Farewell Remarks to Employees

John Kerry
Secretary of State
C Street Lobby
Washington, DC
January 19, 2017

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. (Cheers.) Thank you, thank you, thank you very much. Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you. I accept the nomination. (Laughter.) Thank you very much. That was – that silenced it pretty fast. (Laughter.)

I am leaving here, obviously, with sadness. It’s bittersweet because you leave. But I actually am excited about the next chapter. And I have a feeling we’re all going to continue to cross paths, continue to work, I know, for the same things. What – I’m obviously leaving you and a department that is so filled with hope, with a sense of right and wrong, with a sense of justice, with a commitment to people, to making life better all over the world.

I’m leaving a pretty exhausted airplane and airplane crew. (Laughter.) And Ben is leaving this department without any awareness that he is losing his privileges to a reserved elevator. It’s – (laughter) – he doesn’t have a clue.

But all of you have made this just such an incredibly special journey for four years. As I think about it, I mean, you’ve made things fun. You’ve made it – even UNGA four times. (Laughter.) What’s fun with, what, 88, 90 meetings in the course of five, six, seven days? We ground it out, but we did, I think, really good diplomacy, to be honest with you.

I want to thank President Obama for his leadership, for the privilege he gave me. (Cheers and applause.) I saw him yesterday evening. We spent some time together rehashing a few things, and his spirits could not have been more filled with gratitude for all of your work, for the things we have tackled, for the teamwork that we showed together. And I think there was a combined sense between the President and the National Security Advisor Susan Rice and myself that we worked as a team and we worked very effectively.

And the President of the United States obviously – and you all know this – gave me enormous latitude, allowed me to go out and try things. Those were his risks, not just mine. They were our risks. And he believed and believes, as I do, that you got to get caught trying, folks. That’s our job. I know sometimes people say, well, you failed to get this done, failed to – I don’t see it that way. We didn’t succeed it getting it finished, but we didn’t fail. You never fail when you try greatly to go out and make things happen.

And in our job, we’re not always the guiders and controllers of the destiny. Other people have to make big decisions. They have to overcome centuries of ethnic or religious divide. They have to overcome interests internally. There are all kinds of difficulties. But we have helped to shape those choices for people in ways that I hope every one – every single one of you feels proud of, understanding that you couldn’t just stand by and allow Syria or other places to disintegrate without trying to pull people back from the brink.

Now, I am optimistic and I am leaving here filled with a sense, as I hope you are, of what we have been able to do together. And I mean together. The numbers of times some of you had to shift gears because the particular moment required us to adjust and to be flexible, the numbers of times that we kept you driving through the night because an embassy was threatened and we had to think about how to move people, the numbers of times that we had to reschedule something because the nature of the conflict or the nature of the opportunity which we wanted to seize. And you folks would just roll with the punch, whether it was Ops or the Line or the people who had to make the arrangements or cancel a hotel or get a motorcade out of nowhere within one hour. And it happened, truthfully. (Laughter.)

These are extraordinary efforts, and so all of you should be so proud and feel good about it. And I hope you’ll share the rationale when I tell you that, as a result of all of your efforts, I intend to make work-life balance the top priority of my time until I am no longer Secretary. (Laughter and applause.) So I promise you we’ll get there. (Applause.)

Now, we’re living in a time of great transition and some upheaval, obviously. I want to just share with you that one of the things I learned in the United States Senate – and I remember walking in here four years ago; it feels like yesterday – and I came from the United States Senate, where there’s a – and there was – there was and is a sort of different outlook on certain things and a different formality and process. But one of the things that we still operated on in the Senate that I was in were facts. The notion that science is science, and it’s science for a reason, and it means something and facts are facts. As President Adams said – (applause) – as President Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things,” and as my old colleague Pat Moynihan said so many times, “Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but no one is entitled to their own facts.”

Now, let me tell you – (applause) – we – so let me share some facts with you. It is a fact – it is a fact that because of the efforts that we made to keep a nuclear weapon out of the hands of a country that was clearly moving towards the capacity to have it with 12,000 kilograms of enriched material equal to 10 to 12 bombs – because we have moved away from that, the world and that region are safer than they were before.

It is a fact – (applause) – it is a fact that people in this world have hope today and believe there is a possibility of literally saving the planet because of what we were able to achieve with the help of all of you and people in the White House and people in the Energy Department, all of whom came together in the EPA, Gina McCarthy, Ernie Moniz – everybody – to be able to get an agreement that put 186 nations on record saying we need to deal with climate change and deal with it now. (Applause.)

All you have to do is pick up today’s New York Times. I’ve been saying 2016 is going to be the hottest year in history. Now it’s official – front page of The New York Times today with a graph showing the remarkable rise of temperature. Now we have the third year in a row, each one the hottest year in human history. And so it is imperative for our children and our grandchildren and the future of this planet that we listen to scientists, that we take the precautionary steps necessary, and that we do even more to move to respond to the needs of climate change now. That is imperative for all of us, and the story is there as clear as a bell today.

It is a fact that we led the effort to put together 68 nations, to turn back the scourge of nihilism, of evil, that has come with Daesh/ISIL, and that because of that effort, we’ve liberated Tikrit, we’ve liberated Ramadi, we’ve liberated Fallujah, and we’ve now liberated half – the eastern half of Mosul. And we will defeat Daesh as a result of the strategy that we have laid out and put in place and is moving forward now. That’s a fact. (Applause.)

But it’s also a fact that at this moment in time – and I’ve said this before but I want to emphasize it to all of – because this is you. It’s not me; this is you. Every person in every bureau of this department and working with USAID and working with our colleagues in the Defense Department and in other departments – we have cobbled together a greater effort to respond to crises in this world. We are more engaged in more places in this world with greater positive impact than at any time in American history. And you just run around the world and you see that. It’s a fact that we have changed America’s relations and the perception of America by ending a policy that was outmoded and outdated in Cuba and by helping to end a 50-year war in Colombia and being part of the effort to help President Santos. That’s a fact. (Applause.)

It’s a fact that doctors were predicting that some million kids were going to die by Christmas two years ago because of Ebola. And President Obama had the courage to send 3,000 troops over there not knowing – we still didn’t know what we didn’t know, but we sent the 3,000 troops over there, the President did, and we built health care capacity, we worked with the French, we worked with the British, and we saved hundreds of thousands of lives and end the scourge and proved what the international community can do when we come together in a multilateral way to do what common sense tells us we need to do. (Applause.)

It’s a fact that Putin was moving into Ukraine and could have gone further, and the United States galvanized Europe, brought people together in order to put together the sanctions – which have held, despite efforts to undo them or move away or people’s exhaustion with it. And we’ve held that together, and we’ve been able to make it clear – we may not have yet fully implemented Minsk, but we have made it clear about the price that is to be paid for that kind of departure from the norms that we have worked to achieve and to hold onto ever since World War II. And so it is that Ukraine and the rest of Europe stand together against the notion that big countries take land from small countries just because they can. No, not in our sense of right and wrong and not in our world, which is committed to the norms of the international community. That’s a fact. (Applause.)

It is a fact that young people in Africa, young people in Southeast Asia, young people all over the world have been able to take part in President Obama’s initiative, YALI – the Young African Leaders Initiative – and listen – those of you who have had a privilege of listening to those kids, it’s inspiring, it’s the future. And they’re invested in it now, and they’re invested in us. And that’s good diplomacy. It’s the most important diplomacy of all: to give young people the possibility of the future.

It’s a fact also that we stood up to North Korea. We haven’t solved the problem, no. But remember how long it took with the Iranian sanctions before we were able to get to the table and make a difference. These sanctions we’ve been able to ratchet up twice now, bringing China to the table. It was our leadership that helped to create the pressure and the effort that tightened those sanctions that are in place now and we turn over to the new administration an opportunity to go even further.

Now, South China Sea: We’ve stood up for the freedom of navigation; we’ve stood up for the right of resolving conflicts multilaterally in the world by rule of law. I mean, I don’t want to – I’m not going to do every country in the world, but I hope you get the drift, folks. (Laughter.) I hope you get the idea that engagement has made a difference. (Applause.)

But even as we do those big things – let me tell you something – there are a lot of other big things that happen, but they’re not deemed always to be big by everybody in the media or everybody in the country, but what a difference they make. ECA, bringing one million foreign students to the United States of America, which puts $35 billion into our economy, and more importantly perhaps even than that, gets young people who forever will be connected to our country, have a sense of our values, and believe in the possibilities of the future. I can – this is one of the most exciting things we do. (Applause.) I cannot tell you how many times I have been privileged to sit down with a foreign minister or finance minister or prime minister, and they look at me and they say, oh yeah, I went to Cornell, I went to Princeton, I went to Harvard, I went to wherever it is. And they’re excited about it.

The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia who passed away just – he was the longest serving Saudi Arabian – he was the longest serving foreign minister in the world, Saud al-Faisal, became a good friend of mine – Prince Faisal. And he passed away a year and a bit ago, but he used to tell me with such pride about his years at Princeton and how it helped him to understand our country. That’s just one example. The consular division put out some 19 million passports or cards over the course of the time that I’ve been here – it’s an extraordinary story – and helped people countless numbers of times when an American citizen is abroad to be able to get home if they lost their passport or find someone that they were looking for or reunite with a family or you name it a hundred different ways. Those are a hundred different important diplomatic acts that they have performed at the same time – 19 million of them that makes a difference in this world.

There are 300 children who were abducted from the United States. People don’t know it, because it happens underneath the radar screen, but we’ve united those 300 kids who were either retained or abducted or falsely held in a country. We’ve gotten them back to their homes in the United States and reunited with their families. (Applause.)

Another thing people don’t know that much about, but which makes a difference is, unfortunately, we’re living in a world where sometimes people are detained falsely in a country, imprisoned for reasons they shouldn’t be, or sometimes taken hostage and held. We have gotten more than 100 Americans out of a hostage situation or out of a false arrest or imprisonment, and we’ve done that because of the hostage unit that we’ve been able to create. And Jim O’Brien and his efforts have been absolutely extraordinary. People don’t see it, but that makes a difference. We have been able to secure – and particularly after Benghazi, this is sensitive to everybody – but we’ve been able to secure, with the help of Pat Kennedy and DS and all the other folks who work so hard, 35,000 of our employees who now are moved into secure facilities who were not in secure enough facilities. So we can say people are safe and working in an environment community. (Applause.)

And one of the things that I am very proud of is the effort we made – I remember going to hearing after hearing, and you remember all those folks you’d see up there in those yellow jackets representing the Khalq-e Mujahedin – MEK as we’ve known them – and we got 3,000 of them out of Camp Liberty and to places where they are safe and their lives are saved from being attacked regularly, as they were. I thank Jonathan Winer, our special envoy, and others for that kind of effort. It’s been enormous.

So all in all, folks, what you have here in all of this – I mean, you know how many bureaus there are. You know how many people there are – 70,000 employees. There are Foreign Service, Civil Service, Foreign National Service officers. My profound gratitude to every single one of you for the difference you make here every single day.

We live in a more turbulent world in some ways. Why? Not because of the absence of leadership from us, but because the world is going through a transformation unlike anything it’s ever seen before, mostly because of technology. It is a fact that 85 percent of the jobs lost in the United States of America are lost not because of trade but because of technology. And it could even speed up with artificial intelligence and other things that are coming down the road.

So we here have two great responsibilities. One obviously is to protect the United States of America and our interests, to protect the American people, to stand up for our values and stand up for our interests. But guess what? Because so many people in the world share a fundamental human desire to live in dignity, to be free, to be able to have opportunity and make choices – because of that, everything we do in furtherance of the first is also in furtherance of the second. And very few jobs in this world give you the opportunity every day to go out and make that kind of difference, a difference for country, a difference for the world. (Applause.)

In June of 1968, I was coming back from a tour of duty in the Gulf of Tonkin on the ship, and as we approached the coast of California we were hearing this squiggly radio signal, till finally it came through louder and clearer, and we could hear the pandemonium and the turmoil of the shooting of Bobby Kennedy in Los Angeles. And that was a time when many people in the country had a reason to sort of doubt where we were going. After all, five years – within the framework of five years we lost a president of the United States, then we lost his brother, a candidate for president of the United States. We lost Martin Luther King, this great voice for civil rights and for freedom and for the future. We lost more, obviously, if you look at the people blown up in a church in Birmingham and those young girls, and Medgar Evers and others. That was the turmoil of the time.

And I say this to you not to take you back to some moment of – but to prove to you that any demagogue or any person or anybody who is pessimistic and cynical and wants to say we’re heading down or we can’t make it through, they’re wrong. The United States of America knows how to make it through. (Applause.)

I’m actually very optimistic about the future. I know some of you accuse me of having blind optimism. No, it’s not blind. But I am optimistic and I’m optimistic because this country has shown again and again how strong we are internally, how powerful we are, how incredibly resilient we are, and how we have the ability to redefine our story, to write the next chapter, to go on into a stronger and better place. And why do I say I think we’re going there? Because look at what is happening.

For the first time in human history, extreme poverty is under 10 percent in the world. Today, a child born somewhere in the world is more likely to go to school, more likely to be fed, and that’s partly because of all the work that you’ve done. Today, a woman who gives birth somewhere in the world is 50 percent less likely to die in childbirth because of the work we’ve done to bring health care and (inaudible) people. We’re curing diseases we never thought we could cure. We’re opening up opportunity. And in fact, despite Daesh, despite the violence we see, fewer people are dying in this dawn of the 21st century than were dying in parts of the last century.

And it’s not nation-states that today are basically deciding to go to war against each other; it’s non-state actors. So our challenge going forward is to make sure that all those young people in every country in the world have opportunity, have a chance to meet those aspirations that we get to live here and that too many people take for granted.

So I’m confident – honestly, I am – and one thing I’ll just close by telling you that the one thing that I think is important is I am part of a generation that is sometimes accused of excess or even of a false sense of possibility, but I don’t agree with that. The 1950s, which was not my generation, were a time of conformity, a time of “don’t rock the boat.” But we came along in the 1960s and we decided to rock the boat, and we did. And I’m here to tell you today that because of the women’s movement, because of the Equal Rights Amendment effort, because of the environment movement – we didn’t even have an EPA until 20 million Americans came out of their homes and reclaimed our future. And because of the peace movement, we did finally end a war that never should have started and thought we learned the lessons from.

But the point I’m making is, folks, that happened because people like you and others held on to the hope, believed in the possibilities of change, and went out and fought for it. And I am absolutely confident now that people are prepared to fight for the future in the same way, with the same energy, with the same vision and the same commitment.

Robert Kennedy, two years before the day that I just talked about, gave a speech in South Africa about apartheid when he was a senator. And it was a time when there was great despair there, and he said to people that the – it’s the courage of individuals and their beliefs that write the course of human history, that each of us, he said, can work to change a small portion of events. And each time a man or woman works to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring. Those ripples build a current that will sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

I have often thought of those words, whether when I ran for president or whether it was in the Senate or even here as Secretary of State. I want you to think about them, because I want you to stay faithful to the notion that this building, all of you – that we together are going to continue to make ripples and sweep down walls of resistance to peace and to justice and to a better and safer world.

And T.S. Eliot said to us all that the – that an end is actually a beginning, because it’s a place where you start from. I’m leaving here with that sense. This is not an end. This is a beginning. It’s a new beginning. It’s a new chapter. I’m excited about it, and I hope all of you will be excited about the new chapter that you can help write here as proud and unbelievably committed employees of the United States State Department. Thank you so much for the privilege of working with you. Thank you. Thank you. (Applause.)