News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Belfer Center Conversation with Secretary of State John Kerry

| October 14, 2015

Graham Allison Interviews Secretary Kerry on Key Global Hotspots

Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs hosted Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday, October 13, for a discussion of diplomacy and challenges in key hotspots around the globe.

In a one-on-one discussion with Secretary Kerry, Belfer Center Director Graham Allison asked Kerry about his concerns and plans related to Iran, Syria, Russia, and the Islamic State, among others.


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A Conversation with John Kerry


The overflow event in the Charles Hotel ballroom included questions from the audience of more than 500 Harvard students and faculty.

Following is the complete U.S. Department of State transcript from the event. The video is included with the original transcript here.

MR ALLISON: So thank you very much. Apologies for a short delay, but it’s a great honor to welcome to Harvard tonight our Secretary of State, and I’m Graham Allison, the Director of the Belfer Center. I would say we have not seen the Secretary of State exhibit such energy and determination in bringing home an agreement like the Iranian nuclear agreement. So the real purpose for me tonight is to, with the Harvard community, to say we’re celebrating John Kerry and we want to thank him. (Applause.)

So Secretary Kerry has had an amazing career that serves as a model and indeed inspirations for students at a school of government named for John F. Kennedy. He’s both a celebrated diplomat, but less well known, a decorated warrior. So after growing up here in Massachusetts, he graduated from Yale, enlisted in the Navy, went to the war in Vietnam where he commanded a 50-foot-long fast boat that would patrol the coastline in Vietnam and go up the rivers in order to sink sampans and Viet Cong who were fighting against Americans in Vietnam.

In one of the celebrated occasions, he and his mates were taking fire, Kerry ran his boat up on the beach, jumped from the boat, and pursued the person who was firing upon them, killed them, and brought back the insurgent’s rocket launcher. When his commanding officer finally was figuring out what had happened, he said – and this is in public – he said he did not know whether to court martial Kerry for beaching his boat without orders or to give him a medal for saving the crew. And he was awarded a Silver Medal as well as a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam.

Now, the willingness of this young man to take chances and to – actually, the derring-do – we see displayed not simply in that part of his career but in his diplomacy. In fact, I – when people ask me if I could pick one word to capture John Kerry, that would be unfair, but my word would be perseverance. And I remember the famous one-liner from George Washington who says perseverance and spirit can do wondrous things in all ages. So I would say that’s at least for perspective.

We’re going to do this in three parts tonight. Part one, John and I are going to have a brief conversation where I put a few questions. Secondly, we’re going to have an opportunity for several members of the faculty to put a question – again, briefly for all of us, I trust. And then thirdly, there are going to be opportunities for the audience. And Secretary Kerry can obviously say anything that he wants to, but we’ll try at least to have the questions be short, if that’s okay. So thank you so much for coming. (Applause.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, now you’ve made me really uncomfortable. (Laughter.) Anyway, I don’t advise derring-do as a guidepost for foreign policy, folks, so we’ll get into that conversation in the course of the evening. But it’s a real pleasure for me to be here, a great pleasure for me to be back at Harvard, which I had the pleasure of representing in the United States Senate for 28 years. I will not remind you it takes a Yale man to do that properly, but that’s all right. (Laughter.) That’s okay, that’s all right. (Applause.) I’m really getting on thin ice fast. (Laughter.)

But I want to say two things. First of all, I want to thank Graham Allison, who has guided lots of members of Congress for years and years and whose judgment on all matters nuclear is impeccable. And his analysis of the Iran deal really played an important role in our ability to win votes from a very critical audience, number one.

Number two, I want you all to join me in saying thank you and honoring the service of the spectacular Wendy Sherman, who worked day-to-day on Iran for a couple years with me and others. I had a spectacular, unbelievable team. I mean, it was a team effort, and I’m really happy that she is here at Harvard and you all will get the benefit of her wisdom. Thank you. (Applause.)

So let’s go wherever you want to go.

MR ALLISON: So let me start with a two-part question. So how do you pick your targets for such intense diplomatic assaults? And thinking about whatever those criteria or whatever the process is, which does that lead you to next among the urgent claims from Syria to South Sudan to Israel and Palestine to Venezuela?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re involved in all of those. And I really think that at this moment in American history I know that the brickbats of politics fly easily, and I can tell you that as a veteran of a presidential campaign. It doesn’t do justice to our country or to the complexity of the world that we’re living in.

And I would venture to tell you – and I think it is based in fact absolutely – that I can’t think of a time when the United States of America has been leading in as many places simultaneously, engaged in as many life-and-death challenges, around the world. And whether it’s North Korea and the DPRK and the issue of their nuclear program, or China and the South China Sea, or Ebola in Africa, it’s amazing how that loomed as a potential global catastrophe. And but for the President of the United States making a decision to send some 3,000 or 4,000 American troops over there to build capacity quickly, and then our leadership to bring other countries to the table and summon emergency response from around the world, millions were predicted to die by Christmas, and they didn’t. And we just got the news in the last days that they are Ebola-free – quite extraordinary. (Applause.)

But everywhere, whether it is Boko Haram in Nigeria, where we were deeply involved in helping to transition a democratic election and a new administration; and to target Boko Haram or al-Shabaab, where we really have them on the run; where a UN effort under AMISOM has taken enormous strides in pushing al-Shabaab into defensive structure – I appointed a special envoy to the Great Lakes region and we worked very hard for him – Senator Russ Feingold, who did a superb job of helping us to broker an agreement – not yet completed, sadly, for various reasons. TPP, which we’ve just concluded, 40 percent of the global economy coming under rules of the road with respect to business that will raise the standards, not create a race to the bottom, whereby we have for the first time in an agreement in the four corners of the agreement environmental standards, labor standards. I see my friend is here from – Tom Vallely and others who know this routine well. Vietnam will have labor unions, folks – the right to organize and the right to have a labor union and the right to strike. Imagine that. I think of that going back 40 years to a war – there’s a transformation taking place.

And China and other countries – this was not directed at China. I want to make that very clear. Too many people write oh, this was – it wasn’t. It was focused on us and the Pacific nations’ interests in raising the standards of doing business on a global basis, and it just happened that China has a different attitude about some of those particular choices, but China could join it, and we hope China will at some point in time decide that they want to raise – meet the standards of the other countries who came along. But the point is that this will have a profound impact on our ability to change the levels of corruption, the levels of transparency, of accountability, and make a difference, ultimately, to all of you here as you go into a very different world in these next years.

So, I mean, I could run around – there isn’t a place in the world – oceans – we just had two oceans conferences to deal with the unbelievable stress of almost every major fishery in the world that’s being overfished, too much money chasing too few fish and lack of regulation and too much illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing taking place. We’re going to do another one of those conferences in Washington next year. We’re going to make a difference in this in terms of preserving the ecosystem of the oceans, which is also being profoundly impacted by climate change. We’re prepping almost every day now for the negotiation in Paris to try to get as strong as possible a global accord on climate which will begin to move the markets so that we can invest differently and plan differently and think differently.

So in every facet – I can’t think of where – in – over the weekend I was in touch with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas, and we’re working on trying to calm things down. And I will go there soon at some point appropriately and try to work to re-engage and see if we can’t move that away from this precipice. Likewise, Syria – profoundly challenging at this moment in time.

So I’m jumping ahead of Graham, but the fact is that we are – when you say how do you pick your targets, there is such a thing as a ripeness in foreign policy. There are ample number of frozen conflicts, and some of them because of the nature of the leadership, because of the dynamics of the politics in the country, because of how we relate to them or they perceive us – there are all kinds of dynamics that go into the judgment – they’re just not ripe. You can’t move it. But others are moving partly because their populations are demanding change, because they’re all connected to the world all the time nowadays – everybody, 24/7/365; there’s no escape. And so some places ripen on their own and you can get a sense of whether or not the leadership is prepared to make tough choices to do things.

In the case of Iran, I made that judgment when I was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee after visiting Oman and the region and talking with people and getting a sense of what might be possible. And I thought it was worth the exploration, and we pursued it – I pursued it almost for four years, not for the two years that we were actually in the negotiations, because we had to figure out whether we could get to negotiations. And that was tricky.

But right now, we’re actually focused on a number of other conflicts. We’re very focused on Syria, and we can talk about that a bit with the Russians and everything; very focused on Cyprus, where there may be some possibilities in terms of this ripeness – maybe, I emphasize – and obviously trying to push certain things into a place of ripeness, like North Korea, which is extremely dangerous, very complicated, not ripe, but clearly China has an enormous ability to help ripen it. And we’re trying to encourage those kinds of choices. So it’s a big, big world, very complex, and I’m open to touching on any of these issues.

MR ALLISON: And I think that you – since you don’t seem to sleep, you’re prepared to take them all on, but the ripeness proposition at least helps one see where you’re making judgments that this one is appropriate for such intense involvement because --

SECRETARY KERRY: But I might add --

MR ALLISON: -- you look at the number of hours you devoted both to the Iranian case and earlier to Israel-Palestine, they are huge, huge. And in fact, I know – I mean, I’m – from the sidelines I listen to the kind of people who say, “No, give it up, this is not going anywhere.” Let’s --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to give either of those up for a couple reasons.

MR ALLISON: You – then your answer is no, no, no.

SECRETARY KERRY: No, it is no, and for a lot of reasons. Syria is a – Syria is not – it may or may not be ripe, I guess, is the way to phrase it. But it’s imperative. It is a human catastrophe, a disaster that screams at all of us in public life to exercise responsibility in trying to find a solution. And now it presents a series of very dangerous possibilities. If the Russian move is, in fact, as well as perceived to be for the purpose of shoring up Assad and prolonging his tenure, then it could actually wind up destroying Syria, for the simple reason that Assad has proven himself to be the principal magnet for all foreign fighters coming to Syria. And unfortunately, given the sectarian nature of both the region and that country and this conflict, it has the potential to exacerbate and perhaps even explode a Sunni-Shia conflagration, which would just be destructive to the entire region beyond belief.

And already we see the impact of the refugees leaving and going to Europe. There are 12 million people displaced, 4 million in various camps, about 2 million in Jordan having a profound impact on the life of Jordan which is already fragile, and by the way critical to the stability of Israel and to the long-term capacity for peace in the region. It has a profound negative impact on Lebanon, where you have about a million-plus who are not in refugee camps but wandering around inside of Lebanon and in the Bekaa Valley on the border. And then you have about 2 million in Turkey, where it’s having a profound impact on Turkey, which already faces a number of other challenges. So that destabilization coupled with the rest of it is dangerous to everybody, folks.

And for all of you who sit in the United States – and there are plenty of people in plenty of states who do this – and say, well, I don’t have anything to do with that, how does that affect me, I don’t need to worry about it – you’re dead wrong, because if it does explode, we will inherit that. You – all of you – will inherit that and we may need to send young Americans, men and women, to the region in order to make up for what is happening as a consequence of not having done things adequately to be able to solve it otherwise, because ISIL is committed, absolutely committed, to attack people outside of the region. We know this to a fact. And by the way, any group of people who are publicly cutting off heads and shooting people in the back of the head and taking a professor who’s trying to protect antiquities and save history in Palmyra and who are licensing rape not as a matter of war but as a matter of daily life, those people need to be challenged by civility and decency from the world.

And that’s what we need to understand here, and we’re trying to do that in a way that doesn’t embroil us in a larger war and once again go through a routine of young Americans being on the ground in a Middle Eastern or other country in the region with a predominant Muslim population and fighting yet again. So we’ve been very careful and tried to do this in ways that we hoped would marshal the people who themselves oppose these activities in order to do it.

Now, it hasn’t panned out as well as some people had thought, so we are rethinking and retooling a bunch of different options. The President has already made additional choices. And if Russia were to legitimately commit that it wants to do ISIL and not preserve the Assad regime, but is rather committed to the political settlement that was embraced in the Geneva communique of two years ago, then there’s a chance we really could take on ISIL and save Syria and provide the political solution, which is the only legitimate outcome for Syria.

So a lot hangs on sort of what their notion is of this. We’re pretty clear. We want a unified secular Syria which protects all minorities, in which the people of Syria have the right to decide who their leadership is in the future, and we are prepared to enter into a negotiation along the lines of Geneva tomorrow if Assad and the Russians are really serious about a political solution. And that could open the door to the possibility of the solution with ISIL simultaneously, which would have a profound impact on Iraq as well as Syria, but also the tentacles that ISIL has now spread to Libya, to Afghanistan, to Yemen, to many other places in the world.

MR ALLISON: So I think I can now figure out what’s next most likely going to get the Kerry treatment. We were talking about Syria today when your wing woman, I think she’s sometimes called – Wendy – and we were working through the options on Syria and mainly concluded that at Harvard we do not know the answer. But let me turn to Wendy and see if she wants to make a comment or a question.

MS SHERMAN: What I think I’ll do in the interest of time, Graham, which will disappoint you but makes more sense, is let some others ask questions. I –

MR ALLISON: Please (inaudible). For the rest of us that know that you’re here and here every day (inaudible).

MS SHERMAN: Thanks. I’ll say two things. One, Graham, you captured the Secretary of State. There is no one that I know who is more willing to try to solve nearly impossible problems than John Kerry. And those who believe at times that he wears rose-colored glasses, I can assure you he does not. He sees the world incredibly clearly. And if there is a message to the young leaders here who are aspiring to be secretary of state someday or under secretary of state, that kind of not just perseverance but persistence with a value base that goes under it, is absolutely crucial, and we should all be grateful for that leadership. I certainly am.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Can I take great liberty sitting up here and play off of her question for a minute? Because I’d like to – I really want to address sort of rose-colored glasses or lack of reality.

We are living in an extraordinarily complex world today. I mean, almost cliché and trite to say that, but you have to kind of hammer it home again and again. The world that I grew up in was a world of bipolar – basically East-West, Soviet Union-United States, communism and the alliances – and it was greatly defined by the Cold War. And it was much simpler in many regards. The forces that were unleashed with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1990s are really what we’re seeing play out today. Much of that was tampened down by dictators – Tito, Yugoslavia, and so forth.

And today you have so many changes in the world. I mean, I was on the Communications Subcommittee of the Commerce Committee of the United States Senate when we wrote the communications legislation of the telephone – of 1996, I guess it was. And the internet had been around for a couple years, starting to germinate and get some energy. But we sat there in the United States Senate and we dealt with telephony, not data transformation and data movement and control. Within two years the bill was completely obsolete, to tell you how fast things were moving. And the changes that came along with that are now a world that is completely connected, very ambitious, extraordinarily jealous of what other people have and are able to access. And the politics everywhere have changed as a consequence of that.

So then you look at a world, particularly in northern Africa, in the Arabian Peninsula, in the Middle East, in South Central Asia and parts of Asia, where you have 60 to 65 percent of a country under the age of 35 or 30 in some cases; 50 percent under the age of 21. And they almost certainly today have bad governance in many cases, if not outright corruption in too many places. One of my – one of the shocks that I’ve had as Secretary of State, even though I traveled greatly as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is the levels of corruption are just stunning in various places. And it’s stealing the future from citizens – billions of dollars by oligarchs that are being sent out to various banking systems that rob the future of a country. So young people – these young people are being bypassed for an education, being bypassed for jobs.

And it’s a pretty simple equation, folks. If you don’t want to lose them or even sort of hand them over to the folks who will fill the vacuum, who have a mission that is so distorted and dangerous but who won’t hesitate to strap a suicide vest around one of those kids that they can steal from that potential – for that possible future and send them into a mosque or send them into a meeting or send them into a peace rally in Turkey the other day and blow the place up – this is the challenge. I think it’s the challenge of – violent extremist, religious radical extremism, is the challenge of our generation, of all of us together. And we’re going to have to do a lot more to help countries to help themselves. Now, that became a bad word in the 1980s and ’90s in America – nation building. It’s still a bad word probably in a lot of places.

But I got news for you. If we don’t do a better job of taking our values and our interests and marrying them and engaging with the rest of the world to give greater capacity to international multilateral efforts, it’s going to come back to haunt people. And so I’m very clear about sort of where we are. If you support a two-state – I’ll bet – how many people in this room support a two-state solution in Israel? Raise your hands. A lot of hands. Some hands are not being raised. How many of you support – don’t support a two-state solution? Well, you just didn’t vote. You’re opting out. (Laughter.) You’re not allowed to opt out. You cannot go to Harvard and opt out, okay? (Laughter.) Not allowed.


SECRETARY KERRY: So here’s the deal. What’s happening is that unless we get going, a two-state solution could conceivably be stolen from everybody. And there’s been a massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years. Now you have this violence because there’s a frustration that is growing, and a frustration among Israelis who don’t see any movement. So I look at that and I say if that did explode – and I pray and hope it won’t and I think there are options to prevent that – but we would inevitably be – at some point we’re going to have to be engaged in working through those kinds of difficulties. So better to try to find the ways to deal with it before that happens than later.

And I think you know what always perplexes me is, I mean, we’ve been through Oslo, Wye Plantation, Madrid, countless negotiations. Most people I talk to have a pretty damn good sense of exactly what has to be done and where it goes. It’s a question of making the judgments and having courage to go there. And so we’re not finished. We have another 16 months in this Administration, and I can assure you we’re going to stay engaged and continue to try to work through these issues, because there are options and there’s a better other side of the current conflict that we’re witnessing.

MR ALLISON: Thank you. Let me turn to Meghan O’Sullivan and see if she wants to ask a question. Maybe you can do that. And stand up, Meghan, so everybody can see.

QUESTION: Good evening.

SECRETARY KERRY: He doesn’t give orders, does he? He’s just very – (laughter) --


SECRETARY KERRY: -- easy-going.

QUESTION: Thank you, Secretary Kerry, for coming to speak with us this evening. For decades, our dependence on external energy has been a driver of American foreign policy. But even in the time – just the time that you’ve been Secretary of State, the last few years, something dramatic has happened. We’ve moved from being vulnerable on energy to actually seeing energy as an asset, with our dependence on external energy going way down. I’m wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about how our greater self-sufficiency in energy, oil in particular, how that has influenced your diplomacy. Has it changed the tenor of your conversations in the Middle East? Has it created new possibilities? Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: For sure, of course, it’s created incredible new possibilities. Look, I think – first of all, quick background. I started working on climate and environmental degradation coming from energy when I was lieutenant governor of this state. And I had the privilege of serving as the chair of a governors task force at that period of time, and we wrote what became the Clean Air Act Amendment that dealt with acid rain. We actually took it from the governors and I passed it when I was in the Senate. And we dealt with acid rain in a way that we couldn’t deal with CO2 today, regrettably.

But what I learned – and through the years, I went to Rio in 1992 at the first Earth Summit. I went to – there were almost – most of the major conference of the parties since then. I was in The Hague and Buenos Aires, in Kyoto, and in Denmark in Copenhagen when it failed miserably to produce what we needed, which is why we’re so focused on Paris. And when I first became Secretary of State in February of 2013, I had a media trip abroad and one of the first places I went was to Asia and to China. And I knew from the experience of having been through what we went through in Copenhagen that we were fighting China. China was on the wrong side of the whole deal, leading the G77 to oppose – the less developed countries were opposed to the idea they had to be part of the solution.

And so I knew that in China from my previous trips there was a massive movement growing of people who were dissatisfied with their lifestyle, with the quality of their life, the air they’re breathing and so forth. And so I negotiated with the Chinese and we agreed to create a working group that would try to see if we could come to full agreement on how we would mutually announce our intended national reductions in emissions. And low and behold, a year later we consummated that agreement with China, and President Xi and President Obama stood up in Beijing and announced a joint effort for our commitment to Paris, and it has made all the difference. It resulted in our getting an agreement in Lima, Peru this year – this last year that has empowered us to go into Paris with some momentum, and China is working with us – genuinely committed and working with us in this effort.

So what happened is they saw what our technology – to come back to your question directly, they saw that American technology and innovation was creating our ability to actually have turned our own energy dependence into energy independence. And we were now one of the world’s leading producers of oil and gas – came through technology. Now, we have to do a lot better than just have the technology that has changed our production. We have to complete the cycle of moving to a low-carbon, carbon-free economy over these next years, and we’re behind the eight ball in that challenge, folks.

What aggravates me so much often is the fact that we have staring us in the face the most remarkable market that we’ve ever looked at in terms of transformation and creation of jobs, and in fact, a whole bunch of plusses. I can tell you from my experience, Wendy Sherman will tell you, Graham will tell you, anybody’s who’s been in elected office, if you get one for one in the difficulty of the choice you’re making and you get one benefit for it, you’re doing pretty well. And sometimes you’re making choices where there’s not a lot of benefit and you still got to make the choice because you’ve got to do it; it’s responsible.

Climate change – the solution to climate change is energy policy. No magic, very simple. And we have already every – we haven’t developed some of them as completely as we need to, but the price is coming down on solar. We’ve had a twentyfold increase in the use of solar in the United States, threefold increase in wind in the United States, and if we start moving on hybrids and solar thermal and all kinds of other options that we have, we can get there. But we don’t have the market signal that is moving people yet as rapidly as we need to to be able to put in the new technologies and generate enough income and create the companies that will profit enough that they can survive and change the whole mix.

But it has changed what we have done so far that President Obama has put in place a Climate Action Plan, national Climate Action Plan. We can’t get anything through this Congress; therefore we have done everything we can by within the constitutional license to exercise – the President has exercised executive authority, and we are doing things with the EPA and we’ve raised truck standards and automobile standards and efficiency standards on all kinds of appliances. Building codes – we have mayors now coming in and working with us to create a movement at the grassroots that will begin to transform how people recycle, how they go to work, how they do transit, how you build your buildings, all of these things.

And if we do it and do it fast enough, the United States can be the world’s leader in these new technologies, export them, and here are the benefits: You not only live up to your environmental, generational, and some would say the scripture-required responsibility to be a caretaker of Planet Earth, but you also reduce the current level of the greatest hospitalization cause for children in the summertime in America, is environmentally induced asthma. You save billions of dollars there. You save billions on cancer-induced from particulates in the air. You also not only therefore have made your country healthier and the air you breathe cleaner, but you have millions of jobs to be created in the infrastructure that will be built as you transition to these new sources of power and into this transition. So they’re going to – we’re going to spend something like $17 trillion on new energy over the course of these next 20, 30, 40, 50 years. And it will grow, I think, significantly as we get an agreement out of Paris and as people begin to see more and more science damning the current practices that we are engaged in.

And it’s – so the answer is people are listening to us on this now because of what President Obama has done, because of our tech capacity, because of the scientists and what they have achieved in America and pointing and sort of establishing credibility on this issue. Even though we can’t get credibility out of our national political policy coming out of Congress, we are getting credibility out of our private sector and out of the choices the President of the United States is making to move in that direction. And that is changing attitudes around the world as we head into Paris, but still not enough. We’re going to need an unbelievable grassroots movement to be able to do this fast enough to not just prevent but even to mitigate sufficiently the current level of transformation taking place.

MR ALLISION: So if I can be permitted a small ad, I will say that there’s a very good book on this topic that was written by John and his wife, Teresa, so this is a topic he’s been deep into for a very large part of his life.

Dan Schrag is now running our science, technology, and public policy activity at the Belfer Center, succeeding John Holdren --

SECRETARY KERRY: This is fixed for the faculty, folks. We got to get out to the --

MR ALLISION: Then last comment on climate. Go ahead, quickly.

QUESTION: Secretary – Mr. Secretary, I want to just – as a climate scientist, I want to follow up on what you just said and drill down a little on the question Meghan asked. I see a connection between many of the different strands you’ve spoken about between Syria, Iran, Ukraine, and climate. And that connection is the price of oil. No question what Meghan said is true – the increased production has been extraordinary, but it was really – that’s been going on for a while in the U.S. It’s really only a year ago that the price of oil collapsed. And now $60 a barrel is off the table for Russia, for Iran, for Saudi Arabia, not to mention Venezuela and many of our other complicated relationships.

Do you see a connection in terms of sustaining – clearly, maintaining a low price of oil right now seems geopolitically attractive to us in terms of putting pressure on Russia and in terms of putting pressure on Iran. Do you think that coming – going forward we also consume almost quarter of the world’s oil – some of those efficiency standards that President Obama passed in the first term of his Administration, how important are those going to be in maintaining that low price going forward and actually thinking about this in terms of the geopolitical pressure on Russia and Iran and other countries in the Middle East? It seems like that low price of oil is a game changer. Do you agree?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s a game changer, but it’s a game changer in several – in both directions, unfortunately, in the following sense – because the price of oil has come down, people who were contemplating an earlier shift are now sort of economically driven to continue to use the oil they were using and buy it at its lower rate. So it’s the wrong consumption signal.

On the other hand, it has had a profound impact on the budgets and choices of countries that have been creating some problems.

I mean, Russia, obviously, and their economy is, coupled with the sanctions, has been hurt. Now, we do not take pleasure in that. We’re not looking to hurt the Russian people. I’ve said that directly to President Putin and to Foreign Minister Lavrov. We are trying to, obviously, elicit a shift of choices with respect to Ukraine, and I think we may in the next months prove whether or not we’ve been able to do that adequately. If the Minsk agreement can continue to be implemented as we are seeing it after the last meeting of the Normandy group in Paris where the ceasefire is holding, a lot of the heavy weapons have been moved back, things are moving, then it could change the choices with respect to sanctions ultimately.

The bottom line is that I don’t see oil changing significantly, and I don’t think most of the market folks I talk to anywhere in the near term. And who knows if even ever, depending on what happens with these other market signals and choices that people make.

Now, we’re going to be using oil for years and years to come in one fashion or another. Plastics and even drugs, other things – you know better than anybody – so it has multiple uses. But I think that over a period of time there’s going to be a shift in energy power sourcing that’s going to keep that price tampened down. And most of the people I’ve talked to, like Saudi Arabia, other producers, are already calculating their long-term plans and budgets and they’re diversifying and they’re not anticipating it’ll be a windfall for them if all of a sudden it pumped up over 60 and 75 or back to a hundred-and-something. I don’t think that’s in the near term.

MR ALLISION: Let me encourage students who want to ask a question to line up and to do microphones. And Dan, can we get back that microphone? And here’s the ground rules: introduce yourself, the question is brief, and it ends with a question mark. So this lady. Please.

QUESTION: Thank you very – hello. Thank you very much for coming today, Secretary Kerry. My name is Patty Kim and I’m a research fellow at the Belfer Center. I wanted to ask if you could speak a bit about the planned freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea. So what do we hope to accomplish? How do we expect the Chinese to react? And do we have any mechanisms in place in the case of unintended crises from the patrols?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t – look, the – 90 percent of all the products that come to the United States of America come by sea, and historically, we have spent treasure of every kind to protect the freedom of navigation, which is maritime law and international law and our right. So we reiterated today – we just finished our ministerial meeting – the defense minister and the Secretary of Defense and the foreign minister and myself met all day with the Australians here in Boston talking about, among other things, the South China Sea and elsewhere.

And we reiterated publicly this afternoon that we will fly and we will sail and we will operate in any place where international law and custom and use allows us to. We’re not going to break the law, but we will affirm the law and we will live by the law. And that means that we will not be intimidated within the South China Sea from our normal assertion of right of navigation under the normal course of business. Now, I’m not going to tell you when it might be or what – but we will not be restricted in our right to sail near some fabricated reef that is actually in international waters where we recognize our rights for freedom of navigation, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.

Now, anybody who wants to do otherwise can challenge in court of law or challenge through the Law of the Sea or whatever. We don’t – we haven’t ratified it but we live by it, and it’s presidential policy to live by the Law of the Sea. So I think we’re on strong footing and I doubt very much that any country in its right judgment would challenge that right, because we’re unbending on it, period. And we’ve made that very, very clear to all the claimants, all the claimants. And we’re not a claimant, but we’ve made it clear to everybody who is that while we assert that right we will not be used as a tool by any country to give them cover for doing one thing or another.

MR ALLISON: This gentleman, please.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, I’m Eugene Kogan. I’m the director of the American Secretaries of State Project here, where we interview former American Secretaries of State about --

SECRETARY KERRY: This doesn’t count. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Absolutely not. Absolutely not, Mr. Secretary. My question is about Russia because I grew up there. Vladimir Putin has been in the news from Ukraine to Syria. My question is: How would you assess his abilities as a negotiator, and what are your main insights from negotiating with Vladimir Putin?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to get into – I got another 16 months. (Laughter.) I expect to be talking to him sometime – and negotiating. President Putin has very, very strong ideas about the ways in which he perceives Russia to have been either wronged or threatened over the course of these last most recent years. And as you know, he famously has lamented the fall of the Soviet Union as a great geostrategic loss. I don’t want to go back into all of that except to say that you have to listen carefully to people, even people with whom you disagree. I think a very important part of diplomacy is listening and making sure you hear what’s really beneath the other person’s, leader’s complaints or perceptions, and not allowing yourself to get distracted by the daily din and screed of the 24-hour talk circuit and politics and particularly in a presidential year. You just got to have a steady sense of what’s real and what isn’t.

And I think there are some things that – there are some places where there may be some opportunities with Russia. Now, obviously, we have made our stand as clear as it can be with respect to the annexation of Crimea and the efforts they made in Ukraine, and we stand with the sovereignty of Ukraine and with the Ukrainians in fighting hard to guarantee that that sovereignty is fully restored and that there is not a meddling from outside. And we will always stand up against that, and we’ve strengthened frontline states in many different ways. We’ve done a lot of things to push back.

But we also need to be thoughtful about how Libya may have gone astray, or how Egypt became problematical in ways that weren’t intended, and so forth. And I think that there’s no room for hubris in diplomacy, it’s an invitation to disaster. And so I think we have to just keep plowing ahead very carefully. We’ve made our position very clear to Russia that we’re prepared to make arrangements so that our airplanes are not endangered in the sky and so pilots are not at risk and we’re not creating an international crisis of any kind. But at the same time, we’ve also made it clear we’re not going to stop flying. We’ve had a 60-plus nation coalition. We are only going after ISIL. We have behaved in good faith. We’re going to continue to go after ISIL. And by the way, we have done much more than meets the eye with respect – Baghdad was about to be under siege, and the President started the bombing and strikes that pushed ISIL back. And we’ve worked on the Iraqi Army that has collapsed and it’s now making movement, not to our satisfaction at a rate that we want, but 100,000 Sunni moved back into Tikrit, which had been taken over by ISIL. People don’t know that. We saved Kobani. We’ve worked with the Kurds and the entire northern Syria border with the exception of about 68 miles is now controlled by Kurds and denied to ISIS, and we believe shortly the rest of it will be too.

So there’s a steady process going on here – not as fast as we would like, but I believe that there are possibilities even with President Putin’s choices in Russia. As I said earlier, the right choices, we could make – perhaps turn this into something more constructive. So I’m going to refrain from giving a grade on his – it’s incomplete for him and for me. (Laughter.)

MR ALLISON: This gentleman, please.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Secretary Kerry, Ihab Asman, a mid-career student at HKS here.

SECRETARY KERRY: You’re a what?

QUESTION: A mid-career --

SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, I thought you said you were a career student. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I am. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Maybe it’s one and the same. I don’t know. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yes, that’s fine, thank you for being here tonight. I’m from Sudan, and it seems with all the interesting things that are happening around the Middle East and North Africa and the Sahara region, the United States has gone soft on Bashir and – Mr. Bashir and his regime in Khartoum, and with the disintegration that’s happening in South Sudan. I understand Sudan might not be that high on the priority list with Syria and everywhere else, but has the United States gone soft?

SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, on the contrary. I think first of all, it is high on our priority list, believe it or not. I personally was deeply involved in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA, application and went to Sudan any number of times, worked outside of Bashir because we don’t, as you know, deal with him directly because of his Darfur activities and indictment. But I’ve worked with people around him and underneath him – the vice president, the foreign minister, the director of intelligence and others – and we helped to give birth to this very troubled nation, South Sudan – regrettably troubled today. I was there for the referendum. I actually went to a cathedral, to mass with President Kiir on the day of the celebration, and it was quite remarkable.

It is a tragedy what has happened. And I just met last week in Washington with former Vice President Riek Machar, who is one of the protagonists against Kiir, and others who have come together in this so-called unity government to try to get the application of the agreement which we helped very much to midwife in many ways along with Uganda and Ethiopia and others. And it’s deeply troubling to us, and I met as recently as a couple of weeks ago in New York with the new foreign minister from – Foreign Minister Ghandour, and we talked very specifically about what needs to happen in the two areas, in Blue Nile and South Kordofan, and in Darfur in order to perhaps open up a new channel to talk about how we might get them off the terrorist list if they deserve to be taken off it, but that we need to engage and we’re prepared to do it.

Now, we already had a track in conjunction with the South Sudan component of it previously which, regrettably, they blew up when they went after Blue Nile and South Kordofan and Darfur and just went back to the same old same old. And so it was impossible for us to continue forward. So if they’re serious this time around, there are other players in the region with whom I’ve had conversations in the GCC and elsewhere who have relationships with Sudan who I think are prepared to help us try to change that dynamic, and I would love to do it. Now, in terms of personal attention, it’s not going to get as much as it did previously, but I’m prepared to – and I’ve told them that – to engage in a way that if they’re serious could produce something. I’ve appointed a special envoy, Ambassador Don Booth, who is over there working hard at this, and we’re going to go further in trying to see if we can pull them back from the brink.

But I will tell you that sometimes, despite all your best intentions and all of the time you put into something, if the folks you’re dealing with just don’t have it in them and aren’t prepared to make the right choices, unfortunately, you just have to back off and put your effort where it can be put. But we are not in any way whatsoever – you can tell from what I’ve just relayed to you that we’re very much front and center right now in trying to see if we can get something moving and change this cycle of violence that has consumed the youngest nation on the planet and consumed an old one too, I might add, at the same time.

MR ALLISON: To this gentleman, please.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. My name is Gabe Gladstein. I’m an undergraduate at the college. You mentioned nation building earlier and you justified it in general as a concept that is like – by our values and in our interests. I’m wondering how you respond to critics who say that while it’s fine and good for the United States to attempt to sort of import its values and its forms of government into struggling nations, the end product is sort of unnatural, forced, maybe even imperialist, as some might say our actions are, and that what you end up with is a product that shows our work but is not naturally of the nation that really needed the work in the first place and thus that the product itself is weak and --

SECRETARY KERRY: Sure. Well, look, it’s a very good question. There are legitimate criticisms, obviously, of some developmental policies in some places where countries have tried to engage with and change and help other countries to develop, to emerge. But we’ve learned a lot in the last 50 years. I mean, we really have – 70 years since World War II. We have learned a lot. And we don’t run around shoving our idea on other countries anymore. We work very intimately with other nations. Development has become a much more sophisticated science and art at the same time, and we’re much more effective. We have the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which I chair, which we have very tough standards about whether or not we will engage in a grant to a particular country and what their standards are and what their transparency is, their accountability, their levels of corruption, their democracy, all these kinds of things.

And in other places, we apply a whole different set of standards where you have to engage with a country because the country is not ready for all those standards yet, but it would be inhuman not to try to help them prevent the next generation from being AIDS-ridden. We are on the brink in Africa of having the first AIDS-free generation of children because of what we’ve done with what became PEPFAR, the president’s program, which began, frankly, in the United States Senate in the 1990s with Jesse Helms voting for it and a unanimous United States Senate getting something done that began to change life for people.

That’s – I am always incredulous when I confront people in some parts of the country who claim one form or another religious rectitude and then refuse to do anything for other people who are in need in another part of the world. We spend one penny – the United States of America – everything we do in foreign policy, our entire budget for USAID – the development program – our diplomacy, our consulates, all of our diplomats around the world, everything we do is one penny on the dollar. People don’t know that. When you go out and ask people – I used to ask people when I was running for president, I said, “What do you think we spend on foreign – in our foreign aid?” “Oh, 50 percent, 100 percent, or whatever.” (Laughter.) It was crazy. We – one penny, folks. The United States of America, our values, we can afford one penny. I think we can afford more, personally, but we can at least afford that.

And right now – I’m not in politics right now, I’m being careful by and large – but we are behaving like a poor country when we’re the richest country on the face of the planet. And believe me, it is really hard to walk into some country and tell their prime minister or their finance minister, “Hey, you’ve got to worry about your budget,” when we can’t even pass one here in the United States Congress. So we need to get our act together and get it together fast. (Applause.)

MR ALLISON: I’m almost tempted to jump in with a question, but I’ll save it. This lady, yes.

QUESTION: Hi, Secretary Kerry.


QUESTION: Thank you so much for coming tonight. It’s an honor for us to be here with you. My name’s Hapi Yei and I am a senior in college currently taking a course with Professor Allison on American national security.

SECRETARY KERRY: So what are you going to do when you graduate?

QUESTION: I’ll figure it out. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m sure you will, actually. (Laughter.) Okay.

QUESTION: So one of our assignment is to think about what should we do with Iran after we sign the nuclear deal. So my question for you is that do you think that we should have a greater containment or engagement strategy with Iran now after we’ve signed the deal?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think – first of all, we have to implement the deal and that is a big task and we are very, very focused on it. We’ve created an office within the State Department with a very experienced ambassador and a group of folks who will day to day be keeping track of what we need to do to make sure the implementation takes place.

But I’m – I’m sure Wendy will join me in saying to you I’m very optimistic about the implementation because people forget we have lived for two years now with the interim agreement in which they rolled back their stockpile and rolled back their enrichment and reduced the number of centrifuges and so forth. People aren’t aware of that. So we already have two years under our belt, and that will be added onto by this agreement which has 10-year components, it has 15-year components, it has 20-year components, it has 25-year components, it has lifetime components, and will be implemented because we have an imperative to keep faith with what we have said to our friends and allies in the region and to the Congress and to ourselves in our own security. So it’ll be implemented; I’m confident of that. Or if it isn’t implemented, Iran will be held accountable appropriately.

Now, what should we do in the context of Iran? Well, the ayatollah has announced that he doesn’t want to engage in further negotiation with us at this point in time. I don’t know whether that’s a pure prohibition or not yet. President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif have indicated they would – they could see some ways in which Iran could be helpful to some of the issues in the region – in Syria, for instance, in Yemen, and elsewhere.

But we’ve made it very clear, and we’ve made it clear in the four corners of this agreement itself because we continued a prohibition on arms trafficking and we continued a prohibition on certain missile activities, and we have UN resolutions that exist outside of this agreement that prohibit those activities. So we will enforce those. I mean, we need to make certain that Iran is not choosing to destabilize countries in the region and to threaten other people. If they choose not to, then there’s an opportunity to be able to find some kind of pathway going forward, but all of that is unclear at this point in time. And our principal focus right now is not on looking for some next engagement with respect to Iran; it’s making sure that the one that we’ve just completed works absolutely as set forth, and I think that can build its own level of trust and of other possibilities as we go down the road. That’s basically where we are.

MR ALLISON: We’re coming close to the end, so let’s try to do short questions and short answers. This gentleman, please.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. My name’s Jonathan Schmidt. I’m an active U.S. Army officer and a graduate student at the Kennedy School. My question is in regards to unity of efforts between Department of State and the U.S. military. Recently, senior U.S. military leadership testified that Russia is the number one U.S. security threat. Do you agree with this? And if so, what vital national interests do you feel Russia threatens? And if you disagree, what do you feel from a diplomatic lens is the number one threat to U.S. national security?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I had – before I answer that, let me just add one more thing to the answer on Iran. I mentioned today at the press conference we had, the Americans being held by Iran, and one of the first things we need in order to contemplate whatever it might be in the future is the return of those Americans to their homes and to our country. And we’ve made that very clear to Iran, and we continue to raise that in any meeting we ever have with them, and we’re trying to get them back.

Now, with respect to Russia and number one threat, I’ve had a conversation with the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford, who I have just enormous respect for – a South Boston guy. (Laughter.) And I understand the context within with he said that because he was talking in terms of who could do us damage – nuclear weapons, if you went to war, et cetera, et cetera. He was not talking about the prospect of them actually threatening us in that way right now or as in an active way, so it’s a passive existing level of threat that is real because they have enormous number of nuclear weapons. We have been working at reducing those under the START treaty and we’re getting down from some 50,000 warheads that used to be pointed at each other – and Graham’s been a key part of all of this, and Wendy and myself and others have worked on it. I helped ratify or led the effort to ratify the START treaty in the Senate a few years ago, and that takes us down around 1,500. And we want to go further. We think we can go further. But we don’t have – talk about ripeness, that’s not one that’s ripe at this moment in time. But we’re still pushing for it and talking about it.

So I don’t see Russia as – my – if you said to me, and you are – you’re sort of saying it to me – (laughter) – what’s the number one threat at this point in time, I’ve described it to you. I think it is this chaos that is coming at us that is promoted by radical religious extremism, extremism in a number of forms that is willing to blow up anything to make a point without offering any viable, rational alternative of life or organizing principle for a society instead of it. And I think these millions of young people who are being exposed to this radicalism and who don’t have an opportunity in too many countries where there is a closed society, where the oligarchs run it or where there’s just no opportunity, that’s going to bring a level of conflict and potential danger to people that will reach way beyond the borders of those particular places. And that concerns me enormously, and I think that is a much more immediate threat than the notion that Russia, which all the time it was the Soviet Union didn’t decide to go to war with us openly and I don’t think is about to today, though we have to watch carefully where they might present a particular conflict like Syria that could spin out of control or do something accidentally, and there we have to be particularly cautious and concerned.

But the threat I just described for my money, I’m telling you is just gigantic – putting these societies back together where they have – either they are failing states or they are failed states. And by the way, this is a difficult observation to make because it could be misinterpreted sometimes. What is happening today is scary to people. It’s completely unacceptable by any standard whatsoever. But the last century saw far more violence and far more people dying on a regular basis in state-on-state actions, and what we are witnessing today, frightening as it is and disturbing, deeply disturbing, depraved, and horrendous and evil as it is, is non-state actors on states or on individuals and NGOs and so forth. That’s a different animal, and we all are struggling – not – struggling is the wrong word. We’re all working incredibly hard to find the new ways in which we are going to be able to galvanize people to understand it and to actually take action and push back against it.

MR ALLISON: So unfortunately, your staff is saying you have to go shortly. This gentleman gets the last question. A short question, please, sir.

QUESTION: Merci beaucoup, Senator Kerry. I’m originally from Gabon. I’m currently a medical student as well as a student in public health. When one attempts to bring development to their country and their homeland, they found, as you mentioned, corruption and they found certain governments that are very difficult to work with. What are some more rigorous ways United States can stand behind the youth that you mentioned that is being robbed of their future while continue to maintain to deal with those – with people and the governments that are more and more daily putting forward regimes that continue to stay long and (inaudible)?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, thank you for the question. And the President, President Obama, has started a Young Asian Leaders, Young African Leaders Initiative. We are bringing young leaders to Washington and working with them in their countries in efforts to try to empower people to be able to deal with this. It’s very difficult.

I mean, one of the things that I am in awe of, frankly, is the courage of individuals all around the world who fight injustice and fight stacked odds in countries, whether it’s Gabon – there have been countless countries where they will make an individual act of civil disobedience or an individual act of expression in order to fight for freedom and for rights and so forth. And nobody ever knows – in many cases, you never know their names. They disappear into a gulag, into a prison. They may be killed. They stay there for years. They’re let out, they’re “re-educated,” quote, in various countries where that has taken place. But they keep doing it. And we all ought to be in awe of that. In the United States of America, where we pride ourselves for our rightful sense of identity and of our history and of our capacity, I mean, we stood up.

One of the things I’m proudest of, I’m a creature of the 1960s into the ’70s, graduated in 1966, sort of the end of the old Yale, if you will – and Harvard too, mind you – and the beginning of a new era in college. I mean, so many things changed. And I think that we took part in some of those fights here – the Civil Rights Movement. I can remember going out and organizing, raising money to get buses that went down south for the Mississippi voter registration drive and working for the environment movement, the women’s movement, peace movement – all of these things that consumed the late 1960s and then into the ’70s.

And a lot of things changed – not enough, not everything, but there are places where people do that and try to do that, and they don’t have any outlet, no free media that watches what they’re doing, no ability – no internet by which they can – they’re just courageous and determined. And so we need to continue to stay focused on that. We have a very proud and active human rights bureau in the State Department. We put out a report every year on human trafficking, on human rights. We try to hold countries and people accountable, and we hold ourselves accountable too, by the way, because we’ve seen our own imperfections. But we need to help those people to empower them.

Now, I know sometimes the old Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill and so forth. Sometimes it looks daunting and you think you’re not making it. I’m not in that school. I believe we are making progress. And I think it is the fact of these fights in various places, it is people who do stand up, and then they repeat it and they stand up again. And it doesn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen overnight here either, by the way. I mean, we’re still working at making our voting booths work properly and still working at making sure people who register can vote, by the way. And we are still working at interpreting the Commerce Clause or this, that, whatever, as we continue down this march towards full democracy. And lots of other people are at the beginning of that, but they’re at the beginning. They’re there. They’re grabbing it. Tunisia, other places that – around the world where people are not deciding to run again and they’re turning – Nigeria, for instance, where Goodluck Jonathan decided not to, and bought the results of the election, and we had a peaceful transfer of power.

So I’m in the school that when you look at health advances, you look at technology advances, you look at what we’re building in capacity in various countries, you look at the movement of goods, the creation of middle classes in country after country, we’re on a march to transformation, folks, and you all are going to be part of it. And it’s very exciting and there’s so much yet to come in that context, and it will have its moments of real horrible downer and conflict like what we’re witnessing with ISIL, but we’re going to – ultimately ISIL has no long-term future. And it may take us a while to get there, but we will get there. And believe me, I’ve never seen a movement survive where every country surrounding it hates it and is opposed to it and is committed to its end. So hang in there. Don’t – look on it as opportunity, not setback. And while there will be setbacks, I’m really convinced that this is a very, very exciting time, very constructive time in many regards, and there are great accomplishments yet to be secured and achieved.

Thank you all for the privilege of being with you. Thank you. (Applause.)


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham. “Belfer Center Conversation with Secretary of State John Kerry.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, October 14, 2015.