Remarks With Students at the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics
Secretary of State
MODERATOR: It is an honor to welcome a Secretary of State to the University of Chicago. It is part of the mission of the Institute of Politics to facilitate these kinds of opportunities for you to interact with practitioners and leaders, and so we’re really pleased on that account. But I – our other mission is somewhat larger than that, which is: We live in a somewhat dispirited time in our politics. I don’t know if any of you have felt that – (laughter) – in which it’s easy to see politics as something squalid, as an exercise in self-aggrandizement. The Institute of Politics is dedicated to the proposition that politics is something much more than that; politics at its best is the way we grab the wheel of history and steer it in the right direction. And we make progress when leaders of conscience, committed public servants, execute on that and help steer us in that direction.
John Kerry is a public servant. He’s been a public servant all his life, from the time that he served in the United States Navy during the Vietnam War; he has been a prosecutor, a lieutenant governor. George, who will introduce him, will give you the full bio – United States senator. I got to work with him when I was a senior advisor to the President, the two years I spent in Washington. And he is someone – John Kerry understands what politics is at its best and what public service is all about, and in that sense he is a wonderful example for all of us as to why politics is important. And beyond that he is an optimist. There’s an old joke – it’s probably been beaten to death – about the kid who comes up on a pile of manure, and to everybody else it looked just like a pile of horse manure, and the kid starts digging through the manure saying, “There must be a pony in here.” The definition of an optimist. John Kerry is an optimist. (Laughter.)
Maybe it’s an apt analogy. Maybe it’s an apt analogy given the state of a very unsettled world. But he has been as Secretary of State an indefatigable force to find positive ways forward, and in that he’s earned my admiration, I hope your admiration. But I’m eager to hear him talk about his experiences and where we as a country are going, where the world is going.
A couple housekeeping notes: The Secretary is going to take your questions after a moderated discussion with Walter Isaacson, who is one of the great public thinkers of our time, one of the great journalists of our time. Please keep your questions short and to the point, and by questions we mean something that ends in a question mark and not an exclamation point. (Laughter.) Please remember to turn off or silence your phones, as well. We don’t want those interruptions.
And now to formally introduce our special guest is George – how does George pronounce his last name?
MODERATOR: Adames. Thanks, George. (Laughter.) George is a third year in the college; he’s majoring in public policy and geography. He’s from Augusta, Georgia and is a member and a leader of the IFPs Student Advisory Board and has been a wonderful contributor to the Institute of Politics. So please, join me in welcoming George to the platform. (Applause.)
MR ADAMES: At times, it can be difficult to have sustained faith in government bureaucracy. Today, young people can be discouraged by divisive rhetoric or partisan gridlock in a time when we especially need more youth to be invested in living lives of public service. Many young people just haven’t had great experiences with government. I’d say I’m pretty lucky in that regard. This summer, I had the opportunity to work under someone with a strong commitment to public service who truly understands the need to sustain young people’s faith in government. Sure, he wasn’t my direct supervisor, and the State Department hierarchy made it so there were a few degrees of separation between us, but Secretary of State John Kerry’s strong leadership and values were felt throughout the entire department.
Secretary Kerry grew up in a family of public service. His father was a Foreign Service officer and his mother was a social activist. After graduating from Yale University, Secretary Kerry served as a lieutenant in the United States Navy during the Vietnam War. For his service he was awarded several combat medals including the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. After returning to the United States, Secretary Kerry joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War and participated in anti-war activism.
Secretary Kerry began his career in electoral politics at the age of 29 by mobilizing young people as he campaigned in the 1972 Democratic primary for Massachusetts 5th congressional district. He won the primary and moved towards the general election on a progressive platform that called for national health insurance, a jobs program to clean the Merrimack River, and rent control in Massachusetts cities. However, he lost the seat to the Republican candidate and proceeded to obtain a law degree from Boston College.
After working in the District Attorney’s office and dabbling in radio, Secretary Kerry went on to become the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, where he was very active on environmental issues. He was then elected to the United States Senate, where he served from 1985 to 2013. After running for president against incumbent George W. Bush in 2004, Secretary Kerry remained in the Senate, where he was active in both domestic and international issues, serving as the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations.
In 2012, John Kerry was nominated by President Obama to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. In his time within the State Department, Secretary Kerry has placed emphasis on peace in the Middle East, cyber security, climate change, and in educational diplomacy. He has traveled over 1.3 million miles to 90 countries across the globe. His tenure has been marked by historic milestones in U.S. relations to Cuba, in addressing climate change, and negotiating the Iran nuclear agreement.
After interning at the State Department, my faith in government is not only sustained but strengthened. Secretary Kerry leads by example, and that was evident in my colleagues and their faith in the work that they’re doing. Throughout his career, Secretary Kerry has demonstrated his strong commitment to public service and his conviction in government efficacy. This commitment is one that we can all strive towards in hopes of making our world more just.
Today’s discussion will be moderated by Walter Isaacson. Mr. Isaacson has had an extensive career in journalism working with publications such as Sunday Times of London, Time Magazine, where he served as the political correspondent and national editor. In 2001, he became the CEO and chairman of CNN, a position he held until 2003, where he stepped down to be the CEO of the Aspen Institute.
Please join me in welcoming Walter Isaacson and Secretary of State John Kerry to the stage. (Applause.)
MR ISAACSON: Well, thank you, Mr. Secretary, for being here. It’s a great (inaudible). As George said, you grew up in a divided city of Berlin when your father was a Foreign Service officer. Things were dangerous back then, but now they’ve become more complicated. How does this new complexity after the end of the Cold War play out in a place like Syria?
SECRETARY KERRY: Wow. (Laughter.) Can I begin just by saying thank you to all of you? Thanks for being here. I want to thank David Axelrod for his tremendous contributions to our country by leaving journalism and lending his political genius to President Obama’s efforts and to the last few years. And I’m delighted – you’re all very lucky to have him at the Institute of Politics here. And, David, thank you for everything you’ve done. And, Walter, thank you for being here and for being part of this. And thank you, guys – my deputy chief of staff is a University of Chicago graduate student alum, so I’m happy to be here. He told me that.
Well, I grew up and I was – the early times when I was in Berlin when I was about 12 years old, 13 years old, but I noticed very, very clearly the tensions of that time. I mean, there were Russian signs warning you not to come into the Russian sector. It was a divided city – French, British, U.S., Russian – which reflected the divisions after the war. And it was a tense place; it was the Cold War at its height. And we would take a train from Frankfurt in Germany through the East Sector into this divided city. It was an island, if you will, in the midst of totalitarianism and all of the tensions of the then-burgeoning Cold War. So I, as a kid, just picked up the differences between East and West.
MR ISAACSON: You once rode your bicycle across --
SECRETARY KERRY: I did. I once used my diplomatic passport and went through checkpoint Charlie into the East Sector. But actually, I got scared. I mean, I noticed it was dark and foreboding, and there were very few cars and people were dressed in much darker clothes, and there were far fewer people just sort of walking around in the street. And I felt this ominous sense of danger. I didn’t like it and I literally, so I said, “I’m going to get out of here.” And I turned around and went back into the – into the American sector, proudly told my father what I had done, and was promptly grounded and my passport was taken away from me because I could have been in an international incident had I stumbled into the wrong people in the wrong way.
That world was a bipolar world – the Soviet Union, the West. And we were the most powerful entity on the planet. We still are, but differently. Then, we were the only economy that was viable and it was at the height of the Marshall Plan, and we were busy rebuilding Germany, rebuilding Europe, rebuilding Japan – which, by the way, still stands as one of the great enterprises of American foreign policy. And we inherit, as a result, and I – we – all of you need to be prepared to remind our fellow citizens in America of the value of investing in the future of other countries, because that is what produced a democratic Germany that’s the strongest country in Europe today and a huge partner on so many things. And it is what produced Europe and ultimately the European project, which today has these tensions because of Brexit, and which produced in Japan a constitution modeled on ours, obviously, largely contributed to by General MacArthur, and we wound with a Japan that is an enormously close and important ally to us. So there you see in the written story of the value of foreign assistance and of engagement with other countries.
But today – to come back to Walter’s question – today we see a world where power is less hierarchical and far more diversified in its – in the manner in which it presents itself, and often exhibited in bottom-up, not top-down ways that has a profound impact on governance. You couple that with those little machines that most of you are holding in your hands or many of you are that can give you instant access to any – the answer to any question you have on your mind. I mean, how many dinner table conversations are settled by googling the answer? I mean, we all do that. And so information comes differently.
I was commenting early over at the IOP that back when I was in college, a President Kennedy or a President Nixon or a President Johnson or whatever could log a call from the communications office to the head of CBS or NBC and saying we need a block tonight, and they’d get a half hour of TV for the president. You’d have ABC, NBC, CBS, and public television. And the next morning, everybody in the country was talking about what the president said at the water cooler and their coffee break. It doesn’t happen now. That’s why you’ve seen President Obama go on The View or you see him on The Late Show or the Late Late Show, whatever, because that’s how you have to piecemeal, try to reach Americans to communicate.
So the world we’re seeing today is just so different, with the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, forces that had been pent up for years like Tito, a dictator of then-Yugoslavia, were unleashed. And now with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and Kosovo and these incredible tensions with an ethnicity and tribalism and religious extremism and co-opting that is changing the presentation of people everywhere.
And you couple that with modernity – I mean, what we’re seeing – part of what we see in the Trump campaign and in the Brexit campaign is a reaction of people to this change, which many people don’t understand, many people can’t control, many people are scared of, and you can’t blame them. I mean, jobs have changed. Technology has changed life. Productivity increases come through mostly technology, and so the nature of work has changed. And if you think it’s changed now – I hate to say this to you, but watch what happens as artificial intelligence comes online and as we see the next generation of technology in use.
So you all and we are together living through a moment of profound, dramatic transformation in the organization of citizens around what we call government. And for those of you – I heard the comments of David in the beginning about how dispiriting perhaps some of it is. Well, yeah, but let me ask you about the alternative. What’s the alternative? Most countries in the world conglomeratized have tried every single ism there is – socialism, communism, and not isms – democracy and so forth. And I’m proud to say that we have more democracies now than we did 15, 20 years ago by far. But it doesn’t mean we’re automatically winning the struggle for how people think they’re going to organize their lives.
But what are you going to do if you don’t have that? What are you going to do if you can’t get up on the soapbox and put your idea out? What are you going to do if you can’t freely go out and organize a precinct and get people to go vote and make a choice? So yeah, it’s plenty messy; but as opposed to every other alternative, it’s the best shot we have – individual human beings – to be able to weigh in and affect their lives.
So the question is: Are you going to do that? Are you going to hold people accountable to a higher standard? And we can have a long conversation about that, but the world today is a much more complicated world than the world that my parents grew up in and I grew up in, and we need to adjust to that and recognize it. We need to move decisions faster, we need to be bolder, we need to be more engaged, not less engaged in the world. Because I’ll tell you, there’s no “over there” anymore. Everybody’s connected. And anything that can happen in some other place that you call “over there” can actually happen in your backyard.
MR ISAACSON: So how does this play out in Syria? How many wars are we fighting there?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Syria is so much more complicated than people think. I mean, it’s easy to sort of – we’re all frustrated, and frustrated by Assad, frustrated by the Russians, the Iranians, everything that’s happening there, the violence that exists. But it’s not a simple sort of okay, let’s sit at the table and have you resolve it, because you have Kurds versus Kurds, Kurds versus Turkey, Turkey versus Kurds; you have Iran versus Saudi Arabia and vice versa; you have Iran and Hizballah, and Hizballah which affects Israel, it affects us because it is a designated terrorist organization.
Then you have Daesh/ISIL with most people against ISIL, though the Russians and the Assad regime have not principally been going after Daesh and ISIL. They have principally been shoring up Assad and going after the legitimate moderate opposition, which is against Assad. That’s another reflection of the complication.
Then you have the aspirations of Turkey and the aspirations of Qatar juxtaposed to the aspirations of some other Gulf state countries or members of the Arab – of the Gulf coalition. And then, of course, you have Sunni and Shia and the complications of Assad and Alawite minority having ruled in a fairly ruthless way over the years against a 65 percent Sunni majority of the country, some of whom have affiliated themselves with Assad, so there’s not a unified Sunni presence. And then, of course, you have the Sunni countries that are supporting an opposition – Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia principally – all of which makes this gigantically complicated.
MR ISAACSON: But if you’re going to sort it out, it would seem you would need not only diplomacy, but diplomacy backed by the threat of force. And three years ago when we were about to use the threat of force in Syria after the red line had been crossed, the President pulled back from that. Do you think that that’s been a problem, that there hasn’t been that on the table – the notion that we would go in with force if need be?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me begin first of all with just the issue of the red line and the issue of chemical weapons and the President’s decision to use force, which, by the way, is often forgotten, before I talk about the issue of force overall.
This is a narrative that has somehow gained legs, which I hear about all the time. So the simple answer to your question is: Has it had an impact that the President decided not to bomb? The answer is yes. But in my judgment, and I know the President’s, mistakenly so, because in fact, the President made the decision to use force, and he announced publicly that he was prepared to use force, and all he did was not decide – he never decided not to use the force. He decided after David Cameron took the vote to the parliament in Britain on a Thursday and lost the vote that being a democracy and having had a consultation with members of Congress – a phone call that I was on with about a hundred members of Congress, many of whom were saying, “Well, you’ve got to come to us, you’ve got to talk to us,” particularly in the wake of a failed vote in England, it became even more imperative that the President asked the Congress for the authority.
MODERATOR: But still that was a decision not to use force by that --
SECRETARY KERRY: No, it wasn’t. I disagree with that, because two days later, three days later, I was in London and I did a press conference in London. And Margaret Brennan of CBS asked at that press conference, “Secretary, is there a way for Assad to avoid being bombed?” And I said, “Yes, he could decide to get all the chemical weapons out of the country.”
MR ISAACSON: Now, did you know at that point by talking to Lavrov, your Russian counterpart, about this, that the Russians might take you up on that?
SECRETARY KERRY: Lavrov and I had had that conversation. We had talked about it several weeks earlier. The President had had that conversation in St. Petersburg with President Putin. They had talked about it and passed on to us – to Lavrov and me – the gist of their conversation.
So it was obviously – I didn’t just drop that out there as a sort of throwaway. I knew that if we could get that decision, we could actually get our goal achieved. And our goal – everybody – was to get all the chemical weapons out of Syria. If we had in fact simply bombed, we would not have gotten the chemical weapons out. We were trying to send a message to Assad not to use them and to give him a clear sense that if he used them again, even worse could happen. So it was a deterrent step, but it was not a solution to the problem of how do you get all the chemical weapons out.
So Lavrov and I met in New York, we negotiated, and we came up with an arrangement to have the OPCW manage the extraction of all of the weapons. We set up a schedule with details, we signed the agreement, and guess what? The OPCW managed for the first time in the history of conflict to get weapons of mass destruction out of a country in their entirety during a conflict, and the OPCW won the Nobel Prize for doing so. Now, which solution is better? (Applause.)
I mean, it seems to me that – and this notion – but – and I have to be honest here. There is and has been a lingering sense in the minds of people in the Middle East that the President didn’t want to bomb and decided effectively not to, and that that has lingered as, I think, a very unfair anchor around our policy, because in point of fact, the President never decided not to and asked the Congress for the permission, and we couldn’t get the Congress – we couldn’t get the votes in the Congress.
MR ISAACSON: You mentioned a moment ago artificial intelligence, and we’re reading a lot about, even now, our warfighting in Syria is being done by unmanned drones and unmanned planes. Do you think the world needs a new arms control regime to deal with robots and autonomous artificially intelligent fighters?
SECRETARY KERRY: I personally do. I have not – this is not a vetted position in the Administration, it has not been through the interagency process, but I think we are going down a very dangerous road in terms of the mechanization of warfare and what it may do to raise the level of risk for people overall. And I think we have to be very, very careful about it, just as we have to be very careful about cyber.
Now, in the case of cyber, we entered a negotiation with President Xi and the Chinese last year which was very successful, and we established a set of principles between our countries as to what sort of needed to be reined in and what we needed to restrain and what the norms were for behavior between nations. And by and large, I mean, this has had a positive impact ultimately.
MR ISAACSON: With China?
SECRETARY KERRY: With China. But – and I think it’s a precursor to what may be possible and necessary in terms of restraining the antiseptic component of warfare that may, in fact, increase the proclivity of people to be able to take risks and to be willing to take lives remotely. And I think we have to think very, very carefully about that as a society and as a world because it has its dangers.
MODERATOR: Speaking of cyber, have you discussed with your counterpart Lavrov in Russia the cyberattacks on the American election system, and have you told --
SECRETARY KERRY: Yes.
MODERATOR: -- him there would be consequences?
SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, absolutely. The issue of consequences are very clear. We would not have – the President would not have authorized a release of the assessment to the Intelligence Community if we didn’t feel that it was serious and also if we didn’t feel that it was certain. So the emails themselves and the releases that we are seeing of private emails through the WikiLeaks process, we have no doubt has Russian involvement and direct involvement.
With respect to the election process itself, we want to be very clear to people that we haven’t made any assessment and we do not believe that a country can directly impact the counting of votes themselves because those are state-run operations and they are not on the open internet. They’re not on the internet. Now, do other things happen in the voting process in America still? Sadly, the answer is yes. Have we perfected our own elections? No, we haven’t, and we need to continue to work at it.
But we’ve made huge leaps. We are much more organized, much more clearer in the rules. We have early voting in many states. I mean, our process is becoming more and more sophisticated and more and more accountable and transparent, and we should be very proud of that.
MR ISAACSON: Let me get you to the nitty-gritty of what you have to do each day and things you have to balance, because you’re trying to deal with Russia and Syria, and you’re pulling them back and forth and you pull back and forth. At the same time, the President is trying to decide whether to release this finding that the Russians are part of and messing with our election and maybe we’ll retaliate. Do you have to sometimes say in an interagency meeting, “Wait a little bit, I’ve got to get this done with Lavrov first”?
SECRETARY KERRY: On some options that we may be making choices about, the answer is yes. Timing is sometimes very important. I mean, these are relationships, after all. They may be relationships between nations, but nation-states respond like all human beings because they are run by human beings. And so if you slap a leader publicly in some very denigrating way, you can anticipate that you’re probably not going to get something done in the next week or two that you were hoping to get done. So timing is important and messaging is important. The manner of diplomacy often frustrates people because of that, but those are our realities.
Now, obviously, for us to have released this information, it went through a very serious vetting process, and the interagency has always – everybody understood that messing with our democracy, getting to the core of our process, is a red line that we were not going to suggest you can’t. There’s some diplomatic nicety that supplants that, and that’s why the President made a decision that we needed to make it crystal clear and send a very clear warning of our unwillingness to tolerate it.
MR ISAACSON: (Inaudible) retaliate?
SECRETARY KERRY: We have many different ways of taking actions, which, as the President said, we will reserve to our timing and place. And --
MR ISAACSON: What did you learn in Vietnam that you applied to things like the Iran deal?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, so much. I mean, if you’re fighting a war that you judged was a mistake and that ultimately that your country comes to understand was a mistake, you need to, if you’re ever in a position of responsibility, which is something I swore to myself I would do as a young naval officer and later in life, make sure that you’re not guilty of doing the same things or falling into old patterns of thinking that put another generation in harm’s way appropriately. And obviously, there are instances where that debate has been hot and heavy in our country since then.
But I think the war in Vietnam was a failure of leaders to really understand what was happening there. It was a failure to – maybe read Graham Greene’s book or to read Bernard Fall or any number of people who have accurately written about the French experience and what Vietnam was all about. So we blithely went in there and our view of the Cold War, seeing almost everything in terms of the West versus Communism. And there was Communism as part of this, but that’s not all it was about. It was, in fact, a civil war. It was a fight for the reunification of the country. It was a fight for national identity. It was a fight for ideology. And there were other things all there.
And I think we became excessively engaged in the management of the government, in choices that just didn’t make sense, because you had Russia and China – then the Soviet Union and Red China as we called it – line up behind the North, clearly supporting this war of liberation, and we tried to come in and define it differently.
MR ISAACSON: It blinded us to the split between China and the Soviet Union at the time. Do you see in Iran that this may have caused an opening? And do you think you might go to Iran either before you leave as Secretary or sometime early next year?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I have not considered any trip yet to Iran. But Iran is a really interesting study in all of this, because Iran is a 5,000-year-old country, civilization – obviously, not a country as Iran but a civilization. And ever since 1979 and the revolution, which, by the way came about because we were not perhaps as thoughtful as we might have been in who we were backing and what kind of practices were being carried out and so forth, and we had been involved as a – the CIA was directly involved in the removal of a Prime Minister Mossadegh, 1953. And so there was a history there. And in 1979, when they took over our embassy and took some hostages, that had a profound effect on our own politics – one of the principal reasons that President Carter lost to Ronald Reagan.
MR ISAACSON: Are they natural allies for us in (inaudible) the Persian (inaudible)?
SECRETARY KERRY: No. Well, there’s a huge gap between quote, “Persian people” writ large and the revolutionary government that is pursuing a pretty hardline approach to the world and to America and to the region. So I would just say here that you have to look at Iran very, very closely. There are people in Iran who want a different Iran, an Iran that reaches out to the world, an Iran that’s engaged with people, an Iran that can re-enter the global community with respect and with acceptance.
There are those who are the hardliners who fight that every step of the way. They fought the nuclear agreement that we arrived at, and they fight any contact with the West and they vilify anybody who is engaged in contact with the West, even as they are involved in a major transformational effort for their economy and their society to try to engage with the world. So there’s a tension there in Iran, and the Iranians have to work that out. It’s not going to be worked out by us.
But I urge all of you – I think there’s a – I think it’s in The New York Times today – there is a big article about Iran and this tension and how it is playing out, and I urge you to read it.
MR ISAACSON: And also I’m going to tell – now, we want to make sure everybody gets involved to ask the questions. Microphones have been put out, so start lining up at the microphone if you would.
Hello. I’m used to people in Aspen who don’t raise their hands. So instead of asking my last question, I’m going to say go for it.
QUESTION: Hi, Secretary Kerry. Thank you so much for being here with us today. My name is Matt (inaudible). I’m a second year student at the law school. Why isn’t our support for Afghanistan’s central government akin to our support for South Vietnam?
MR ISAACSON: Why is our support --
QUESTION: Why is it not akin --
MR ISAACSON: Afghanistan not another Vietnam support?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, for a lot of reasons. First of all, the Taliban supported Usama bin Laden and al-Qaida, and they gave al-Qaida and Usama bin Laden refuge. They protected him. They sided with them. We tried very hard to say, look, this is a terrorist entity, nobody in the world should be supporting them, but Mullah Omar and the Taliban made the decision to be supportive of them. And at that point, they became a problem for us.
They are not also willing to enter into the normal political process, which they have ample opportunity to do. And we’ve reached out to them in any number of ways in the last years to try to engage in a legitimate negotiation for a legitimate outcome that represents aspirations of all of the entities within Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has held several elections. And they most recently had an election, which I helped to broker a compromise for where there were doubts about who was elected and how, and we created – a unity government was created, and that unity government has said they’re ready to reconcile and to have a full embrace of the Taliban --
MR ISAACSON: Led by a good guy.
SECRETARY KERRY: Pardon?
MR ISAACSON: Led by a good guy.
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah. And so – but none of that took place. That was not what was happening or could happen in a place like Vietnam.
MR ISAACSON: And one problem with history is overlearning the lessons and being disengaged from the world because you think everything is Vietnam.
QUESTION: Thank you. So I’m wondering whether you think that the recent decision by Duterte of the Philippines to disassociate more from us and associate more with Russia and China will influence other countries like Vietnam to do the same thing? And if so, what you can do to deter that.
MR ISAACSON: Good question.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the answer is no, I don’t expect it for a lot of different reasons. First of all, I’m not sure that it represents fully the broad feeling of the people of the Philippines. And certainly, the military and others are very much supportive of the relationship with the United States and of the interests in our defense treaties and so forth.
I believe that – and by the way, with respect to the question of Vietnam or other countries, I just met with the executive director of the Communist Party of Vietnam yesterday at the State Department. We had a lunch for him. We had a meeting, a bilateral, and he could not have been more clear about furthering their friendship with the United States and their desire to be more engaged with us on counterterrorism, various training exercises, legacy issues of the war. We’re working very, very closely with Vietnam as well as with the rest of the ASEAN nations.
So I think that we’ll work through this moment. I don’t think – I talked to the foreign minister of the Philippines just the other day. We had a very cordial but firm conversation about the challenges that this presents in terms of where this relationship is going to be going, and he made it quite clear that they are anxious to work through this, and I believe we will. So I don’t see this as a lasting breach or some permanent separation in any way whatsoever.
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, Mr. Isaacson, thank you so much. David Blair of the Telegraph in May of 2016 spoke about how Assad was using sarin against ISIL targets and --
SECRETARY KERRY: I can’t quite hear you. You’ve got to try to find a way to --
QUESTION: Yeah. David Blair of Telegraph reported how Assad was using sarin nerve agent against ISIL targets, and Time Magazine in September talked about the use of chlorine gas in rebel territories. My question to you, Secretary Kerry: Does this undermine the integrity of the deal that we reached with Syria? And how should the next president respond to future use of chemical weapons?
MR ISAACSON: Is Syria still using chemical weapons?
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, no, it’s a really good question. It’s a very good question. The answer is no, it doesn’t undermine the integrity of the deal we reached because the deal we reached requires all declared chemicals that were under the Chemical Weapons Convention to be removed. Chlorine by itself is not on that list. It doesn’t fit under the Chemical Weapons Convention until it is mixed with precursor chemicals of another kind, which then make it a toxic substance.
So it is not, in and of itself, required to be removed, which is why it wasn’t. But now that the Assad regime has mixed it with these other chemicals and has it, yes, it clearly puts it under. And the OPCW, in fact, has a joint investigation mechanism which we set up with Russia, which I called to Foreign Minister Lavrov’s attention the other day, that we both agreed was the appropriate mechanism for resolving these differences, and they have said Assad has used it and they cited two particular occasions. We believe it’s happened on many more than the two occasions. But in fairness, we also believe that ISIL has used it on a couple of occasions – much less than Assad, but it hasn’t been proven yet. But we believe it, and there needs to be an investigation of that too. And under any circumstances, it needs to be removed now because of the way in which it is being used.
QUESTION: Thank you so much.
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, thank you for coming to speak with us, and my question for you is that currently, the U.S. and Iran have a common interest in fighting the Islamic State; but as there are many tensions between our countries, it’s kind of unclear what that relationship is. So can you please clarify the working relationship between the U.S. and Iran in the fight against ISIL?
SECRETARY KERRY: We do not have – I think you’ve defined it. We do not have – (laughter) – we do not have a formal relationship. We are not coordinating. And yes, we have a common interest. And they’re pursuing their interests without coordination, without engagement with us, and we are pursuing ours.
Now, we would love to see Iran be constructive in helping to resolve the major issue of a political settlement in Syria. And Iran is at the table with us, with Russia in the International Syria Support Group, in an effort to bring all of the stakeholders to the table for the simple theory that you’ve got to be realistic about this. You can’t resolve this without the parties being engaged. We sometimes get criticized – why are you sitting down with the Russians and why are you talking to them? Well, we’re sitting down with them because they’re there, because they’re flying bombing missions, because they are supporting Assad, because they made the difference for Assad at a point that he was very weak. And if you don’t talk to them, you don’t have a prayer of advancing the ceasefire or of settling the war.
So this is life, folks, and particularly diplomacy. Richard Nixon went to then-Red China and there was consternation in the minds of conservatives in various parts of America for his doing that, and Kissinger was somewhat vilified for proposing it and so forth, but they did it. And look, it opened up the communication and a channel which we’re still working on, but with one of the most powerful countries on the planet because it has the second-largest economy and it also has a major nuclear arsenal and huge, obviously, military and other kinds of interests in the world, so you got to deal with them. Ronald Reagan sat down with Gorbachev, negotiated a major arms control agreement, improbable as people thought it could be.
So you’ve heard the expression, maybe a Democrat administration or a Republican administration can get something done depending on a particular issue, because it’s like Nixon going to China. It surprises people because of its pragmatic, Machiavellian-esque, practical approach. And sometimes it takes people on a certain side of an issue to be the people to go do that to make the difference. And that’s why we’re engaged the way we are.
QUESTION: Hi, Secretary Kerry. I just have a question on Iraq. One of the big criticisms of President Obama and the Administration is that leaving Iraq left, like, a vacuum that has allowed ISIS to take control of certain parts of the Middle East. Using hindsight, would you have changed our approach to leaving Iraq or not leaving Iraq, and how to, like – how we maintained kind of a presence in the area?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let’s understand history here, which is very important in all of these evaluations. George W. Bush made the decision to leave Iraq. And the process of leaving Iraq was put in place, with the exception of the status of forces agreement that needed to be completed, and we – and the Obama Administration negotiated this before I came in as Secretary. That during the 2009 to ’12 first term. And during that time the Iraqis refused to allow our soldiers to have the protections that we normally negotiate in every status of forces agreement so that our forces are not subject to imprisonment or false accusation or lawsuit or whatever in another country. They didn’t get there.
Now, even – let’s assume they’d gotten there, and some troops had been left. None of them under the George Bush agreement and under the prior agreement were going to be combat troops; none of them. So no combat forces would have been there. Now, could they have provided some training or would there have been some ongoing training? Yes, but there was a fundamental problem, a structural problem, in Iraq, and that was Prime Minister Maliki, who played the Shia card to such a fare-thee-well that the army had basically become his personal military and sectarian.
And when ISIL began to march or swamp through Mosul, none of that Shia army that was the national army of Iraq stood their ground and fought for Sunni Mosul. On a sectarian basis, they decided they’re not worth it, we’re getting out of here and saving our skins. And the army basically folded.
And I believe it folded primarily because it had been weakened over a period of time by the lack of adequate training and accountability through the process that the Maliki government put in place. And one of the reasons why we did not support Maliki for continuing as prime minister when the change took place and Prime Minister Abadi came in as a result, because of the utter failure of that government to deliver in so many different ways. That’s really what happened in Iraq, not the failure of American forces to be there, who wouldn’t have been combat forces in the first place.
MR ISAACSON: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, so we all know that the JCPOA kind of – sorry, the Iran deal kind of limited the ways in which the United States can truly, I guess, punish and push on Iran towards moving away from state-sponsored terror. What mechanisms are left over the next decade to try to pressure them to stop funding terrorism? And what – and where do you see the – where do you see the state of Iran when – the Iran deal when a lot of the provisions expire in a few decades or in a decade?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, both – they’re good questions, but let me just be very, very clear to you. We, in the Iran negotiation, made it crystal clear to the Iranians that the problem we’re trying to solve is not the – in that specific negotiation was not the arms that they ship somewhere or the support for Hizballah or the other things. If so, we’d still be there. We’d be at that table today arguing.
We thought that the principal threat to the region was the fact that Iran was two months away from being able to make bombs, that they had enough fissionable material to be able to make up to 12 bombs. And so for Israel and for the rest of the region, we thought the urgency is to get that program out of the way, because all the other issues would be greatly affected in any negotiation by whether or not they have a nuclear weapon. So if you didn’t get rid of the nuclear weapon, you were going to have a very different negotiation about Hizballah, about Israel, about terrorism, than you do now.
And it’s to Iran’s credit, by the way – they don’t get credit for it, but I’m going to say here that it’s to their credit that the supreme leader made the decision that they didn’t want a nuclear weapon, they weren’t going to have a nuclear weapon, and that they were ready to negotiate an arrangement where we could prove they were on a peaceful track.
Now, that one comes --
QUESTION: Is not wanting a nuclear weapon peaceful?
SECRETARY KERRY: Beg your pardon?
QUESTION: Is the mere lack of a nuclear weapon the same thing as --
SECRETARY KERRY: No, no, no, not at all.
QUESTION: -- being peaceful?
SECRETARY KERRY: And that’s why I’m coming – let me finish the answer.
QUESTION: Sorry. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY KERRY: The arms embargo stayed in place. We didn’t get rid of that. In fact, we specifically fought over how long it was going to stay in place. Because under the previous arrangement, it was going to evaporate. We actually kept it in place for eight years during the course of this agreement. We also kept in place the sanctions of the United States against Iran for sponsorship of terrorism. And we also kept in place the sanctions for human rights. So we didn’t take away anything that we have in place with respect to those other things. And in fact, since the agreement, because they fired missiles, we’ve put additional sanctions in place. So we haven’t moved one iota towards a lessening of what we care about with respect to the overall security of the region.
And let me come to the long term here. So Iran has to now live by a limitation of 3.67 percent enrichment for 15 years. They have to live by a stockpile that can’t be more than 300 kilograms of enriched material for 15 years. They have to have television and visibility on their production of their centrifuges for 20 years, and they have to have every trace of their uranium that they produce in their country is tracked and recorded from cradle to grave for 25 years.
So when people say well, this is going to end in 10 years, in 15 years – no it’s not. Not only that, we didn’t – we have created what’s called the Additional Protocol of the agreement, which is the IAEA. The IAEA Additional Protocol requires that at any time we have a suspicion that they may be trying to break out or that they are enriching beyond what they should be, or that they have more uranium than they should be, we are entitled to inspect, to ask a question and to go inspect it. That’s for the lifetime of this agreement.
So if, after 15 years of 20 years of watching what they’re doing, we see an uptick of one percentage point or two or whatever, and we begin to say red flag, red flag, these guys may be moving towards trying to do something, we have enough time and enough tools at our disposal to be able to find out what is really happening. And if we needed to, we have the exact same options available to us in 15 years, 10 years, 20 years, as we have available to us today.
The issue is: Is Iran going to change in this period of time? Is what – is there reform efforts that Rouhani is pursuing? Are they – is the region going to change in this time? I mean, I hope – I’m an optimist, I know, but I would hope that within the next 15 years we’re going to resolve a lot of these differences. We can get away from this sectarianism. We can begin to deal with the problem of Israel-Palestine and get a peace agreement that would change the dynamics of Hizballah and Lebanon and the region and other challenges we have.
So you’ve got to believe in the possibility of changing things, and I believe we have a sufficient hedge against the notion that it won’t change, that Israel is protected, we are protected, the region is protected, and that’s why I think it’s a good agreement.
QUESTION: Hi, Secretary Kerry. One of the biggest issues that we as students face now, despite utter ignorance on more than half of our Congress’s part, is climate change. And that pertains both to domestic policy and foreign policy. So moving forward past the Paris Climate Change agreement, how is climate change going to be a challenge to your successor and what are they going to have to do to face such an enormous problem?
MR ISAACSON: And you’ve had a great week (inaudible) things happening on the climate front that --
SECRETARY KERRY: Boy, do we ever. I mean, climate is one of the greatest stories of the Obama Administration and the President. I mean, I’m really proud to serve with a president who has done more to set aside land, to protect the parks, to create new parks, to set aside ocean, to create marine protected areas of the ocean, and to move us forward on a climate action agenda in this country than any other president in American history. And it’s an enormous accomplishment.
And just in the last months, and I can tell you because I’ve been a part of this – I became involved in the climate debate in the 1980s. As a lieutenant governor, I actually led a governor’s task force on the Clean Air Act, on sulfur acid rain. You don’t hear about acid rain today. Why? Because we actually created an amendment that dealt with acid rain by creating a trading mechanism, which we couldn’t even touch today, that worked and that eliminated the problem.
But we – I watched through the years as we – I went to the 1992 Rio conference, which was the first Earth Summit. I went to all the other Conference of the Parties – not all of them but almost all of them afterwards, in Buenos Aires, in Potsdam, in Copenhagen. Copenhagen was a failure five years ago. Why? (Inaudible) six ago. Because countries were fighting each other over this concept of common but differentiated responsibility, who would do what, and nobody was willing to accept an agreement that was mandatory. So it failed – terrible failure.
China was leading the charge of the G77 against the efforts of the developed world to try to get an agreement. And President Obama famously crashed into a meeting they were having to try to get something done. So when I came in as Secretary, one of the very first things I did was call my counterparts in China and say we have to create a working group on climate and I’m going to come over there, and we’ve got to announce this and make an agreement. We’re going to try to get our presidents to be able to announce their reductions for the Paris negotiations.
One year later, the Chinese agreed. One year later, we had President Obama and President Xi standing up in Beijing announcing that China and the United States had agreed on an approach to Paris and that they both were going to have different, but real reductions in emissions in order to deal with climate. That set the tone. That changed the whole playing field. That was presidential leadership.
And the result was we went to Paris, and I was there for those negotiations. We hammered out an agreement, improbable as people thought it was, that sends a message to the global marketplace, folks. Does it, in and of itself, keep the reduction of climate – of warming of temperatures to two degrees centigrade? No, I wish it did. But it doesn’t. But do you know why I’m excited about it? Why I believe in it? Because the message to the market place is 186 countries, each with their individual plans, are moving to new energy, to alternative and renewable and sustainable.
And the message to the marketplace is absolutely unmistakable, which is why last year, we had a record level of investment in clean energy, alternative energy, renewable energy – $358 billion invested. And it’s the private sectors that’s going to solve this, folks. It’s going to be Elon Musk or it’s going to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs who’s going to come alive with a battery storage that is game-changing, or with some kind of distributive power system that is so much cheaper than what we have today. I’m convinced of this.
And that’s why I believe we can get there. And in the last several months, we have now brought the Paris agreement way ahead of schedule. We have to get 55 countries representing 55 percent of the emissions to agree to put this into effect. We’ve done it. And on November 4th, whenever it is, it’s going into effect.
We also won a agreement with a market-based mechanism to deal with reducing emissions from aircraft, airplanes, the ICAO, the international air agreement. So we’re going to have reduction of air – emissions from airplanes. And I went to Kigali the other day and we managed to reach agreement with 190 countries on HFCs being taken out of refrigerant so that we are able to cool ourselves with a different substance that is not 100 times worse than carbon dioxide.
So we’re moving in the right direction. I think it’s very exciting and I think there’s reason to have hope for it. But you all, every single one of you, have to hold the next administration’s feet to the fire and make certain that they continue to have the same commitment that President Obama has exhibited in moving us forward.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thanks for coming today. It’s not every day that I get to ask the Secretary of State a question. I was just wondering about – so I read an article by Jeffrey Goldberg on the cover of The Atlantic, and one of the things the article talks about is one of the things President Obama is most proud of is ignoring your repeated pleas for force in Syria. And that kind of represents a larger narrative about kind of restraint in using military force and the American story with regard to the Obama Administration. I wanted to ask, given the two presidential candidates we have now, whether you think that kind of idea will stick, whether it will be – or we as a country will continue to move towards more and more restraint or will go back to kind of seeing ourselves as the world’s policeman?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to – no, I’m not going to get into what I advised the President or didn’t advise the President. It’s inappropriate for me to do that, and there’s plenty of time after the Administration is over for re-evaluating the history of it or writing the history of it. Suffice it to say that I don’t think the United States in recent years as, quote, “playing the world’s policeman.”
I think that we live in a world that is, ever since 9/11, just very different, defined differently. The threats are real and we ignore them at our peril. We weren’t exactly at war with al-Qaida on the day of September 11th 2001 when they drove those airplanes into our buildings and changed the life of America in the ways they did. It happened because we were seen as the enemy for a lot of different reasons.
And that’s that clash partly of modernity I talked about. It’s a lot of different ingredients. It’s a hijacking of Islam to boot. But my point to you is that I think the United States has a very critical role of leadership to play in helping to make the world safer. And that’s not being a policeman, but that is being engaged with countries to help them to develop themselves and to be able to deal with their problems. Let me give you an example. There are 1.5 billion kids in the world who are 15 years old or less, and a large percentage of them are not going to go to school tomorrow like you, or today, and probably not for 10 years if at all. And you’ve got to ask yourselves what happens if those kids are grabbed by the internet and by ISIL’s site that is not stopped from proselytizing? What happens if they think being a lone wolf and walking into a movie theater in Chicago is a good idea and shooting a bunch of people? Because it’s happened. Not here, but it’s happened.
So is it being the world’s policeman to say that we ought to adhere to the 2030 development goals of the United Nations which suggest that we need to help people develop their health care system, their education system, to have governance that works, to have human rights that are respected? I don’t think that’s being the world’s policeman. I think that’s important in our own national security interests and I think it’s also the right and moral thing to do.
So I just would be careful about the labels that you apply to some of the things we need to do in order to advance our interests and our values. Diplomacy is the advancing of your nation or your entity’s values and interests. Sometimes the interest is (inaudible) and sometimes the values are not there, and there’s a mix on any given issue.
But I will respectfully suggest to you that as you weigh that balance and think about things ahead, there may be times when the United States of America needs to use force. I’ll give you an example. President Clinton ultimately decided to use force against Serbia and in Kosovo in order to be able to save lives when a genocide was taking place, or a near genocide.
Now, I don’t think that’s, again, the world’s policeman. I think that’s living up to the high standards and values of our country, and I think it’s necessary at times for us to do that if we’re going to give meaning to the words after World War II and the Holocaust “never again” or if we’re going to give meaning to the judgment of President Clinton after Rwanda, I made the mistake, we should have gone in and done something. And that’s why I think we have to think about these things very, very hard.
MR ISAACSON: You, sir, have the privilege of the last question.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Secretary, thank you for being here. My name’s Richard. I’m in the second year in college. Now, the question I have for you is this: Do you believe that Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and including when it comes to the Ukraine, is the response of their aggression and desire to expand their hegemonic power in the region or a defensive response to the intervention of the United States, the EU, NATO, and other international bodies in the Ukraine, in Georgia, and other neighboring states?
SECRETARY KERRY: I think it’s a mix, to be honest with you. I don’t think it’s one thing only. It’s very complicated. Crimea and Russia has a complicated history, as you know, and President Putin’s views of the Motherland and his responsibilities are complicated. And there is certainly a measure of his narrative, his view of the world, which is NATO and Georgia and all these other things as you’ve described not going down very well with him. And so – but I would also separate Crimea from the Donbas. I think that those are – also they present different equities. Both (inaudible) by the way, but different in terms of the context.
So I think our policy – by the way, and let me just say to everybody here, I think when you think about criticisms of the Administration and so forth, I will take a minute here and just say this. I think that the Administration’s policy has frankly worked. The – it hasn’t rolled it back but it stopped what could have been an exceedingly dangerous confrontational moment and has reduced it to this sort of tug-of-war or back-and-forth, which I think ultimately has a way to resolve itself. We’re working very hard on the Minsk agreement implementation, and we hope that we can advance that for the next administration that comes in.
But I just want to say to all of you that as you look at the world today, the reason I am optimistic is this, and I want to take a moment just to say it. I believe the United States is more engaged in more places on more big issues to greater consequence than at any time in our history. And we’re making a difference and the world is making a difference with respect to many of these challenges. To wit, Ebola. People predicted that a million people were going to die by the Christmas of two years ago. And guess what. It didn’t happen. We stopped it because President Obama had the courage to send 3,000 troops in and build the capacity to deliver health care.
AIDS – 15 years ago it was a forbidden word, you couldn’t talk about it. It was death, a death sentence. Now we’re on the cusp of the first generation in history being born AIDS-free in Africa. We are coping with the Zika virus now.
We have stood up to the freedom of navigation challenges of the South China Sea. We are increasing our focus on North Korea, on the DPRK and the problem of their nuclear program. We’ve succeeded in getting the weapons out of Syria – the chemical weapons. We’ve been able to do the Iran deal. We’ve made huge progress in Nigeria against Boko Haram, huge progress in Somalia against al-Shabaab. We are working diligently right now – our people are meeting to try to get an agreement on Yemen and an agreement on Libya. I will be meeting in London next Monday on the subject of Libya. We’re constantly working these issues.
Even as we have passed the TPP, which is 40 percent of global GDP into one agreement, we’re raising the standards – labor standards, environment standards. I could run a list. Afghanistan, where we brokered this unity government. And you could run through a long list of places, folks, where our engagement is the reason things are happening.
And I say this respectfully to other countries, but I often say about American exceptionalism we’re not exceptional because we sit around and beat our chests and brag that we’re exceptional, and it doesn’t sit very well with other countries when we do that. We’re exceptional when we do exceptional things, which is usually. And you can go back through the recent history of our planet; this country, our country, the United States of America, makes an extraordinary difference day-to-day in the lives of people in so many different places, and I’m proud of it and you should be.
And we do that for one penny on the dollar of the taxes that are paid, one penny for everything we do abroad, for embassies and everything we do to represent our country, all of our programs – education, children, women. More women going to school in Afghanistan. In 2001 there were no women going to school, no girls, and there were about a million-something boys. Now they’re up around 7.5, 8 million kids going to school; 40 percent of whom are girls. And that’s been happening for over 10 years. Imagine what happens in that country after 10 years. A kid who was 10 years old is 20 today and maybe going to college or something.
So I’d just say to you that you ought to feel better about where we’re heading. Technology is changing things. We’re curing diseases. We’re moving forward. What we need to do is not be less engaged; we need to be more engaged and help more countries move faster to embrace modernity, to be able to have their young citizens see opportunity in the future, not desolation. And I invite all of you here, come to the State Department, join USAID, be part of this effort in the future, because there are few things where you can work day-to-day with as much sense of reward and make as much difference to your country, and I want you to do that. (Applause.)
MODERATOR: I want to say before you continue (inaudible) this is the best set of questions I’ve ever heard – (laughter) – and it was the best dialogue with the Secretary of State since maybe Henry Kissinger mumbled to himself “hello” in the halls or something. (Laughter and applause.)
MR ISAACSON: My only regret is the Secretary’s obvious lack of enthusiasm for his work. (Laughter.) I was – I want to just echo what Walter said. It’s such a gift to be here with all of you because you ask smart, provocative questions, and more than that, he speaks with a seriousness about these matters that are going to fall into your hands before long. It gives all of us great hope for the future. I want to thank Walter for his excellent questions and his presence here today. And I want to thank Secretary Kerry, not just for his generosity of his time today and your insightful interview, but as this Administration winds down, for a lifetime of service for which – for which all of us should be very, very grateful. Thank you very much. (Applause.)