Interview With Alison King of NBC

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Cambridge, Massachusetts
January 9, 2017

QUESTION: Senator Kerry, I hear you have logged 1.4 million more miles than any other secretary of state in history, and I’m wondering, are you happy to be done with this or would you keep going if you could?

SECRETARY KERRY: It’s a great job. It’s a great job. I could certainly keep going for a while, but that’s not the way it is, so I’m looking forward to new adventures – to getting out and being involved in the private sector and continuing public life to some degree. But I’m excited about what we’ve been able to achieve, Alison. I think that the United States of America is more engaged in more places on more issues of consequence and with consequences that we’ve been able to make a difference in than at any time in American history, and that ranges all around the planet. The South China Sea; the questions of North Korea; the relationships with China, with Japan, with Korea; the region, the rebalance to Asia; all the way around to what we’ve been able to do to help bring poverty for the first time ever below – extreme poverty below 10 percent; the Iran nuclear agreement; getting chemical weapons out of Syria; the Paris agreement on climate – I mean, there’s just a long list, I’m happy to say, of things that have moved the ball forward.

And – but I have unfinished feelings about Syria, about Ukraine, different issues. So there’s a lot yet to work on, needless to say.

QUESTION: When it comes to foreign policy and what I’m sure you consider some of your biggest achievements, President-elect Trump has made it clear that he plans to dismantle much of this. This is your life work over the past four years.

SECRETARY KERRY: (Inaudible.) I don’t believe that --

QUESTION: It’s got – well, but he keeps insisting, not as a candidate --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I just don’t believe that common sense says that that will happen. I think that the secretary of defense, the secretary of state – people will look at this issue. There’s a great difference between campaigning and governing, we have discovered. I don’t think there should be, by the way. I think people ought to say what they mean and mean what they say when they’re campaigning. But evidently, it has been proven that there is a big gap. We’ve already seen many things on which the president-elect has already changed, so let’s wait and see how the administration governs. I’m not going to prejudge. I’m not going to get into hypotheticals. I don’t believe that it makes sense and that ultimately they will turn away from the Iran deal or from climate change.

QUESTION: Because he does say he will pull back from the Iran deal, but you think that – what would it mean if it were to happen?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I just don’t think so. I mean, what does that mean, “pull back”? Does it mean you’re going to walk away from Russia, China, Germany, Britain, France? They’ll keep the agreement even if the United States walks away and looks foolish. So they will keep the agreement.

QUESTION: And what would it then mean for the U.S.?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think it would mean we’re isolated and it would mean that we’ve lost our credibility and it would mean that we have potentially – if Iran chose to then go ahead and enrich because we walked away from the deal, we would have no great validity and legitimacy in holding them accountable to that. How do you then say, “Well, it’s time to go to war. We’re going to have to bomb them because they’re breaking the agreement” when you walked away from the agreement? So I think there are so many difficulties in going down that road when you stop and think about it, and it would be very dangerous. It would be very dangerous for the nation and very dangerous for the region.

QUESTION: I want to ask you about a couple of other countries. Syria, the situation in Aleppo – critics say that the United States sort of set the stage for what happened, is happening there when it did not take forceful action following that chemical attack on civilians in 2013. And after that, I believe you supported to put more force out there. And I’m wondering why you were unable to convince the Administration that more force was perhaps necessary.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to go into the internal deliberations of the Administration yet. We have another 10 days. I’ve got another trip. I’m going to Asia, to Vietnam, where we’re going to have an official event regarding a new Fulbright University, which is an American university in Vietnam, which is quite extraordinary. And I just want to stay away from the politics of internal deliberations.

But I will say this: We did succeed, without bombing, in getting all of the chemical weapons out of Syria. And that was the objective. The objective of the bombing was to say that Assad, you can’t use chemical weapons. Well, guess what? We made it impossible for him to use any of the declared weapons that fit under the chemical weapons treaty, because we got them all out of Syria. Isn’t that a better outcome than dropping a bomb? It seems to me that there’s a huge mythology that has grown up around this, and it’s important for people to look at the facts.

QUESTION: What’s your takeaway lesson learned from Aleppo?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, my – again, I don’t want to get into sort of the retro part of this at this point in time, Alison, but I wish we had been in the position, obviously, a long time ago to resolve the Syrian crisis, and I think there may have been things that could have happened on an international basis that would have made more of a difference.

QUESTION: Israel. Your final speech was really dedicated to defending the two-state solution in making the point, obviously, that settlements are an obstacle to peace. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu really pushed back on that and said that – what was his quote? – that you spent much of your speech blaming Israel for the lack of peace. What do you think of Benjamin Netanyahu?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to – again, I’m not going to make that kind of judgment. I am going to defend our policy. And the truth is I did not criticize Israel as a focus of the speech. I talked about the two-state solution and why it is at risk. And I said it out of affection for Israel. I supported Israel 100 percent for the 28 years I was in the United States Senate and supported it 100 percent as Secretary of State, where again and again, in fora after fora, we would stop bad resolutions from coming against Israel or we would – in UNESCO or in the Human Rights Commission. All the time people are pushing because they don’t like the policy.

Now, we’ve defended Israel, but we have always – Republican administrations: Reagan, Bush, both Bushes – have consistently opposed settlements. And after four years of saying to the prime minister and his government, “You really shouldn’t be doing this, because it’s going to put you at risk, it’s going to isolate you, it’s going to create momentum at the UN,” we finally decided that we weren’t being listened to and that it was really important to make a clear statement about this.

But the statement that we’re making, Alison, is to try to show how Israel has to really make a choice. If Israel is going to be a Jewish state and it’s going to be a democracy, it cannot be a unitary one state with a whole bunch of Palestinians living under a different set of rules. If it’s going to be a Jewish state, which I would like it to be and we all support that policy, and we want it to be a democracy, which obviously we believe in and support, Israel’s got to have a two-state solution. It’s the only way to remain fully democratic and Jewish. So that’s why we’ve been so strong about this. We’re saying it as a friend of Israel, we’re telling the truth about this choice, and we cannot go on with construction taking place in parts of the West Bank that everybody knows are supposed to be Palestine. It will destroy the two-state solution. And not one decision that we made in that resolution was a final-status issue, as we refer to them. The question of Jerusalem, the question of security, the question of refugees – all of those things we did not go into. Those have to be resolved between the parties and we’re very much protective of Israel’s right and the Palestinian right to negotiate what they need to negotiate with respect to those issues.

QUESTION: I just read a long article about the U.S. secretary of defense – former – William Perry, who’s on this mission to spread the word that – of his – really his grave concern that nuclear catastrophe, in his opinion, is greater than during the Cold War and that most Americans have no clue about this. Do you share his level of grave concern?

SECRETARY KERRY: I think it’s a huge issue. I have nothing but enormous respect for Bill Perry. He was a great secretary, he’s been a great public citizen, and I do support his quest – along with others – to try to move to a world that can move away from nuclear weaponry. It’s going to take a long time because it’s going to require a lot of changes in conflict resolution and the way people perceive threats and in how people define deterrence. So it’s not going to happen overnight, but it is a goal. But focusing on the nuclear threat is 100 percent worthwhile, because with so many different non-state actors in the world today, many of whom have large sums of money at their disposal, they are chasing enriched material for the purposes of at least creating a dirty bomb, if not being able to create some grand terrorist act. So there are reasons for grave concern about it and also look at what’s happened now. We have a president-elect who’s talked about increasing nuclear capacity. We have several countries in South Central Asia who are in a standoff, who both have nuclear weapons, one of whom is growing their program. So the last thing we need is – in the dawn of this century, with so many other issues to work on – the last thing we need is a new arms race, and Bill Perry is absolutely correct to be sounding the alarm.

QUESTION: Okay. Getting a two-minute warning here and I’ve got all sort of questions – I want to talk about your trip to Antarctica, but I also want to talk about your coming back to Boston. Just Antarctica – you’ve never been there before. You’ve been a climate change proponent for decades. What did you learn from that trip that you didn’t know going into it?

SECRETARY KERRY: I learned firsthand from the scientists there how fragile everything is and the accelerated pace of change which they are trying to quantify and find. It’s very, very alarming. I mean, ice that is in some places three miles deep, but which is unstable today, and the level of instability is even visible to the naked eye. But also, the science they are doing with their boring down into the ice sheet and the analysis they’re doing on the increased instability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is very, very disturbing. As one scientist said, it’s the canary in the coal mine. And so you have to go there to get a sense of it, and I did get that sense. And it increased my personal sense of urgency about responding to this issue.

QUESTION: As someone who is dealing with some of the most serious issues of war and peace and terrorism, do you consider climate change the number one issue facing the world?

SECRETARY KERRY: I never get into number ones and number twos, but it’s in the top issues of security issues facing our country, along with terrorism and nuclear weaponry and so forth. There are a number of grave, unbelievably urgent international security issues facing us, and climate change is absolutely one of them.

QUESTION: Okay. So you’re coming back to Boston. You --


QUESTION: What are your plans for being in Boston?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m going to be a citizen, Citizen Kerry, and I’m going to engage in private sector activities, but I’m also going to engage in a continuation of my life and my life’s work on conflict and peace, resolution of conflicts in various places in the world, as well as focused on oceans and climate change because of the urgency that I just described.

QUESTION: How is your wife doing?

SECRETARY KERRY: She’s doing well. Thank you for asking. She’s obviously looking forward to my being around a little more and – at least I hope. (Laughter.) (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Might you run for office again?

SECRETARY KERRY: I haven’t – I have no plans to do so, Alison, but I’m not ruling anything out. We’ll see what happens (inaudible).

QUESTION: Because I read that you considered a run at the presidency this past year.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, very fleetingly I thought about it when I saw the problems of what was happening in the campaign, but it was late, and too late, and I really never thought about it in any particularly serious way.

QUESTION: I just have to ask you finally: Meryl Streep’s speech last night. I’m sure you’ve heard about it.

SECRETARY KERRY: I’ve heard about it but I haven’t seen it or read it. Unfortunately, I was working during the Golden Globes. I would have liked to have seen them, but I didn’t.

QUESTION: Did you – do you applaud someone to get up and --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t know exactly what she said. I know she apparently had some criticisms without taking him on directly and talked about Hollywood and defended Hollywood. I don’t know what she said.

QUESTION: Her main theme was when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think that’s pretty fundamental, isn’t it?

QUESTION: Don’t argue that one.

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I wouldn’t attempt to or try to. We shouldn’t. I think there’s an abuse of power at several levels in many places in the world today. It’s one of the things that I spoke out against very firmly last year at the World Economic Forum, the levels of corruption that we see in various countries, and we see too many failing and failed states around the planet that are a consequence of this kind of abuse of power and in some cases bullying, but in many cases just highway robbery and corruption and theft, embezzlement, with the collusion of major, powerful corporate entities in the world. It’s a – it’s part of the anger that is building up in people, not just in the United States but globally.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, I look forward to sitting down with you again when you can freely speak your mind.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. I look forward to it. Yes, ma’am. (Laughter.) I look forward to it.