Remarks at a Ceremony Awarding the Grand Cross 1st Class of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany to Secretary Kerry

John Kerry
Secretary of State
German Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Berlin, Germany
December 5, 2016

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m going to wear that around the office for the next three weeks and see if I get any respect at all. (Laughter.)

Guten Abend. Danke. Vielen dank. Thank you all for this really absolutely extraordinary and completely unexpected gathering. I’m so privileged and grateful for all of you coming here to share in this special moment, this friendship between Federal Republic of Germany and the United States, between Frank-Walter Steinmeier and myself. Frank, I am beyond humbled to receive this Order of Merit today and blown away by the comments that you’ve made and the photographs you dragged out of my past. I never thought it was that risky to ride a bike, folks. (Laughter.) I didn’t think I was risk-taking. But nobody operates on their own, and I think all of you know that.

I’m privileged to have a State Department with 70,000 people on this planet who get up every day and go out to try to make a difference in the lives of other people. So for all of you in the diplomatic corps who have come here, I thank you very much, your excellencies, for sharing in this. But I thank you also for what you share with those 70,000 people, which is a common sense of our ability to be able make a difference, to change things, to bend the arc of history, to be able to help the people we represent to live the lives to which they aspire.

And I know that Frank approaches this exactly the way I do, which is with a very special sense of the honor it is to be a public servant. It is a difficult time to wear that badge of honor in all of our countries. It is governance itself that is being challenged in many places, and I will say a little more about that in a few minutes. But Frank-Walter is my kind of public person, my kind of diplomat. He has been just an extraordinary partner to me. Frank, I don’t know if you know that completely, but I want you to know it – that I have enjoyed so much the telephone calls, the friendship, the exchanges, the wink of an eye, the nod of a consent or disagreement when we have been able to partner together to make things happen.

I could not be more honored or pleased than to receive this award from you, and Germany is so lucky to have a foreign minister who has such a sense of purpose, so much common sense, and such a commitment to the public good. It’s been a privilege for me to be able to work with you and consider you a friend, and it’s very special for me to have received this award here today from him. One of the last times that the foreign minister presented me with anything, it was a Swiss Army knife with two tags attached, and one read “hard power” and was tied to the blade, and the other was “soft power” and it was connected to the corkscrew. (Laughter.) So since we were at dinner, we got started on soft power, folks. And maybe there can be a little soft power in the offing later this evening.

Frank, I want to congratulate you on the publication of your new memoir. It was published last week. Every single one of you is under an obligation to go out and buy it after this ceremony. (Laughter.) I understand I am featured prominently in it win a photo of the foreign minister and my dog, Ben, named after Ben Franklin. He is the diplo-mutt of our service, and I wanted to remind you, Frank said something about friends in public life. Well, Harry Truman used to always say that if you live in Washington and you want a friend, get a dog. (Laughter.) So that explains Ben, and I’m going to rush out to Dussmann myself in order to get a copy so I can see what you wrote about us in its entirety.

I have to tell you, as I listened to Frank – in politics and in public life, occasionally you are blessed to have somebody say a few nice things about you as an introduction. I had no idea I was going to sit there and listen to what I, at least, judged to be a thought-out and personal and extremely moving presentation. And it’s embarrassing to sit and listen to somebody talking about one – about oneself.

I have the fondest memories of my early days here in Berlin. My parents had sort of dumped me off at school in Switzerland and I didn’t really know where I was. I was sleeping under an eiderdown; I didn’t know what that was. And I fell in love with chocolate and the mountains – the mountains particularly. But I would travel from Frankfurt to Berlin on the military train, and I was alone and was put under the care of the U.S. Army as I’d get on the train and come through the east sector. And we weren’t allowed to have our blinds up, and I used to raise them anyway. I’d buy a six-pack of Pepsi Cola or something and sit there with some comic books I bought at the PX in Frankfurt. And I stayed up all night because it was so exciting, and I’d peek out on the – through the window. And when we’d stop in various places along the way, the soldiers – the Russian soldiers would – Soviet soldiers would rap – come walking up and down to see that nobody got off the train, and they’d rap with their gun butt on the window for me to close the blind, because I was not allowed to be enjoying this moment of looking out where I was. And when we arrived at the station here in Berlin, the U.S. Army Band was there playing Stars and Stripes, American songs, because the city was of course divided into three – into four sectors.

So for me it was just an incredible set of inputs for a 12-year-old kid, and I did indeed venture forth into the east sector, and what I remember from that journey was really very stark. I actually remember this. I felt a little scared. I felt this ominous darkness, this gray. Very few cars, not a lot of people running around, less bustle than there had been in the western side. And I felt this sort of darkness in a way that I said, you know what? I don’t think it’s such a good idea to be here. And I actually turned my bike around and I went back and went back into the American sector. And I remember, of course, when I told my dad about my great adventure, I was promptly grounded. My passport was yanked. (Laughter.) And I think my father sort of wiped his brow and marveled at his good luck that I had not become an international incident in that moment.

But it was a great adventure. It was really a lesson for me, honestly. Being here in Berlin was a great lesson for me. And I also was – I spent a lot of time – I did spend a lot of time on my bike. I biked all through the Grunewald, up and down the Kurfurstendamm, Unter den Linden, and all of the streets. I got to know them well. But I also got to know well what Frank talked about, was the energy and the rebuilding that was taking place. The Reichstag was still burned out, Hitler’s bunker was still where it was, and I could see these huge abutments of concrete sticking out. And I simply biked around, looking at all of this.

But I also noticed signs: “Hier Hilft der Marshallplan.” As Frank mentioned, “The Marshall Plan helped here.” And I had a front-row seat to the creation, the early creation of an indelible partnership between the United States and Germany, emboldened by NATO, key investments of the Marshall Plan, and growing cooperation on challenges in Europe and elsewhere – and of course, the beginnings of the great project of Europe itself.

That partnership then and now has been rooted in our common understanding and commitment to NATO and to Europe that is whole, free, and prosperous. And it has been continually built out and strengthened by the values that we share. This is not – at least, I think, Frank and I share a belief – this is not the Great Game. And it certainly shouldn’t be in 2016. There are still people around who think that way – too many of them – in a world of globalization where everybody is connected to everybody, but not completely yet, not in the way that we all know we need to be.

And so I think that celebrating – and I receive this award genuinely in the name of those 70,000 people and all the rest of you who engage in this great endeavor called diplomacy, which is ultimately the only way we’re going to make it, folks. Everybody says there is no military solution to the war in Syria, and there isn’t. Even if Aleppo were to fall, not going to end the war. And ultimately Russia and Assad and the Iranians and others have to all understand that there are deep sectarian and other divisions and interests that are going to have to be resolved in order to end that war.

Over the course of time, over these past years in recessions, in conflict, through the memorable airlift, through the construction and destruction ultimately of an ugly wall, our alliance has withstood the test of time. And it has provided indispensable benefits to both of our countries. I long ago lost count of the number of times that I have picked up the phone to consult with Frank-Walter to ask for Germany’s help or advice or for President Obama to do the same. And I think you felt the warmth of the relationship between Chancellor Merkel and the President when he was here a few days ago.

Chancellor Merkel recently called our friendship a cornerstone of German foreign policy, adding that with no country outside Europe does Germany have a deeper link than with the United States of America. This remarkable story of cooperation and leadership, I am proud to say, has continued throughout my four years as Secretary of State. And my very first trip as Secretary of State brought me here to Germany, to Europe, to our alliance.

The fact is that anywhere you look in the world today you will see our two countries front and center in dealing with the issues of global significance. We’re standing shoulder to shoulder (inaudible) that is a battle we are absolutely going to win. We are already having recovered 55 percent of the territory Daesh took in Iraq. We’re moving on Mosul. We’ve liberated Tikrit and Ramadi and Fallujah, and we are moving on al-Raqqa, and we are working in concert with allies around the world to close off the numbers of recruits that can travel down from 1,000 a year – I think a 1,000 a month – to 500 a month, now to a trickle. Finances cut, narrative being pushed back against, a whole host of initiatives that we have worked through together. We are steadfast in supporting the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and we are grateful for Germany’s and France’s leadership in the effort to bring the Minsk agreement into reality and now to help try to implement it, and we are grateful for the leadership of Europe in being willing to stay steadfast on the issues of sanctions, as difficult as it is, because we haven’t yet finished the task of Minsk.

We’ve worked together to address effectively the most severe crisis Europe has faced since World War II with respect to refugees, and we’re united in trying to protect the environment and health of our planet. I’m going to say a word more about that in a moment.

We are deeply committed to the essential mission of trying to salvage Libya, put the war in Yemen to rest. Even now this week, next week we are working diligently to try to bring the parties together in both places and to try to advance the GNA, to try get a ceasefire and move to Kuwait for talks with respect to Yemen. And I am very hopeful that before we leave we will in fact make progress in that regard.

And finally, we are deeply committed to ending the catastrophic, senseless, endless war that seems to be playing out in Syria, because we do understand there is not a military solution and because the ripples created by the terrible bloodshed of Aleppo and other besieged neighborhoods in Syria is going to be felt for decades to come.

And finally, Germany and the United States are partners in supporting the full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran. And I am so grateful to Frank-Walter. He talks about – I mean, everybody persevered in that effort. And I’m so grateful to my colleagues who came to Vienna and stayed there, sometimes without knowing when the next meeting might take place. But there was a unity of purpose and a patience in execution exhibited by every single partner in that effort, and I am deeply grateful to them for doing it.

Let there be no doubt anywhere – the region is safer, Germany and the United States are safer, Europe is safer, Israel is safer, and the world is safer because Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon were blocked – and might I add, with Iran’s consent and participation, and with their willingness to fill their plutonium reactor with concrete, with their willingness to take down their centrifuges, to lower their stockpile, to limit their enrichment.

So this depends on all of us to keep this alive, and I know that President Obama has already engaged in conversations with the president-elect, and we will work as diligently as we can to impart to the incoming team the absolute urgency of keeping that and other agreements intact.

So here’s the bottom line: that in recent years, as over the course of nearly seven decades, our alliance – our alliance, together, Germany, the United States – NATO and Europe – have helped to move this continent and our planet towards greater peace, security, and freedom. And believe me, that is not just an assertion; that is an irrefutable fact.

Now, let me just underscore a couple of things. I think that it would be inappropriate of me to come here and not somehow speak to the uncertainty that people feel about where things are going. After all, we’ve seen yesterday in Italy and before that, Brexit, our own elections. And there is obviously an anxiety playing out in the body politic of countries on a global basis. The last century was defined by nation-states deciding to play the great game and that it was worthwhile to go to war in order to do so. And millions of people died as that played out; World War I, World War II, the unfinished business of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, finally the end of the Cold War, and now the breaking out of a whole set of forces that were pent up by the authoritarianism and the structure of the post-war worlds of the 20th century.

But now, it is non-state actors who are the great disruptors, both those who engage in kinetic activities and those who engage in the advancement of technology and science. It is not trade that has cost the United States. Eighty-five percent of the jobs in the United States were lost not due to trade; they were lost due to technology advances. And as we live in this world with AI – Artificial Intelligence – and other major advances in technology coming at us, it behooves all of us to work closer together, to talk more in depth, and work harder to find the ways that we are together going to solve the problems of disruption and of disquiet that comes as a consequence of a changing world.

What we see in the Middle East, what we see in South Central Asia, what we see in North Africa is not, in most cases, motivated by – or it wasn’t, in most cases, motivated initially by religious extremism. It was exploited by religious extremism, but it was motivated by a fruit vendor in Tunisia who got tired of corrupt people telling him where he could and couldn’t sell his goods. It was advanced by young kids in Tahrir Square who were Googling and messaging and texting and telling each other they wanted to fight for jobs. And memories are short, but that’s how Syria started too. A bunch of young kids who went out demonstrating for jobs who thought they were going to be part of this new wave of opportunity, and instead they were met by thugs of the regime who beat them up. And when the parents were angry that the kids got beaten up, the parents came out and demonstrated, and they were met with bullets. That’s how it started. Make no mistake.

So my caution to everybody here in this moment of celebration of this partnership between us is there is a real lesson in the Marshall Plan. I believe the world needs a new Marshall Plan today, but it’s not a Marshall Plan geared, as that one was, to rebuild already developed societies, countries that had been industrial giants. We need to recognize there are one and a half billion people 15 years or less in the world today. And fully 400 million of them, many of those 400 million mostly in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, will not go to school unless we change something.

One of my foreign minister colleagues in a North African country took me to dinner one night. We talked, and I said, “How do you manage this 40 percent population that’s Muslim here in your country?” Minority, but significant. And he said, “We’re worried sick about it.” Because what happens is the extremists, the exploiters, grab these kids at age 12, 13, and 14, and they take them out and pay them and proselytize. Once they are fully converted, they send them out as recruiters, and the next wave begins. And he said to me, “You know what, John? They have a 35-year plan. We don’t have a 5-year plan.”

Think about that, Western world, developed nations. We’re an $18 trillion economy in the United States, but we put only one penny of every dollar into everything that we do in the world in terms of diplomacy and aid. The Marshall Plan was a $13 billion plan. In today’s money that would be about – if it were a percentage of the GDP, it would be about 120. If it were real money, it would be about 120 billion. If it were a percentage of GDP, it would be about a 720 billion. We’ve spent 3 trillion on Iraq and Afghanistan. So I believe deeply and I intend to speak out on this after I am Secretary that we need to think about our interests – all of us. There is no “over there” anymore. It’s all connected. And we’ve learned in these last years with 9/11, with Paris, with many other sad locations from Ankara to the Middle East and elsewhere, that it comes home to roost if you don’t pay attention to those young people who need jobs and who need their aspirations fulfilled just as much as everybody else.

Now, I know what the politics of nation building are. I’ve run headlong into that. But I am sharing with each and every one of you the firm belief after a long career in this business that we need to all of us come together to pay attention to the challenge of governance. There are too many failed and failing states in the world and there is too much corruption in those states. And it is enabled by legitimate entities in many of our countries that put other things ahead of the values that actually we organize ourselves around.

Now, Frank mentioned I went to Antarctica. I went to Antarctica because I was in the Arctic where scientists said to me, you know, if you think this melting in Greenland is of concern, you’ve really got to go down to Antarctica and see what’s happening. So I did. And I was on the ice sheet, the West Antarctica Ice Sheet, and I heard the scientists explain to me how the warmer water is now coming in underneath the ice, because the weight of the ice pushes the continent down and the water goes underneath and destabilizes it even faster, and that they are witnessing a rate of change that is unprecedented. Two weeks ago, the temperature in the North Pole in the Arctic was 36 degrees above the average temperature of that day through recorded history. The other day, I got a little vial of air – I have a bunch of these vials of air collected as the South Pole. And each vile has a graph on it showing the rise of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and tracing with it the temperature. It also happens to be, and the vial is labeled, “The Cleanest Air in the World.” And then written after it is, “401.6 parts per million.” Those of you who follow the issue know that that is at least 50 points above what scientists have told us is the tipping point, and that’s the cleanest air on earth.

Last year, this year, it’s going to be the warmest year in human history. The year before was the warmest year. This is the warmest year in a decade that is the warmest decade in human history, which precedes the second warmest decade in human history, which precedes the third warmest decade in human history. Can we not, as rational human beings, begin to see a clarity here of what is happening as we already see sea level rising over the sea wall in Boston? As we raise the streets of Miami Beach and are pumping out water today in order to stay ahead of it? As we see the U.S. Navy in Virginia in Norfolk begin to contemplate changing the piers for the ships because of the rise of sea level and the concerns about crews being able to get to the ships, because when there are big storms now, it’s cut off completely? Fires that last longer, droughts that are more intense. So I just – I say to all of you this is serious business that we’re engaged in. I think you know that.

The most important thing, and I listened to Frank and I loved what he said about – you’ve got to find the truth in this business, and you’ve got to speak the truth. And the truth is that there are solutions to every one of these things. I am not a half-glass-full guy. I believe – a glass empty. I believe the glass is half full. I really do. Why? Because we’re curing diseases we’ve never cured before. Because severe poverty in the world is below 10 percent for the first time in history. Because we have this alliance and we have been able to stand together and advance the rule of law. Because if you’re a woman giving childbirth anywhere in the world today, you are more likely to live than at any time in history. If you are child born anywhere in the world today, you are more likely to go to school and more likely to be fed than any time in history. In Africa today, because of what we’ve done together, the first generation of children being born AIDS-free is within our grasp. Ebola, they predicted a million people would die two Christmases ago, but we came together – all of us – we worked at a multilateral basis and guess what? A fraction of that died and we ended the threat. And we’re doing that with Zika now and with other things. We’ve done this in Paris where 190 people came together to say, we’re going to send a signal to the marketplace about clean energy, and guess what? For the first time in human history, more money is being invested in alternative and renewable and sustainable energy than in fossil fuels.

That’s why I believe in the future. And I am convinced that is precisely why this relationship – relationships like it our ability to go out and make a difference is real. It’s not rhetoric. But we have to stay together and we have to push back against some of these short-term, politically expedient slogans that do not even qualify as a masquerade for policy. And hopefully with our media and with our common sense, we’ll be able to send the message that is necessary to our people to make wise decisions and wise choices, because all of those things are staring us in the face. The new energy market that we face, which is the way you solve climate change – and it’s not too late to solve it – that market is the largest market the world has ever seen.

My state of Massachusetts got very wealthy as did many people in America during the 1990s. That was the technology boom of communications and computers. It was a $1trillion market, folks, with one billion users. The energy market is today a multi-trillion dollar market with four to five billion users today and it’s going up to nine billion users by 2050 or so. It’s the largest market in the world. So I believe that there’s money to be made, there are lives to be changes there is an enormous amount that we can do to build on what we celebrate today, which is diplomacy. And I thank you for the tradition of our partnership that I believe is celebrated by this Order of Merit. I am deeply grateful for today. I’ll just try to say a couple of words in German if I can.

(Via interpreter) The United States and Germany stand together in advancing the cause of peace, promoting our shared prosperity, and building a more secure future. The Order of Merit is a tribute to this commitment and to our long, close, unbreakable bonds of friendship.

I think I got translated – I hope. (Applause.) I wandered on a little bit here because I wanted to take advantage of this moment to try to point out that we’re going to be okay. (Laughter.) We’re going to make it, folks, and I am absolutely confident about that. We just have to keep our heads about it and stay steady and keep working in the same direction. And this alliance – this alliance – is not just about the United States and Germany. This alliance is critical to everybody on the planet because of what we believe about human beings, about opportunity, about freedom, and about the rule of law.

So thank you. This is a great reminder for me of the purpose of life, and I am honored to be here with you. Thank you. (Applause.)