Interview With Judy Woodruff of PBS

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Department of State
Washington, DC
January 6, 2017

QUESTION: Secretary of State John Kerry, thank you very much for talking with us.

SECRETARY KERRY: My pleasure. Thank you.

QUESTION: So now that it has been confirmed that the Russians interfered aggressively in the U.S. election, does this represent a fundamental change in the United States relationship with Russia?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that remains to be determined. It certainly represents a major challenge in that relationship and it’s a hostile act that has serious consequences, and we’re going to have to work that through. When I say “we” I mean the United States, the next administration is going to have to approach Russia very clearly, understanding what has happened.

QUESTION: Do you think more needs to be done to retaliate as of now?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think that President Obama made it clear that we would retaliate at a time of our choosing in ways of our choosing, and that means some of them the public will know about, some of them they will not know about. Obviously, with two weeks left, I think that the administration coming in is going to have to make some judgments of its own about what the next steps will be.

QUESTION: So it’s reported the Russians were celebrating the election of Donald Trump. Why would they be celebrating? What do you think?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to speculate. I really think it’s too important and I just am not going to speculate. I think there’s been a lot of news articles – you all have been covering this for some period of time. People are going to draw their own judgments but I’m not going to add to that speculation.

QUESTION: What do you think Vladimir Putin wants? You’ve been dealing with him for a long time. What do you think he’s after?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, he’s after a lot of things. I mean, the relationship with Russia is complicated. It’s complicated by a lot of history going back to the former Soviet Union, which President Putin once famously commented on as the loss of it being the greatest tragedy of the last century. So is he motivated by ways of restoring some of what existed previously, in his mind’s eye, to the current Russia? Judy, these are all speculative things. There are a lot of motivations. He obviously has agreed with us on some things and disagreed with us on others. Specifically, we worked very effectively – Foreign Minister Lavrov and I, and Lavrov is a professional and a very bright man, capable; he carries the interests of his country. I carry the interests of our country, my country. And we managed to find common ground and work together effectively on the Iran nuclear agreement, where Russia assumed major responsibilities to try to get the agreement done and to make it work. We’ve worked effectively with Russia on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria; on any number of environment agreements – on the Paris Agreement, on the airline agreement, on the HFC agreement, on the marine protected area in the Antarctic, and on North Korea.

So I can give you a long list of things where Russia and President Putin have found common ground and worked with the United States. But on Ukraine, on the implementation of the Minsk agreement, on Syria, we have obviously not been able to find the same kind of common ground despite good efforts, and those are problems that are going to continue into the next administration.

My hope is the next administration will approach Russia strategically with a clear purpose of trying to find more common ground but without giving up on fundamental values and principles that are at the core of the United States foreign policy.

QUESTION: Well, are you concerned that that could happen? You have talked with your successor, the designate, Rex Tillerson. Does he have the same view of Russian intentions that you do?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, he and I are going to sit down actually I think next week and have an opportunity to really debrief and go into these subjects. So I can’t comment on what his approach is going to be or what he’s thinking at this moment about that. I can tell you that I think there is an opportunity here still for President-elect Trump and then President Trump to try to reach out to Russia and see whether or not they can put to test the proposition that we could find things on which we can agree, and perhaps some things on which we’re going to agree to disagree, but nevertheless put the world in a better place because we are not attacking through cyber initiatives or other ways, that we’re not moving to a more dangerous place of confrontation in Europe, on the frontline states with Russia, directly in other ways with us, or obviously in the Middle East and Syria, or in Ukraine.

QUESTION: But at this moment you’re not worried that the incoming administration could be naive, could be --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I have questions like everybody has questions, Judy, but I’m not – as Secretary of State, it’s inappropriate for me to start speculating publicly or get caught up in the day-to-day back-and-forth. I don’t want to do that. I think it’s inappropriate. I think there are clear, strategic possibilities that if the new administration pursues correctly could open up avenues of cooperation and reduce tensions and perhaps put to test whether or not there could be a more improved day-to-day relationship between us. It’s going to take a lot of work. It’s not going to be easy, and it has to be done in a way that is verifiable, real, without giving up American principles and values in the process. And we have to wait and give the administration the room and time to try to do that.

QUESTION: Syria. I happened to sit down yesterday with Vice President Biden. I asked him whether that represented a failure for the United States. He said no. My question to you is if it’s not a failure, doesn’t it at least, beyond being a humanitarian disaster, represent an enormous missed opportunity for the United States to shape events in that part of the world?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we did shape events to a certain degree. It is certainly going to be debated whether or not they were shaped enough or whether certain options that might have shaped them differently were taken or not taken. But I agree with the Vice President that the fact that we were not able – which is a disappointment, clearly – to push the parties into a place where they made a different set of choices, that’s disappointing, but I don’t think it represents some sort of failure on our part. You can try and try and push people – the old saying, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. And here we led people to water, the water of a peace proposition, the water of Geneva, of a process. We laid out through our leadership of the International Syria Support Group – we brought Iran to the table, we brought Russia to the table, we had assurances that Assad would do certain things. He didn’t. He chose not to. So the Russians failed, actually, to deliver Assad in the way that they said he would. The Iranians failed to deliver the process that they said they would because they continued to prop him up in ways that went way beyond the agreement that had been reached in the Geneva agreement to try to come to a political resolution.

So look, did the whole process fail? Did the international community fail to solve it? Yes, profoundly. But was that a specific failure of the United States? History will debate whether some choices might have been made or not made that might have altered that, but I don’t think it falls exclusively on us that this problem hasn’t been solved.

QUESTION: Are U.S. interests advanced with the way things stand today in Syria?

SECRETARY KERRY: With the way they stand today?


SECRETARY KERRY: No, nobody’s interests are served by what’s happening in Syria today. It’s a catastrophe. It’s the worst human catastrophe since World War II. And as I said just now, it represents a failure of the entire international community to come to grips with solving it, and it’s a tragedy for the people who have been caught in the middle. But I am proud of what our Administration has done, of what we did day to day to try to get a ceasefire in place. I’m proud that we are the largest donor of humanitarian assistance for refugees. I’m proud of what we did with the ISSG. And I regret that we were not able to be successful in getting the parties to Geneva, but I deeply believe that we are on the cusp of seeing that happen over the course of the next months and that it will be the framework that we put in place that is ultimately going to be the structure around which peace in Syria is built.

QUESTION: Several other countries I want to mention very quickly. Israel: You got a great deal of attention with the speech you gave about Israel’s policy, talking about the settlements. Right after that, they, Israel, announced they’re expanding the settlements. We know the attitude about Israel of the incoming president-elect and Mr. Netanyahu. So my question is: Were you as Secretary of State shouting into the wind?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I don’t believe so. I don’t believe so at all. And the comments I’ve received from around the world, even people in Israel and here in America, who care deeply about Israel and where it is going understand that what I did was tell the truth about a critical set of choices that need to be made in order to protect Israel and the region from prolonged potential of moving in the wrong direction in ways that could have very serious implications.

I spoke as somebody who cares deeply about Israel. I care as a senator who voted for 28 years in support of Israel. I care as a Secretary of State who for four years has diligently worked to protect Israel in fora after fora in which Israel has been attacked by other countries and we were the sole protector and the sole entity that stood up. But we have consistently – Republican and Democrat administration alike – opposed settlements. Every administration through our history has said that the settlements are an obstacle to peace and they do not have legal validity. We didn’t break new ground with that except that we reiterated and reaffirmed that we are not going to sit by idly and watch a sort of extreme element within the current government move in a direction that we believe is dangerous for Israel, reduces the possibility of peace, prolongs the potential of conflict, and is completely contrary to American values and interests which have been expressed by Republican and Democrat administrations alike throughout history.

QUESTION: Several places I want to ask you about because there’s so much going on right now and around the world, but Iraq: Where do you see it in four or five years? Afghanistan: Where do you see it going? Is there a – do you see a good outcome in some of these places that have gotten so much of the – of American attention and resources?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I see the possibility. I see the potential of a good outcome, Judy. But it depends ultimately on the leaders in those countries and the people in those countries. You can do everything in your power to provide opportunity to people but you can’t guarantee that they’re going to make the right choices and seize it. I’m proud of what we have been doing in Iraq. Iraq was deeply threatened two years ago. ISIL, Daesh, was moving across Iraq. The black flags were flying. The Toyotas were in huge convoys. They were moving unstoppable towards Baghdad. The President of the United States, Barack Obama, made a courageous decision, an immediate decision, put our aircraft in the air, and stopped that movement of people towards Baghdad – protected Baghdad – rebuilt, invested in the Iraqi army. The American people stood by Iraq. And today Iraq has taken back more than 60 percent of the territory that was taken by Daesh, by ISIL. We have seen Tikrit liberated. We’ve seen 95 percent of the residents return to that city. We’ve seen Fallujah liberated. I think more than about 100,000 people have now moved back to Fallujah. We’ve seen Mosul now in its moment of liberation and the better part of the eastern part of Mosul has now been liberated and they’re moving, and ultimately Daesh is going to be defeated. This phony caliphate is going to turn to dust, and we will have restored the ability of Iraqis and Syrians, ultimately, we hope, to be able to decide for themselves the future of their country. That’s the best of America.

Now, we can’t guarantee the outcome, but we have been able to guarantee that we’ve kept faith with our values and our interests in having a stable Iraq and ultimately in laying down the groundwork which can produce a peace for Syria.

In Syria, we’ve taken back about 35 percent of the territory that ISIL had taken, and I am convinced this is one of the opportunities available to the new administration – that if they work things correctly, there are possibilities of being able to work effectively to have the transition that was promised with respect to the governance of Syria, to have the Syrian people choose their future government, and to join together in pushing back against the extremists and particularly ending the threat of Daesh.

So in Afghanistan, the Afghans are going to have to decide that. The army is going to have to stand up and fight against the Taliban. They’ve been given that opportunity. We will stand by them. The international community is continuing to stand by them. There have been reaffirmations of the pledges that were given in Brussels. And so I’m hopeful. I remain hopeful. But it will depend on choices that are made over the course of these next months and years.

QUESTION: Two other things I want to ask you quickly. China: It is seen as the greatest long-term threat or challenge to the United States. In your mind, is it more the currency and trade issues that the U.S. should be most concerned about and focused on, or is it the Chinese military expansion and South China Sea issues? Which of these?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, again, with China we have worked very, very hard to reach understandings and find ways of managing differences so that we are cooperating as fully as possible where we can find a way of cooperating and we are not allowing, hopefully, disagreements to flare up into major confrontation. I think on the South China Sea, we have made it absolutely clear that we believe in the rule of law, that we will maintain the right of freedom of navigation, and that we do not believe that the South China Sea should be militarized, and we’ve had a great deal of engagement with the Chinese on this issue. I think that we’ve been able to work with them very effectively to step up the pressure on North Korea. We’re not where we want to be with North Korea. We believe China could do more, but we are progressively ratcheting up the efforts to try to change the behavior of North Korea. We have made progress on cyber. We’ve made progress on our rebalance to Asia. We’ve had an opportunity to have a major trade agreement that could have been ratified. We still have hopes that whatever differences the new administration may have with that particular agreement, that it could be tweaked and perhaps even reaffirmed in ways that allow them to be able to go forward with some minor changes here or there. We don’t know yet. These are the policy unknowns.

But all in all, I think that China is extremely ambitious and has a far reach with respect to its economic interests. And it is moving in Africa and in many other places in the world because it is a 1.3 billion-person nation with a vast appetite for resources and needs for resources, and that is going to be a challenge to the next administration going forward, is how does China manage that in ways that are not disruptive or hegemonistic and challenging to the order and structure of things.

But we found a way to work effectively with China on those regional and international issues. China was a partner in our discussions with Iran, has been supportive, has assumed responsibilities, as has Russia. So we’ve shown there are ways to be productive, but there are also going to be places where we’re going to have disagreements and we’re going to have to find ways to manage them.

QUESTION: Final question. You’re seen as the most shoulder-to-the-wheel Secretary of State we’ve had in a long time. You’ve been to every – virtually every global – or you’ve been dealing with virtually every global trouble spot around the world. You’ve given this job long hours. You’ve traveled nonstop. What are you the most proud of? What is your greatest disappointment as you walk away?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m going to duck you slightly here in the sense that I honestly don’t dwell on the disappointments. There are some, and we’ve talked about a few of the things that are undone. But I am very proud of the department. I think we are more engaged in more places in the world simultaneously dealing with more crises and with greater effect in those more places in the world than at any time in American history. And that means if you look at the sweep of the world – the South China Sea, North Korea, Japan, Korea, where we’ve strengthened the relationship, our rebalance to Asia, what we were able to do to stop Ebola from spreading and cutting it cold in those three countries in Western Africa, what we’ve been able to do with AIDS – the first generation of children who will be born AIDS-free – we’ve been able to do – to take a government that was in jeopardy of falling after a failed election in Afghanistan, putting together a unity government and reinvigorating their own commitment to their own country and their progress, being able to advance efforts with respect to getting the chemical weapons out of Syria, getting the nuclear agreement with Iran, getting the Paris Agreement on climate change – the most important global agreement with respect to one of the most significant challenges we face – getting the airline agreement on reducing emissions going forward because airlines all together represent the 12th largest country in the world in terms of emissions, getting the Kigali agreement on refrigerants, HFCs, so that we could actually, if it’s fully implemented, hold the rise of temperature of the planet by half a degree centigrade – I mean, I can go – the strengthening of Europe, the standing up to Russia on Ukraine.

QUESTION: But do you think you’re getting credit for these things?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t measure do we get credit every single day. These are the things that are real. These are things that have happened, and I think the world – because we’ve eliminated a nuclear weapon, because we have this global climate agreement, because we’ve achieved these things, because we’ve stopped Ebola, because we have a stronger ability to stand up to the threat of infectious disease as a result of what we’ve learned and institutionalized in that effort, we are safer. I think the world is safer without Iran with a nuclear weapon. The world has got the potential to be safer if we fully implement the Paris Agreement.

So yes, I think all in all that the Obama Administration and what President Obama has focused on has lived up to our need to protect American interests, to live our values and assert our values, and to stand up for future generations.

QUESTION: Secretary of State John Kerry, thank you very much.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Appreciate it.