Remarks at the Benjamin Franklin House Medal for Leadership Ceremony

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Benjamin Franklin House
London, United Kingdom
October 31, 2016

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Sir Bob, I’m really thrilled to receive this award, and Marcia, thank you so much for what you’re doing here. And thank you all for being here – Mr. Ambassador, who cleverly, cleverly conspired to be the 100,000th. (Laughter.) I’m impressed by this connivance. You were in cahoots. It’s great.

Well, listening to Mike Bloomberg, I’m humbled, but I will insist on saying to you that I left a very different mark on Paris than Ben Franklin did. (Laughter.) He was America’s first diplomat, but I want to assure all of you that there is no way possible Ben Franklin could have gotten confirmed by today’s Senate. (Laughter.) That is certain.

I’m a great Ben Franklin admirer, and so I’m really thrilled to walk into this building and walk in his footsteps, so to speak, here, and very touched by the honor of this award. I know that Ben Franklin was much better known for his life in Paris than his life in London, but I do know that in this house there were a lot of goings on, including his experiments with a kite, his famous air baths, not to mention many of the bodies buried down in the basement. (Laughter.) But he was a really interesting person, a fascinating person – scientist, diplomat – he lived. I mean, a writer, author, so forth. His sayings are famous. And he was, in our judgment, our first diplomat, really. His portrait hangs in the Ben Franklin Room, which is our principal gathering room for major dinners, luncheons, and events at the State Department, and he – his portrait is up there as a guide to all of us, and he in fact designed the seal of the United States that is in the ceiling in the Ben Franklin Room.

So this has a special connection for me, and even more so because he lived with his aunt for a period of time on Nantucket Island, where we are privileged to have a home and have gone for many summers. And I’ve heard many a story of his early years there or in Boston, where he famously would use a gigantic kite to pull himself across Boston Harbor. So he was the original kite surfer. (Laughter.) I don’t know if you know that. He has inspired me greatly. (Laughter.)

But just a quick word, if I may. I’m really honored to receive this for probably – well, several reasons, but first and foremost the special relationship between us. Much is said about it. It’s real. And while certainly there have been disagreements at times, and none more so than when Ben Franklin was here, we’ve always found that the commonality of values and interests and our culture, our history, our cousinship surpasses everything else.

And the world right now is in need of leadership as never before, perhaps. I can’t – hard to say “never before” when you’re in London and Winston Churchill did what he did, but we have serious, monumental kinds of problems that we face, which is a clash of technology and modernity and culture and religion, and a group of people who are so nihilistic that there’s not even an ideology around which they organize themselves. They just want to destroy and take you back to a place where you have to live according to what they say and what they ordain, and it changes. Who knows when or how – there’s no rhyme or reason except for their brutality and their hate for people who represent something different.

So I look at a world where the population is going to go from 6 billion to 9 billion, where the planet is warming at a rate that is beyond alarming, where we see conflict and governance that are deeply troubling, notwithstanding our best efforts to build capacity and so forth. So – but all of this is changeable. All of this is manageable if we lead, if we step up, if the Western world will do the things that we have in our capacity to do. And I fault my country and others for, frankly, not stepping up sufficiently, financially and otherwise. We’re the richest country on the face of the planet. We have $18 trillion economy, yet we put only one penny of every single dollar that we spend into everything we do around the world. It doesn’t make sense when you see millions of children who need to be educated, people who need to be kept out of the clutches of these nihilists. It’s a major challenge.

Great Britain and the United States I think understand that, are bound together in our efforts to do something about it. And we are inextricably linked in our values, where we push them in Ukraine, standing up for the sovereignty and independence of a nation against modern thugism that we believe is so contrary to the rule of law and order that we worked so hard to achieve since World War II. We work together on Middle East peace, on Syria, on Yemen, on Libya, where we just met this morning to work through how we can give sustenance to the government there.

So I’m grateful to receive this award because of the relationship between us and the fact that we share leadership, and we have a common sense of direction.

And finally, I’m glad to receive this because I believe that this is a special moment in world history where regardless of how you manage Brexit, we need to show leadership together going forward on every issue from climate change to the oceans, which you mentioned, Sir Bob, to the vexing challenge of religious exploitation and terrorism. But if you look at the world where we are today, because of what we have done, enormous good is happening, and it doesn’t get measured enough. We are on the cusp of seeing the first generation of kids born free of AIDS in Africa because of what we’ve done. We pushed back against the Ebola challenge two years ago when people predicted a million people would die. And they didn’t, because we took action, because we showed leadership.

Similarly on climate change – yes, it’s going up, but we’ve taken three monumental steps this year alone: the Kigali agreement on HFCs, the agreement on aircraft with a market-based system to reduce emissions, and the Paris Agreement. And I believe with the greatest set-aside in oceans in human history and what we just did with the Ross Sea, we are proving that there’s a different direction and that we know how to make the right choices.

So I thank you profoundly for this. Benjamin Franklin said that, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.” And I believe in exhibiting that energy and in showing that persistence. And this award, while I will soon be leaving being Secretary, will stay with me as a down payment on the things I need to do with the rest of my life. (Laughter and applause.)