And you asked what have I noted – and this is what I’ve learned in this time as Secretary: It’s very hard to build up the momentum you need behind the size of choices that have to be made.
And I think President Obama’s done remarkably well considering that he’s been sort of under assault from the get-go and there’s been this incredible sort of opposition to almost anything because it comes from him. That’s not what the citizens expect from us. That’s why you’re seeing this fight in our country, as well as elsewhere in the world, where people are angry and reflecting that anger in the political process – which is why, again, I say to you democracy has its way of providing that outlet. And if you don’t have that outlet, you have a lot of other sort of really dangerous outcomes in various places in the world.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to the question from the lady in the white jacket on the second row.
QUESTION: Hello. I’m a graduate of your alma mater, St. Paul’s School (inaudible), so hi. And you spoke about the importance of a transition in Syria to – a smooth transition to democracy, but do you have a plan to prevent in Syria what we saw happen in Egypt? And if so, to what degree do you think United States and the UK, other Western powers should be involved in that transition?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we are involved, because the International Syria Support Group is working with the parties to try to get them to write their own constitution. They need to write it. We can’t impose and we shouldn’t impose a solution, nor would we be able – we’re just not able to anyway, but we shouldn’t even think about it. We have to work with the parties with the support nations of each party playing a role with that party to get them to compromise and to understand the imperatives. Russia and Iran have the ability to have an impact on Syria, on the regime. We, with the rest of most of the Syria support group, are supporters of the opposition – moderate opposition.
Nusrah and Daesh are outside of any deal whatsoever, and they’re not included in the cessation of hostilities. That’s part of the confusion that adds to the difficulty of actually getting peace, because it is legitimate to continue – for us and the Russians to go after Nusrah or Daesh. The problem is that’s not all they’re going after, and that’s where the tension comes.
Coming back to your question, I believe that if we work hard at it, it’s possible to put a scenario on the table which could lead to a solution. The only issue is: Is Assad serious? Will the people who support him make him serious? Because so far, he has said he’s not willing to talk about the presidency, he’s not there – it’s not up for grabs, and there will be no discussion about him transferring his presidential authority. So in effect he’s come to the table but not yet of a mindset to actually negotiate. That’s where Russia and Iran are going to have to become more involved.
Now, Russia and Iran have both signed on to three communiques out of the Syria support group and have supported a United Nations Security Council resolution that embraces a political negotiation, a transitional governance body that would run Syria while the constitution is being written and implemented, and then a ceasefire nationwide and an election in a year and a half. Now – we’re now already five months in, so it’d be a year and whatever. But that’s the envisioned outcome of Iran and Russia. It’s pretty similar to ours. The issue is: Are they going to really push Assad to embrace it? If he doesn’t, the ceasefire will completely fall apart – they will go back to war barring some other kind of intervention, which I don’t necessarily see on the horizon.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ve got time for just one more question. Can you please go to the man right in the aisle on the third row?
QUESTION: Thank you for your talk. How do you deal with the conflict between the goals that you set? In particular, by fighting ISIS --
SECRETARY KERRY: Hold the mic closer.
QUESTION: Sorry. Thank you for the talk. How do you deal with the conflict between your goals? For instance, by fighting ISIS, that means actively supporting states which are endemically corrupt, which don’t share our belief that women are equal, and who have also a vested interest in radical ideology.
SECRETARY KERRY: We live in an uneven world, and the world of diplomacy is particularly uneven because it absolutely requires that you have to deal with people with whom you may have fundamental differences and disagreements. That’s been true all through history, by the way. I mean, when we had a Soviet Union, every president, Republican and Democrat alike, dealt with the Soviet Union – the Great Satan – these were – and they had a name for us. I mean, we were back and forth, but we both dealt with each other. When Gorbachev and Reagan met in Reykjavik, they managed to come out of a room and say: We’re going to go down from 50,000 warheads – then deployed – to zero. Now, we knew we wouldn’t get to zero, but their dream was to begin to move away from nuclear weapons. That’s what they expressed. We’re now down to 1,500-plus, somewhere in that vicinity, and we would like to go further down, because every step you take moving towards denuclearization – if you’re dealing with conflict resolution and being smart, you can make the world safer.
Now, recognizing that, do you not deal with them? It’s the same thing with Syria. There are different countries at different stages of development. I’m sure you’re all studying the different stages in development in – less developed country and where they move – how they move and how they grow and how things change. Some 300-, 400 million people have been brought out of poverty in India. There’s a middle class. But there’s still 400 million people who still have to get out. Same thing with China; China’s brought somewhere – 450-, 500 million people out into the middle class, but there are now 450 million people who have to come out of agrarian society into modernity.
A lot of these countries in the Middle East are in a different place. First of all, they were oil-dependent for years and years. Their economies were built on oil. Nobody foresaw this – or moved, at least, if they did foresee it, to create an economy that was sustainable without it. That’s what Saudi Arabia’s doing now. If you look at what they just announced, this 2030 plan, it’s interesting. It’s challenging. It has huge possibilities. It’s not easy to effect, but they’re trying to ratchet down the percentage of their economy dependent on oil and grow the capacity of people to build things, to invent and provide services and do all the other things in life that need to be done. And it’s – we can’t just say, “Wow, you’re a monarchy,” or you’re this or you don’t allow this or – therefore we’re not going to talk to you.
The other thing is we have to recognize – this is a lesson I have learned as Secretary – we have to be humble in our own sense of self. I often hear American – fellow Americans talk in terms of – and you’ve heard them talk in terms of the exceptionalism theory. And I think we are exceptional, but I don’t think we’re exceptional because we say we are, because we brag about it. I think we’re exceptional and have to be exceptional because we do exceptional things like helping Britain to liberate – help to win World War II or help to end AIDS in Africa, help to cut off Ebola, or do things like that. That’s where multilateralism and dealing with people is critical, no matter who they are. So you have to be measured in where people come from culturally, religiously, historically, and what their system is and how fast they can move to embrace modernity.
And part of what is happening today I think is a clash with modernity that is uncontrolled for some people. They don’t quite know how to manage it. It’s frightening. And so we have to learn more effectively how to manage that ourselves, and the first requirement in my mind is being willing to talk to people, even people you disagree with – and not just talk, but listen to them. I think diplomacy requires really good listening to be most effective – I think Cathy Ashton would ratify that 100 times over.
MODERATOR: Mr. Secretary, can we just take one final question? Can we please go to the question right in the back corner of the chamber? Yeah.
QUESTION: Thank you, Secretary Kerry. I just wanted to ask a quick question. As we come to the end of the Obama Administration, whilst you’ve still got eight months left in office, I was just wondering, in reflection, what your proudest accomplishments were – are as Secretary of State, and then also what you think are the proudest achievements of the Obama Administration in general.
SECRETARY KERRY: Wow, that’s asking me to be sort of retrospectively judgmental. But I – I mean, obviously, I think that the global climate change agreement in Paris and the Iran nuclear agreement and the Cuba opening; the efforts in Afghanistan to hold together – transition Afghanistan; fighting – ending Ebola as a global threat through the decision the President made to send 3,000 troops there when we didn’t know all the answers, but to build capacity and deliver care and aid – very gutsy decision. I think those things – TPP, the trade – transpacific trade partnership, the – that’s 40 percent of the global economy that’s coming under a new trading mechanism. It’s one of the reasons why we urge Europe to get on board and be part of this, because it’s a race to the top, not a race to the bottom. It’s higher standards, it’s better environment – environment standards are within the four corners of the agreement, labor standards are within the four corners of the agreement.
So I think these are big breakthroughs, and I think for the President, obviously, to have put universal health care in place in the United States is a extraordinary accomplishment – not to mention bringing the economy of the world back from the brink in the first days of his presidency and preventing a global depression is an extraordinary accomplishment. So I think those are the biggest things of all.
MODERATOR: I’m afraid that’s all we have time --
SECRETARY KERRY: No, that question was the last thing between me and my beer at the pub. I want you to know. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: We wouldn’t want to keep you any longer.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. All right. Thank you.
MODERATOR: I’m afraid that’s all we have time for. As a token of our appreciation and in recognition of this being the first visit of a sitting Secretary of State to the Oxford Union, we would like to present you with a couple of gifts. First of all is a photograph of this historic chamber. (Laughter and applause.)
And secondly, we have decided to elect you as an honorary member of the Oxford Union. (Laughter.) There are only 14 living honorary members at this moment in time, including Malala Yousafzai and Elton John. It’s a delight to add you to that list. Many congratulations. (Applause.)