Conversation With German Transatlantic Young Professionals

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Berlin, Germany
December 5, 2016

MODERATOR: So my job is to introduce a man who needs no introduction. As I said in there, literally, the most consequential Secretary of State in my lifetime, which is longer than I think I would like to admit. (Laughter.) And when you just think about what this man has been able to accomplish, the impossible to the impossible to the impossible – whether it’s getting China to agree to carbon emission limits or putting together – really being the leading guy in the whole Iran nuclear negotiation, opening up relations with Cuba, and just tirelessly traveling the world, it’s my great pleasure and honor to introduce you to Secretary John Kerry.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you, John. (Applause.) Thank you, guys. I’m really happy to meet with you and very much look forward to learning from you, actually. I really would like to hear your thoughts and I hope we can share that, so you get a few of mine and I get a lot of yours.

And beginning, I don’t want to make a speech or give you any longwinded opening. I’d really like to just dig into it and figure out what’s on your mind, but obviously, with the election in the States, with Italy yesterday, with Brexit and a whole bunch of things happening, I have no doubt you’re sort of sitting there trying to figure out where the hell things are going. And I’m sure you have thoughts about it too and I – that’s why I really want to hear from you so that – garbage in, garbage out; if you don’t get good information, you’re not going to learn anything or think through things effectively.

So on that note, let’s just throw it open and have some fun, all right? No holds barred. I don’t care what you ask me. Doesn’t mean I’ll answer it – (laughter) – but let’s just go for it. So who’s first? Who wants to – the first hand up is the first out. Anybody? Yes. Yes, ma’am. There we go. See, the women are much more – (laughter.)

MODERATOR: You know what (inaudible) does? She promises a picture to people who ask questions to get them to --

QUESTION: Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. My name is Sarah Pagung. I’m working for the German Council on Foreign Relations on Russian and Eastern European issues, but my question is more concerning Germany. We heard in the last week that there’s some – there are expectations from the U.S. side on Merkel as the last – literally here, the last leader of the free world. And I just wondered if you could maybe explain or clarify what are the expectations in detail, what – like, what do liberal Americans want us to do? Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me begin – look, first of all, I don’t like labels. I don’t know what they mean in many ways. There are all kinds of different definitions of conservative, liberal, right, left – I mean, really, we get pigeonholed in all of that, so let’s just talk about expectations and possibilities.

There are a lot of leaders still in the United States. We – I’ve never thought of that. Even with Obama there, I don’t think that the President is the only leader. We have a Congress, we have a judiciary, we have a big civic society with lots of different leaders in civic society, and they are all going to speak out. And part of the nature of our democracy in the United States – and I think it’s true here in Germany – is you may have a powerful position and you may be the elected chieftain, but you still have to reach out to people and you still have to listen to people, you still have to build consensus, and you have to make things happen.

I have found one of the eye-openers to me is that even in countries that are totalitarian by most measurements, there’s a lot of consensus-building. People don’t realize that. I mean, President Xi rules and governs – yes, a very powerful position, but you should watch the Chinese build consensus up the ladder and throughout the system. And the same is true in other places where you have monarchs, but those monarchs are particularly engaged in their civil society in reaching out and listening. We’re depending on their constitutional role, obviously. Some of them, like Queen Elizabeth, don’t have that kind of constitutional role. But they have to play a fairly active, engaged role within the community to maintain a base of credibility. So don’t get – don’t – our future is not defined just by an election. I guess that’s the bottom line of what I’m saying.

Now, will it be important what the new president proposes? Of course it will be. And there are places where he, by executive order and edict, can do certain things, for sure. But I don’t think anybody has an ability – I certainly don’t and I follow it pretty closely – I can’t tell you where he’s going to come out on when the – because he isn’t fully defined in a lot of those things, and we’re watching that process. Is that unusual? Yeah, it is unusual in terms of this kind of high office and the election, but that’s where it is.

But you’re going to have to see who is appointed, what policies are, where things begin to go. I’ve already seen that a lot of things have changed. I mean, evidently, there’s no deportation now of 12 million people, which is what was – there’s no building of a wall, there’s closing of some fence and this and that. There’s no – we’re not going to prosecute the candidate he ran against, we’re not going to – I mean, there are a whole bunch of things that have changed. So I don’t think anybody can predict to you exactly where we’re heading here.

Now, that may be, in and of itself, a little bit – raise some questions, and it does underscore the importance not just of Angela Merkel, but of all of our allies and friends who need to stay strongly committed to and prepared to define the values and principles around which we have organized ourselves since the end of World War II. And rule of law matters, predictability will matter as we go forward. And I think that Angela Merkel is a very strong leader. I have enormous respect for her personally. I think she has been exemplary in the way she has helped to deal with a number of different crises that Europe’s gone through in the last years. And so she will play an important role.

But her challenges are multiple. I mean, we’ve got to get the economies of all of Europe moving again; we’ve got to deal with the Brexit issue; we’ve obviously got to – all of us figure out how we’re going to end the agony of Syria and migration, which has had a profound impact on the politics of Europe. And I’m confident that we’re going to be able to do that. I really don’t feel overwhelmed by these challenges. I think they’re big, but it’s very clear what you have to do. There’s no mystery here. I mean, I’ll bet you that all of you have four or five things you’d recommend to each and every one of you that we ought to do that would make a difference.

But I find the hardest thing to do right now is not find the solutions; it’s implement them, it’s get people to coalesce around them, it’s getting leadership to focus and be united in trying to move forward on some of these things. I mean, obviously, if you’ve got a generation of young people who are at risk, you sure as hell better make sure they have jobs and make sure they have an education and make sure that the rule of law is going to apply to how they can go about their lives and live out their aspirations. And if they can’t do that, it’s very easy for some totally demagogic – no, not totalitarian, but some sort of – with proclivities towards authoritarianism to pollute the politics and to scare people. And we’ve seen that in various places in the world.

So my hope is that Angela Merkel will find a partner in the new president. I know she will in our country writ large and there will be plenty of us speaking out, articulating what we think are the choices that we all need to make together. So we’re going to have a healthy debate and that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe that’s part of what will reconnect people to politics a little bit, providing there are some outcomes. But debate without outcomes can lead to frustration and to bad choices. So we’ll see where we go.

Yeah, right here in the front row.

QUESTION: Thank you for meeting with us, Mr. Secretary. I’m Ramona. I was a CBYX student in 2008-09 in Rhode Island and then I proceeded to study film and literature here at Free University and also at UCLA. And I was wondering, in times where a lot of people base their political decision-making on their emotions rather than their rationality – they tend to listen to their feelings such as fear rather than checking facts – what does that mean for politics and what could each and every one of us possibly do about it?

SECRETARY KERRY: What do you mean about the rationality? Tell me that.

QUESTION: That rather – I think I mean it in, like, a science kind of way – trying to rationalize – let’s say, in terms of the immigration crisis: Rather than rationalizing, hey, perhaps I’m afraid right now because this is my own fear of, like, the strange or the foreign, but in theory, I know that there’s nothing I should be afraid of, especially if I look at statistics and crime statistics that there’s no reason for that, that I still prefer to listen to my emotions for some reason and still choose to be afraid, even though I should know better if I reflect on my own fears and my own personality.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, there a lot of pieces of that question and I probably can’t speak to all of them, but I think a lot of people feel the way you feel. You’re not alone in that sort of sense of confusion between the rational and the emotional. I doubt that will ever leave you in life, to be honest with you, as long as you sort of have a healthy ability to turn it into something constructive, that you kind of channel your answers to those – to that debate in the right way.

For instance, it’s a real waste of time to just sit around and be controlled by and dominated by your fears. It’s not a – it’s very counterproductive. I mean, it just freezes people and they don’t know where to go and they don’t know what to do. So I urge you to try to find – I’m not saying to deny yourself that feeling, because you’re going to sit around with a good glass of wine some night, or a beer or something, and talk with your friends and you should work it through. But you got to find a way forward because if you – that’s the only way to make things happen. It’s the only way that – and you’ve got to take what common sense and the rational tells you is the way forward.

There are countless examples of that. Everybody has a fear of massive numbers of people coming across a border and coming into your country. But if you respond to that fear the wrong way, you can make things really bad and a lot worse. So you have to find a way to respond to those things that’s not irrational, but that has a definable, discernible, positive goal that you think you can translate into something. To wit, perhaps dealing with the crisis at its source, or finding ways to figure out, okay, how many people can we take rationally and how do we divide that up among countries and what’s the responsible approach to this?

I decided some time ago, after we were writing checks to all the refugees coming out of Syria – I said, this is crazy; we could write checks for the next 20 years and there’ll be nothing of Syria left, and every country in the rest of the world is going to be impacted in a way that may not be survivable. So the better thing to do is try to end the war, shut off the source, which is why I have been so focused, beating my head against the wall with the Russians and others, trying to find a way to get to that solution. There is a solution. But if all these other countries are going to continue to pursue their proxy goals – and there’s a lot of proxyism in Syria. You’ve got Qataris and Saudis and Turks and they’ve all got some geopolitical goals, and then you’ve got sectarian goals and fears, and you’ve got Kurd on Kurd and Kurd on Turk and Sunni on Shia and everybody against Assad, and ISIL out there, and so forth – it’s a mess. I mean, it’s a huge – and you can’t let your fear of that freeze you. You’ve got to say, okay, how are we rationally going to work through that and get a solution?

The solution is a political solution. The reason I say that is every country involved says there’s no military solution. Even if Assad cleans out and wins the war of Aleppo, which it looks like it might even do, the war doesn’t end. What’s he won? He’s won a whole bunch more displaced people. He’s won a huge amount more hatred from a lot of people who will never forgive him for what he did. He’s won a continued insurgency. And there will be no peace without a political reconciliation.

So that’s where your emotion tells you one thing and your rationality tells you another, and the simple answer is let your emotion invigorate you and inspire you to go out and get the rational done. I mean, that’s the best way to try to resolve it, I think.

Yes, sir. Then we’ll come back over here. So yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for taking the time, and thank you, Mr. Ambassador, for having us here today. My name is Jacob Schrot. I’m co-founder of the Young Transatlantic Initiative. We are an NGO that strengthens German-American relations among the younger generations on both sides of the Atlantic.

President Obama was asked recently what is his greatest success and his greatest frustration of his presidency, and he answered with health care on the one hand and gun reform on the other hand. So what would you answer to that question? What’s the big success in your tenure as Secretary of State, and your greatest frustration? And if your answer is Iran and Syria, what does it tell you? Are you more confident or less confident about the future of the entire region?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t see – I mean, forgive me, but I’m not going to narrow it down. I can’t narrow it down to just sort of one – to one thing because I think there are equities that belong in different places with respect to different issues. To wit, the environment writ large – what we’ve been able to do on the oceans, to raise awareness of people globally that the oceans are not some vast amount of water that’s un-harmable, that in fact the oceans are deeply threatened today and they are linked to climate change, and climate change together with the oceans is a challenge to life on the planet itself. And I think succeeding in getting a trifecta – actually, a quadrifecta with the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area, which is the largest protected area on the planet, the Kigali agreement on hydrofluorocarbons, the airline agreement on airline emissions, and the Paris Agreement is a huge step forward in terms of creating a framework within which we may be able to meet the challenge. But I say “may,” because we’re behind the curve and we’re going to need each and every one of you to keep governments totally committed to this task. It is an enormous task.

On the other hand, obviously when you can keep a nuclear weapon out of the hands of a country that is in the middle of a conflicted area and you can remove the chemical weapons, weapons of mass destruction from another country in that area and keep them out of the hands of Daesh and terrorists, I’ll take that any day.

And you just take those two areas and those are singular – we haven’t done that in 20 or 30, 40 years, we haven’t had that kind of a deal. So those are big things and I’m very, very proud of it, and President Obama also, because it wouldn’t have happened without his consent to go do it and to take the political risks and to make some of the decisions he made. So I think that’s a huge piece of it.

But there’s a lot more. I mean, I think the United States is more engaged in more places on more issues of consequence with greater effect than at any time in our history, despite some of the turmoil you see in the world today. We’re pushing back against al-Shabaab in Somalia. We’re pushing back against Boko Haram in Nigeria. We’re pushing back against Daesh in Libya – Sirte. We’re pushing back against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. We’re going to win that – no question in my mind that they’re on the decline, we’re squeezing them out, and we’re going to win that battle with them.

But – so I think stopping Ebola – everybody predicted a million people were going to die in West Africa by Christmas of two years ago, but we sent 3,000 troops over there, we said no, we’re going to build the health care capacity, and we did. We responded. We – together with the French and the British, each of whom took a country, we went at it and there were a mere fraction of those numbers that were lost, and we saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

AIDS – first generation about to be born AIDS-free in Africa right now. I mean, these are huge – I can – there are diseases we’ve cured. Severe poverty is underneath 10 percent for the first time in human history. If you’re a woman giving birth somewhere in the world, you’re more likely to live than at any time in previous history. If you’re a child born today, you’re more likely to be fed and go to school.

So we’re making progress, folks. And it’s hard in this world of social media and instant flooding of the zone of information to break through with people as they see people crossing the borders and coming in from Greece and Syria. I mean, things just overwhelm. But I think we know what we need to do, personally, and I think it’s a question of having leadership around that’s going to make us do what we know we need to do.

So I can’t pick one thing, but I think, all in all, I’d say it is that we have been positively engaged in a way that’s making a difference. We need to do a lot more. That’s where we are with that. Yeah, in the corner and then you afterwards. Then we’ll come over here. I promise you. (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: First of all, thank you Mr. Secretary and Mr. Ambassador for taking the time. My name is Yentz Stebelin (ph). I was a participant of (inaudible) youth exchange, just like you. And – yeah, good program; we want to keep it going the next 30 years. And yeah, funding is on in two years again in Congress. So my question is: You talked about “we” a lot of times. What is the new “we”? Because I feel like a lot of bodies are changing. Like NATO might change in the next few years, the European defense structure might change, the European Union in general might change. What do you think – who is “we”? Is it the transatlantic community in general? How do you think – will new or – a new leader – or new leaders in Europe and in the U.S. change those bodies just like NATO or a new European defense infrastructure?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, “we” to me is any willing partner. I don’t divide it up geographically. It’s any willing partner, because the world is so globalized and small today. We’re all in this together. I mean, in many ways the G7 has been rendered less impactful; it’s the G20 everybody looks to, because it’s just brought a whole bunch of players at the table who weren’t at table 15 and 20 years ago. I mean, 15 and 20 years ago, there were a whole bunch of countries that were recipient countries of aid that are now donor countries. And you should go look at the list – I mean a country like Korea, Mexico, Japan – I mean, there a lot of near-developed and developed countries that are assuming greater and greater responsibility.

It’s – one of the reasons, by the way, why it’s harder and I think some Americans are struggling with it and adjusting to it, because 15, 20 years ago you could walk into a room and say this is what we’re going to do and everybody is going to think, there you go.

Now, there is more democracy, frankly. There’s more waiting on it. We’re not so sure that’s the right approach, we’d like to – will you listen to us? We want to be engaged. And some people have not gotten into listening mode yet, and that’s a problem. We could have a clash with that in the next few years or we could not. I don’t know yet where we’re going to go. I don’t think there will be big changes in NATO; I think NATO is there for fundamental reasons, people understand it. President-elect Trump came to the White House and met with President Obama – said that he contemplates maintaining support to NATO, et cetera. I think General Mattis is well aware of the importance of NATO and others who will come in. So I don’t think (inaudible).

What happens with the European defense system is a bigger question mark, because that’s up to you guys to decide. I don’t think we are particularly shaping it. We’ve urged Europe to spend more on defense, because it’s got to be a shared burden and I think everybody’s got to recognize that. But I don’t know exactly how that will play out. I can’t tell you today.

I think that on the European piece, I am a strong, strong advocate of a strong Europe. We view Europe as an essential partner to us, and I mean partner; not a sidekick, but a partner. And we are not, as you know – our position publicly was we did not want to see a Brexit. That was our public position. We hope it can be worked out in whatever way is possible to maintain the strength of the market – the one market and of Europe itself, and also we obviously want to have a relationship with a strong Great Britain. It’s in all of our interests in terms of rule of law and the fundamental values that we’re sharing that are in contest in certain places.

So I have high hopes that, again, as we work through these things, that reasonableness will prevail. I’m not going to say more about it now, but after I cease to be Secretary, I may be speaking out on that a little more. (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: We had another one back there I think, right?


QUESTION: Mr. Secretary and Mr. Ambassador, I just want to thank you again for having us. My name is (inaudible). I’m here with (inaudible), a grassroots think tank. I’m also a former intern with the embassy. (Laughter.) So my question follows up on what you said about European partnership and the future with America. Mr. – former Ambassador Kornblum very much criticized Foreign Minister Steinmeier’s very clear comments about the uncertainty or the difficulty that might arise in the future in terms of this friendship and I was kind of wondering if you would agree with the assessment that former Ambassador Kornblum had that it was a mistake of Mr. Steinmeier to publicly acknowledge this difficulty that may lay ahead.

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m for honesty and diplomacy, and I’m for saying things that need to be said sometimes in order to state a position; it can’t be always diplomatic to the point of avoiding a tough discussion. So I think – I happen to be a big fan of Frank Steinmeier’s. I think he is very, very thoughtful – one of the most thoughtful foreign ministers it the constellation that we work with. And I admire his leadership and his careful, studious, thoughtful approach to diplomacy. So I think his voice is a voice worth listening to for anybody. They may disagree, but it’s worth listening to.

Yeah. What’s up, Matt? Are we running out of time?

MODERATOR: He has questions – five more – oh, last question? Okay.

SECRETARY KERRY: Give me a couple – couple more minutes.

MODERATOR: Well, you’ve got five.

PARTICIPANT: You have Steinmeier.

SECRETARY KERRY: Where are we going – over to the MFA?


SECRETARY KERRY: I think we’ll be – I think we have time. We’ll be okay. It’s right around the corner. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Thank you for the time. Good afternoon. I’m Joshua Kriesmann. I’m the founder of a non-profit NGO that fosters cultural understanding between refugees and high school students. So I’m very much concerned about the future of the Syrian crisis, and considering that you will have to leave the office soon, I’m wondering what your future milestones will be in the last past months you will have trying to tackle the crisis in the Syria.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov in Hamburg this week. We have some ideas that are going back and forth right now. I’d like to see us try to get to the table if it’s possible. And I don’t think the fight for Aleppo is going to go on forever. So maybe this is an opportunity to open up something that gets us to that table. And we’re working on a formula to try to do that. So that would be the milestone (inaudible). Let me ask all of you guys. I haven’t had a chance to ask you this, but – really quick, I mean, just in little words here and there – five or six or two or three or one – what are you worried about the most right now? What’s concerning you the most as you look out at the horizon? Yes?

QUESTION: For me – I can answer without the microphone. I can stand up. I am worried the most about the situation of minorities in the U.S. and in general, the foreign policy agenda of the U.S. about multiculturalism; will it still sustain or will there be a significant change?

SECRETARY KERRY: Okay. All right. Yes? Quick hits, everybody, I want to get as much of it in.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. I am worried a lot about the situation of women in the U.S. and also what Trump’s election means for the defense of women’s rights and women’s opportunities globally. So how the U.S. will continue to support women’s organizations with development aid and so on.

SECRETARY KERRY: Okay, very fair. Is one of my people writing these down? (Inaudible) please? Okay. I want to make sure I get all of these.

QUESTION: I’m a little bit worried about the situation that it’s – I think there may be a lack of interest in the United States looking at Europe and to say do your homework in front of your door alone, because I’m thinking that Europe not every time speaks with one voice – you know what I mean?

SECRETARY KERRY: Sure. Very much so. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible) United States.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think – look, my answer to you is I wouldn’t – I think we’ll resolve that. I think there still will be a very strong relationship – very close. That’s my judgment.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, running the start-up that (inaudible) back to Obama’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which is probably the reason why I’m here. What I’m worried about most at the moment, which hasn’t been tackled yet, is the digital gap. We see so much inequality – this will rise when it comes to new healthcare technologies, virtual reality. How are we going to solve that in a democratic, liberal way?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the answer is you have to spend money on education, you have to organize efforts, and if we don’t that, we’re going to have a big problem. Big problem. And I agree with you, but that’s something I’m working on by trying to have a new kind of Marshall Plan that involves the developed world and really goes out and works at this, because we’ve got about 400 million kids who won’t ever go to school who are under 15 years old now; that’s a problem for all of us security-wise, let alone economics and social structure and so forth. Yeah?

QUESTION: I’m worried about your answer about Aleppo. You said that Aleppo will be cleaned out and that -

SECRETARY KERRY: I didn’t say “cleaned out,” I said I’m not sure how long the fight will go on.

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah, but before there was another – anyhow, I’m worried about the responsibility to protect and that this is – it’s dying with Aleppo. And I’m afraid what the message is, that this carnage, this slaughter is sending to the world and sending to dictators and democratic movements who feel like the West is standing idly by if people are being slaughtered by a dictator.

SECRETARY KERRY: I totally agree with you, and I’ve expressed that concern internally in our deliberations and publicly. But I worry about it. I share that.

QUESTION: My name is (inaudible) and I’m really proud to be here. And I’m really worried about the situation in Iran, because I’m a child of Iranian immigrants and I wish for the country of my parents that they will live in a country with Western values and freedom. Although we have big problems also in our society, I know the biggest problems of my culture and I wish for all my family members in Iran that one time they will be able to live in a country with freedom of press and with the opportunities to make a job what they want and not that women have to split in the buses.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we all share hopes for Iran, and there’s a big struggle going on now, as you know, internally. But we’ll see how things work out.

MODERATOR: Let’s take a last comment and then we’re going to have to go.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, guys. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yeah, my name is (inaudible.) What I’m worried about is the conflict in Palestine and Israel, because we stopped talking about it for a while, or it’s not on the --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I just spoke about it yesterday and it’s all over the headlines in Israel, so – (laughter). If you go – if you Google “John Kerry on Israel yesterday,” maybe that would help address your concern. Okay?

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.

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