Remarks With College Students at the U.S. Diplomacy Center Refugee Simulation

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Harry S. Truman Building
Washington, DC
June 20, 2016

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, welcome to the State Department. As you can all hear, my voice is ragged because I was in the Arctic two days ago and I got a little bit – guess what? It’s chilly up there, so – (laughter) – I got a little chilled. But welcome, we’re really happy to have you here. This is a terrific program which the Diplomacy Center sponsors and your colleges, universities are involved in. We really appreciate your being part of it.

This is real-life stuff. This is tough. I mean, I’ve been here for five minutes and I can see the group that I was just talking to wrestling with one country’s point of view versus another country’s point of view versus regional interests versus humanitarian interests, and how you get things done is really hard work. What you’re seeing here is that the diplomacy of this is not simple. You see that with Turkey and Syria, Europe, but there are 4.5 million – 4.5 million or so refugees sitting in camps in Lebanon – not camps in Lebanon, just in Lebanon and in camps in Jordan, camps in Turkey. What do you do with them?

I met kids 18, 19 years old who had never been out of a camp – believe that. They were born in the camp and they’re still in the camp 18 years later. And thank God, because of international refugee efforts, they’re going to school. So they have a chance. They had internet in the camp. They’re learning something, but – and that’s better than sending them back to who knows what, but it’s not good enough.

So what you’re tackling is really the now and present of diplomacy. It is very difficult and complicated and I am – I congratulate all of you for wanting to do this and taking the time to come and be part of it. And I hope this will maybe inspire you to be involved in this as a lifetime effort or some aspect of what touches on this kind of diplomacy.

But diplomacy is hard work and we have a lot of people who do a brilliant job working really hard at trying to resolve these kinds of problems. And somebody just asked me about the interagency process, which is very difficult because you have law enforcement interests, you have humanitarian interests, you have health interests, you have education challenges, you have just fundamental, basic humanitarian instincts that drive you to want to do things, but political limitations sometimes on what you can do.

What happens when governors of states start sending a message to Washington, “We’re not going to accept anybody”? Boom. I mean, you have a real clash, and that literally happened in the case of Syria because of the panic over the – whether or not we have the ability to screen people adequately and know who’s coming and so forth.

So I’m happy to answer a question or two and then I’ve got to run back upstairs.


QUESTION: My main concern is: How do you deal with – let’s say you’re in a negotiation with a country where you know the leadership commits crimes against humanity. How do you deal with that part of the negotiations? Because you want --

SECRETARY KERRY: You have to not particularly – you don’t – we’re not the dealers with the crime against humanity. That’s the International Criminal Court --


SECRETARY KERRY: -- and the international judicial system. We may advocate for the court to do that and be pushing it, but in direct negotiation, our deal is negotiating the lives of those people who are on the ground at that moment. And you have to sometimes put certain things out of – you have to compartmentalize. It’s part of the job. It doesn’t mean you don’t mention it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t come up, but you can’t – you’ve got your priorities. Priority number one is to save the lives of the people right in front of you.


QUESTION: Sir, how is it like – because the elections are going on and you have two candidates voicing their opinions on how to deal with the situation. How is that transition being placed when you’re crafting your policy so that the next president, whoever comes forth, can pick up from where you left off?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it really doesn’t. We have our policy. This Administration has followed a time-honored tradition of the United States of America and – I mean, there obviously are differences in the candidates, but they’re only candidates today. The President of the United States sets the policy and that’s what we’re pursuing. There’s no – I mean, obviously we get a lot of feedback on what they’re saying when we go to various countries. People are worried about certain positions being taken. But our policy hasn’t changed and it won’t change; we will continue to care for people in terrible situations and do our best on a humanitarian basis.

The American people could be very, very proud of what we do. We’re the largest donor in the world to the Syrian refugee crisis, $5 billion to date – over five. And one of the reasons we’re working so hard is – to end the war is we simply don’t want to be continually writing checks and accepting the notion that there has to be an inevitability, the creation of more refugees. So we’ve got to end the war. That’s the best solution of all.

One or two more.

QUESTION: Following along that same line of thought, with the U.S. being somewhat limited in its ability to craft long-term foreign policy because of the change in administration every four to eight years, how do we as future policy makers kind of take a long-term approach to international prosperity and peace?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we take a long-term approach. Honestly, there are consistent values of American foreign policy. Foreign policy is about values and interests, and you try to keep them both as aligned as possible. Sometimes a policy requires you to be more interests-driven and sometimes you are more values-driven, and there are examples of all of that which I’m sure you can discern for yourselves.

So the variants usually are degrees between candidacies, Republican or Democrat president in the past, but there’s usually a very strong guideline with respect to fundamental values of dealing with refugees, the fundamental values of protecting people, and trying to make a difference. And I think traditionally Republican presidents, Democratic presidents alike have applied those standards.

This is the first campaign I can think of where there’s been as dramatic a variant in some of the proposals without getting specific.



QUESTION: Has there ever been a case where, like, a conflict escalated to a point that there’s simply been no solution, that you’re very limited? And what you do at that point? Do you --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there’s always a solution. The question is whether you can get there. I mean, even Syria, which is as complicated as anything I’ve seen, there is a solution. The question is: Can you align the interests and the values at the same time? I mean, and there are very many different interests at play in Syria. That’s partly what makes it so complicated. You’ve got Turks and Kurds and Qataris and Saudis and Iran and Hizballah and Sunni and Shia and Persian and Arab, and start running the list. It’s pretty complicated.

But there is a solution. The solution is a transition government that represents all the people of the country, unites the country, respects minorities, and puts this sectarianism aside and allows for a genuine election for the Syrian people to choose their leadership for the future. That’s the solution. And to finish off Daesh and Nusrah, who have no redeemable qualities whatsoever and nothing to negotiate about, period. That’s the solution.

See, resounding support for that policy. (Laughter.)

All right, everybody, I’ve got to run. Thank you. (Applause.)

Have fun. And I hope you resolve this (inaudible.) (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, have you had the chance to read the dissent cable?

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes. It’s very good. I’m going to meet with them. Thank you.