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

John Kerry on Tackling Today’s Challenges

| Nov. 28, 2018

In “A Conversation with John Kerry” at the JFK Jr. Forum Tuesday, the former Secretary of State spoke about today’s challenges and the importance of actively tackling them and finding solutions.

Following are video highlights, photos, the full video, and a transcript of Secretary Kerry’s evening at Harvard Kennedy School, co-sponsored by the Institute of Politics and the Belfer Center’s American Secretaries of State Program.

Event Highlights Video

Photo Gallery

Photos by Martha Stewart


Full Event Video

Event Transcript

MARK D. GEARAN:   Well good evening, ladies and gentlemen, a great crowd here. Welcome to the Institute of Politics to the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Forum. We are thrilled to have tonight’s honored guest, the 68th Secretary of State, John Kerry here. He is no stranger to the Kennedy School or the Institute of Politics Forum, having been here six or seven times, going back to 1982, when there was a Lieutenant Governor debate here. So we warmly welcome him back for a conversation with our Institute of Politics Fall Fellows, who will give a perspective in their questions from their own journey.

Congressman Joseph Heck from Nevada, Amy Dacey, who was the CEO of the DNC and Executive Director of Emily’s List. She also was on then-Senator Kerry’s Presidential campaign, having run 30 states for the campaign was his traveling political director. Brittany Packman, Vice-President of Teach for America, who’s a national activist, and then around policing issues, served on President Obama’s National Taskforce. And Margaret Talev, who is a White House Bloomberg correspondent and past President of the White House Correspondents’ Association.

So through them and your questions, we will engage Secretary Kerry. So join me in welcoming him back to Harvard, back to the Kennedy School, into the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Forum. Secretary John Kerry.


Great to have you here. Thank you. Welcome back.

JOHN KERRY:   Thank you. Thank you. I'm happy to be back. I'm delighted to be here. But after 28 years in the United States Senate, I'm delighted to be anywhere. [laughter] Don’t take it personally. Are you okay? 

MARK D. GEARAN:   So we were engaged a little bit earlier, before you came down. Of course Secretary Kerry is a graduate of Yale College. [laughter] Did you go to Fenway, Mr. Secretary, to the game? 

JOHN KERRY:  I did, I did. [laughter] It’s like the beginning of this conversation with my losing the Presidency. [laughter] 

MARK D. GEARAN:   I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do that.

JOHN KERRY:  Jesus, I thought you were still part of the fold, Mark. It dissipates quickly, folks, I want you to know. 

MARK D. GEARAN:   A graduate of Yale, Boston College Law School, distinguished public service. For those of us from Massachusetts, having been a prosecutor, having been Lieutenant Governor, five terms in the Senate for Massachusetts, and of course Secretary of State. So he brings a lifetime, quite literally, of public service. His recent memoir Every Day is Extra has been well reviewed. And I would personally recommend it to everyone. It’s a very thoughtful representation of his life of consequence and life of true service, something we value here at the Kennedy School. 

So you’ve been here in the past. We have some, I think, photos of your past engagement here. I think it’s about—There you are in 1992 somewhere as Secretary.

JOHN KERRY:  Good hair. [laughter] 

MARK D. GEARAN:   And going back. But we want to jump into the conversation. But I've asked our Fellows here to engage in conversation with you. Because in full disclosure, Lieutenant Governor Kerry hired me as Director of Federal-State Relations. So I bring to this conversation a perspective from having worked with you and for you and respecting your public service. But our colleagues on the stage also can unpack parts that became very evident to me in your memoir. 

Decorated service in Vietnam, returning to the United States as an activist in leading efforts against the Vietnam War. Service in both the military and public service, at the state and federal level, as Dr. Heck has. Engaged in partisan politics, obviously, and political party leader and Presidential candidate. Amy’s service on your campaign, and directing the DNC. And, as our top diplomat, charged with representing the United States and communicating American interests abroad, Margaret’s perspective will be well placed. 

So we have some time at the beginning for conversation with our Fellows. Then we open up, as is our tradition here, to questions from the audience. So we’re delighted. So let me begin, Mr. Secretary, if I could. In your book, what came across to me was it really was your observations, pretty candid ones, about the troubles, about the challenges that our country faces, from climate change, back to your service as Lieutenant Governor, when you were beating the drum on acid rain, to the primacy that you placed for climate change as Secretary of State, to cyber issues. It seems like, in your book, you were laying out a prescription or a frame for some of the issues of our time. 

So, to open our conversation, I would like your reflections on those issues and some of the things that call out to you in ways that concern you, that motivate you, that depress or encourage you on the world and the domestic stage.

JOHN KERRY:  Well Mark, thank you. First of all, thank you all. It really is a privilege to be here. And I'm delighted to see so many of you here, to think about our country, and to talk about where we are today. And I want to—I'm not going to hold back, and I hope you won't. I feel as invigorated, as energized at any time in my life because of what is happening and what is not happening in our country.

And I come to the table with an activist’s heart and gut. The first thing I did, when I came back from Vietnam, was not protest the war, though I quickly did. But the first thing I did was become involved in Earth Day, 1970, in response to the inspiration of Rachel Carson and the Silent Spring. When even back then, she warned us that the way we were heading with our oceans, there was an irony in the fact that the oceans themselves, which produced human beings, and there we were, this entity that came out of the ocean, which was ruining the ocean. It’s a 1962 observation. And she said that the oceans will be here in the future. It’s just that they may be dead. And life itself may go with it. 

And I can't think of anything more, you know—I know it’s sort of boom, you know. Yeah, that’s a big thought. It happens to be real. And, when you look at the report that just came out with the Trump administration’s own experts, it underscores where we are today. So we did Earth Day, 1970. And we brought 20 million people out of their homes, mostly young people. That’s why I'm excited to be here, because every great movement in the last 70 years that I can think of, and most of it began with sort of the high level of energy, it began in our generation, as we came out of the sleepy ‘50s and Eisenhower with Jack Kennedy as President, and started to want to change things. 

My freshman year at Yale, we almost went to war with the Soviet Union over Cuba. My sophomore year I was sitting on the bench in the Harvard-Yale soccer game, having been substituted, and sitting there. And, all of a sudden, I hear a whisper in the crowd, “President’s been shot in Dallas.” And within 20 minutes, it was, “The President’s dead.” I didn’t remember who won that game, or if we even finished it, until I did the research for this book.

The next year, the Civil Rights Movement. We organized and sent buses from York Street in New Haven down to Mississippi, in order—at risk for those who went—to register people and break the back of Jim Crow in the United States. And then the final year, senior year, Lyndon Johnson said, “I want 500,000 troops to do what we have to do in Vietnam.” And we all faced the draft. And life changed. People had to consider, do you go to Canada? Do you go to jail? Do you get married? Because that was a deferment. Or do you go to grad school? Because that was another deferment, unlike our current President, who had five deferments for bone spurs on a foot he can't even remember which one was. [laughter] 

So this was a time of enormous engagement, my friends. And out of Earth Day, which was the first major movement like that, in 1970, coupled with what was happening with the Women’s Movement and the Peace Movement at that point in time, there was an energy that took hold in the 1972 election. We targeted the 12 worst votes in the United States Congress, on the environment. Labeled them “The Dirty Dozen.” And in the next election, 1972, seven of the 12 lost. They lost. I can tell you, after five terms in the Senate, there is nothing like colleagues around you losing to stiffen the spines of the survivors. And that’s what happened.

So we passed the Clean Air Act, safe drinking water, marine mammal protection, coastal zone management. And ultimately, Richard Nixon was forced to sign into law the Environmental Protection Agency. We didn’t have one, Mark, until 1972. So what's the lesson of all this? Well, it’s pretty simple. I believe that what I've written in the book is a roadmap for how we come back from where we are today. 

And I just leave you all with this thought, that you have to make meaningful issues voting issues. If you don’t make them voting issues, you don’t get the change you want. That’s what we did with the environment for the first time. Here we are with global climate change threatening us in so many different ways. And we can talk about it a bit. And I want to a little bit here. But writ large, our democracy right now is absolutely dysfunctional. It’s a disgrace. And I say that of both—I mean both parties are not making it happen, folks. 

Now I saw this change begin in 1994, and I write about it in the book with the Gingrich Revolution. You had the Contract for America, and the promise of lower taxes, less government, less regulation. Get rid of Roe v. Wade. Run all the hot button issues. They haven't changed. But what changed was, it didn’t happen. And then you had the Tea Party, and it still didn’t happen. And then you had the Freedom Caucus, and it still didn’t happen. 

And then, guess what. You had a hostile takeover of the Republican Party by Donald Trump. And obviously, it isn't happening. So globally, now, we’re facing this incredible transformation in our planet. What we’re seeing is bigger change taking place all over the world than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. The only difference is, it’s happening at digital pace. And everything is moving faster. Ideas are moving faster. Lies are moving faster. I mean as Mark Twain warned us, you know, a lie can travel halfway around the world, and this was back pre-digital age, before the truth gets its boots on. 

Same thing today. And so we have, in the digital world, you have goods moving faster, services moving faster, people moving faster. I found, as Secretary of State, everything is moving faster except for government. And it’s pretty much government everywhere. I found more failed and failing states than I ever imagined, more corruption than I ever imagined, even though I had been Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. I knew there was corruption. Prime Minister David Cameron and I—So I engaged in this counter-corruption initiative in London. And you imagine, it was extraordinary. And we had countries that were the focus of some of the corruption come to it. It was quite extraordinary. 

But the bottom-line of what I'm saying to you, I want to harp on this throughout this conversation. There's nothing permanent about the United States of America except in everybody’s head. We are an experiment. We are still an experiment. And when Ben Franklin walked down the steps of Constitution Hall after they worked late into the night to build—to write our Constitution, after months of labor through the summer, a woman shouted at him, and said, “Tell us, Dr. Franklin, what do we have? A monarchy or a republic?” And he said back to her, he shouted back to her, “A republic if you can keep it.” That’s what he said, “If you can keep it.”

So this transformation in the world—and I've only scratched the surface of some of the forces that are at large—is changing Europe, changing Italy, changing Hungary, changing the relationship between countries in Europe. We see BREXIT, a coming apart instead of a coming together. I believe that if there was strong leadership that was advocating on behalf of the world and our country at the same time, we would be fighting to hold Europe together more than this, instead of attacking NATO. We’d be fighting to put the values that we put into place after World War II, and have practiced well that brought about the greatest rise of income, greatest rise of the quality of life, greatest time of peace in ages in Europe, and people are flitting off in different directions, partly in absence of leadership. 

So bottom line, there's a lot more to say about this. But I think what I've written in this book is the journey of an American who was born in the middle of World War II, who came of age during the early 1960s, the transformation between the old music and the new music, and our age was chronicled by it. And you're all still listening to it, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles—I mean run the list. 

The transition from, you know—I like to think it’s a soundtrack for that ten-year decade, if you will, the transition from the crooners of Frank Sinatra, et al, to Buddy Holly, to Elvis, and onto the rest of it. And the rest is history. And it characterized everything we did back then. We literally went up rivers in the Mekong Delta, in the middle of a war, with Doors tapes playing on our loud speakers. What you saw in Apocalypse Now, if you’ve ever seen it, is real. That was the transition of that period of time. And it’s brought us to a moment where people have forgotten. People don’t realize the stake you have. 

Final comment on this beautiful sort of entry to the conversation that Mark has afforded me, when Donald Trump was elected in 2016, the turnout of eligible American voters was 54.2 percent. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, the turnout was 62.3 percent. When he was reelected in 2012, it was 58.9 or so, somewhere in there, 58.5 or 9. And when I ran against George Bush, it was 60.3 percent, 54.2. You know, last time before that, it was 54.2, when Al Gore lost in 2000. 

Now in this election just now, everybody’s jumping up and down. Terrific. We won 40 seats. I think it’ll be 40, if they finish the one in California, and it keeps moving the direction it is. But folks, I have to tell you, the youth vote was a 55 percent increase. And we had more Americans vote than at any time in American history, 113 million. First time we’ve ever been over 100 million. But guess what. The youth vote was still at 55 percent increase, only 32 or 3 percent. What is that about? 

And the overall vote was 49 percent. That is simply unacceptable. So what we have to start to do is begin—and I'm confident of this. This is why I'm optimistic about the future. Because I'm convinced there is a vast majority in America that shares the values, shares the vision, wants to have a multilateral engagement, wants to engage with other countries in other parts of the world, wants commonsense applied to things that scientists tell us are happening, that want to live up to the values of our nation. I'm convinced of it. 

But they’ve got to vote. And the best way we’re going to change that is now build on what we did in this midterm, and take it into 2020, in order to guarantee that we get back the possibilities of the future. And now I hope we can talk about some of them.

MARK D. GEARAN:   Awesome. That’s a great start, Secretary. Thank you. You described yourself as an activist. So let’s get Brittany into this, given her—

BRITTANY PACKNETT:  That’s me, I'm the activist. [laughter] Well, you know, I was going to start by telling you that in 2004, I was 20 years old. And you were my very first Presidential vote. But I'm afraid I'm going to get in trouble, like Mark did with that family comment. So we’re just going to move on past that.

JOHN KERRY:  You know what's scary, though, is when I did that—and I don’t think it was so long ago—most of these people were between four and ten. [laughter] That’s scary.

BRITTANY PACKNETT:  But to your question about what is happening in terms of the youth turnout, in my study group all semester, we have been talking about interrogating and redefining power. We have been talking about the ways in which we show up in the world and try to change it. And I found that so many young people are absolutely seizing their power and participating, except in more traditional realms of public service and political power. Because they often feel like the system was never built for them in the first place. 

But you were someone who was engaged in more nontraditional power as an activist, and then moved into a place of traditional power. We had this conversation about the outside versus the inside this semester. And one of the great fears that a lot of folks said in our session was that they were worried about that moment that they come to, if they’ve entered public life, if they’ve entered traditional power settings, where what is pragmatic, or what is politically expedient, will come at the expense of their values. And so I’d love for you to talk about that moment, if you had it, and how you wrestled with that, and where you came out.

JOHN KERRY:  Well, if you go to law school, you start wrestling with it pretty quickly. [laughter] It’s just a reality. Life is that way, folks. I mean there's no other way to put it. It is so important to have basic values. Believe it or not, some people don’t. And you run into them in the course of your lives, and hopefully can run away from them without great consequence negatively against you. 

And Harvard, and great education, and your parents in your life, I think, will give you—you’ll get a basis in values. I have no doubt about that. What you learn is, that there's no perfection in the balance which is most of politics. It’s certainly all of diplomacy, which is the balance between acting in your interests and acting in your values. And there's always a balance. Oil versus economy versus pretty obvious things. You have to figure out where the balance is. And those are the toughest choices in public life. 

And there's no formula for telling you, “Here’s how you're”—you're going to work it because you're going to problem-solve here, and you're going to get out in life, and you're going to find all kinds of ways in which you're going to be, you know, instructed as to how to balance it. Some people err on the side of the values, and they don’t get a lot done, always. And they don’t necessarily protect their interests. 

This is the great dilemma, and it is a dilemma. If you're guided by the right lodestar, like Nelson Mandela was, you know, comes out of jail after 27 years and hugs his jailer, and hires his jailer, and makes his jailer part of his team, works in his house, protecting him in the ensuing years. That’s a spirit that’s about as special as anything you’ll ever find anywhere. 

You have to kind of find that sort of balance in your heart, more than anything, as well as your head. And you're going to confront it in business. You're going to confront it in your family. You're going to confront it in every aspect of life. 

So that said, with respect to outside-inside, I started outside. I did a very improbable thing. I came back from a war I fought in, deeply opposed to that war. Believing—knowing that our government had lied to us about the foundation of the war, what it was about, how it was being prosecuted, every aspect of it. 

And now that’s quite documented. It’s documented by Ken Burns’ latest opus, the 18 hours on Vietnam. It’s documented by Neil Sheehan’s brilliant book, which I recommend to all of you. If you want to read the best book sort of about what the deception was and what happened, read Neil Sheehan’s Bright Shining Lie. Brilliant book. But you read McNamara’s memoirs, and he admits, “We knew the war was wrong.” He says that. “We knew the war wasn’t going to work.” And he slinked off to the—what was it—Ford Foundation or wherever and never spoke out. 

So we came back, we veterans came back. I led the march of 5,000, you know, fatigue-clad veterans to Washington. We camped on the Mall, right down from the Capitol, defied Richard Nixon who threatened to arrest us all. And we stayed for a full week, lobbying Congress, and speaking to America, to make clear the war was wrong. 

And, for a number of years, that’s all I did. I was working against the war. But I shouldn’t say that was all I did. I'm very proud of the fact that the Vietnam Veterans Against the War who have been often sort of, you know, shunned aside, in terms of—because people don’t like to deal with unpleasant periods of history—we were the ones who did everything back in that period for Vietnam veterans. We founded the Vietnam Veterans of America. I was one of the cofounders. We did everything for agent orange, to make agent orange a presumption for cancer. 

We raised the—We got Congress, we pushed people, lobbied, worked, embarrassed people into raising the fees for veterans to be able to go to school, pay for school. We had veterans who were dropping out completely, because they had lost their benefits, because the timeframe was too short. A lot of vets came back deeply upset over the war. Then they got back into life, but it was too late for them to go to school and use the GI bill. So we opened the GI bill up to people later. 

I mean there are a whole number of things we did. We started the first rap groups, working with Dr. Robert Lifton at Yale University, an eminent psychiatrist, and put together these groups where PTSD was identified, and where we began to create the psychiatric approach to it, and began to demystify what veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are now living through. 

But here is the sad story, folks. You go down and see that remarkable memorial in Washington, the granite with the etched names of the 58,600-plus who died in Vietnam, there are more names than those on that wall of those who took their own lives, or lost their lives to addiction or to just depression, loss. There are more people who died here in America afterwards, who were veterans of the war, than are on that wall. And that tells you a lot about the needs of our country to respond to people and so forth.

So that’s what motivated me. Until I realized I was spending more time going out, raising money, trying to pay the phone bills, pay a few staff people, keep the lights on, and I said, “You know, maybe it makes sense to have a federal government pay for this, or have the state government pay for this.” And then that’s when I decided, “You know, I'm tired of just raising the money. I want to spend my time, fulltime, as an advocate, making the changes from within the system.” And that’s when I decided to run for office.

So everybody will, you know, do what fits you. Not everybody is—Not everybody can make the transition from outside to inside. And not everybody can go from inside to outside and back and forth, believe me. But you know, that makes change. Alan Casey is here. Alan of City Year and all of the amazing stuff. We were talking just before we came out here, about democracy and the threat to our democracy in our country right now. It is threatened, folks. Not working. 

Go read Federalist Paper 85, Alexander Hamilton, about the need for compromise. You cannot have a government and a democracy work without compromise. But what happened in the 1990s is, these firebrands came in who said, “My way or the highway.” And today, you have people in the United States Senate who terrorize their colleagues with the threat of a primary if they don’t hew the orthodoxy of particular ideological point of view. That’s—We can't function that way. We have lost the ability in our great country to ascertain the baseline of facts on which we are going to make decisions as a government. And if you don’t have a baseline of facts, you can't begin to build the consensus you need to govern. 

My colleague Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Senator from New York, brilliant man, had a great saying, which I leave with all of you, which is, “Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. But you're not entitled to your own facts.” Not even alternative facts. [laughter] So folks, this is a battle for our nation. 

And I was recently in China a few weeks ago. I was in Europe a few weeks ago, talking to the leaders in various places. We’re very suspect right now. Leaders won't say that to Trump, and if somebody in the administration, you know, they’ll probably say, “Oh Kerry is trying to undermine us by saying that we’re suspect.” Well I'm just telling you the truth. You can read it in their newspapers. You can hear it in their comments. The fact is, that our unilateralism—I don’t know how you define yourself as the greatest negotiator in the world, and then you just pull out of things. You don’t even negotiate. You pull out of Paris. You pull out of TPP. You pull out of the Iran deal. I mean at least negotiate, try and make it better. 

I mean what I think they should have done in Iran is said to the Europeans, the Chinese, and the Russians, “Hey guys, I hate this deal. I'm going to pull out of it in a year. But I’ll stay in it a year if you’ll agree with me, you're going to work with me to deal with Yemen, deal with Hezbollah, deal with these other things.” And then you kind of create some energy in forcing people to support you and doing what you're doing. 

Today we just pull out, they all hate us for it. They're all struggling to keep the deal. 195 nations are fighting to keep Paris alive. And you know what? 38 Governors in America, 38 states in our nation have passed renewable portfolio laws. That’s the equivalent of 80 percent of the population of our nation. More than 1,000 mayors have committed to continue in the cities, every major city in America, to make sure we do our best to meet the Paris Agreement. 

So I can sit here with confidence tonight and say to you that Donald Trump may have pulled out of Paris, but the American people, and the vast majority of our government, has not pulled out of it. And we’re going to try to do our best to live up to it. So that’s how you decide sort of what's your best avenue to have an impact, outside or inside. 

And power is—I think power is distributed very differently in the world today in our country. You know, power in the last century, when you read Kissinger’s book on diplomacy, which is a brilliant book, was nation state, how nation states respond to each other and act, in terms of power, balance of power. But it’s changed today. Yes, there are big nation states that are acting badly, like Russia and Ukraine and Crimea and so forth. The only example, I think—Graham, you might correct me, but I think it’s the only example I can think of in this century, where any nation state has violated international law in that way, by crossing the borders of another country with its own Army, surreptitiously, I guess Myanmar, with the Rohinga, you have some state action. 

But the point I'm making, folks, is that this century is much more defined by non-state actors, compared to state actors, in the last century. And while far, far fewer people are dying today than died at any time of violence in the last century, the fact is, that power is much more dissipated through smart phones, through the communications, through internet. And so we’ve gone from hierarchical power to, I think, networked power. And, to a degree, Trump has been exploiting them in a relatively effective way.

So we need to think harder about how we recapture this baseline of facts. And whether you do it as an outsider like Alan for many years, that’s essential. We will not change our nation without nongovernmental organizations and outside groups and outside organizers and young people going out. 

We used to call the folks in New Hampshire who sent the message to Lyndon Johnson, “You can't run again,” when they supported Gene McCarthy, you know what? They were called the Peanut Butter and Jelly Brigade, because you had 20 people to a small apartment, living up in New Hampshire, knocking on doors every day, and getting that 44 percent or whatever it was, for Gene McCarthy. That’s how it works. Inside or outside, you got to make it happen.

MARK D. GEARAN:   Sorry. Yeah, it’s a good segue to Congressman Heck. Because while you don’t share a political party, you do share service in the Congress and the military, as a Brigadier General. 

JOSEPH HECK:  Secretary, it’s good to see you again. Thanks for being here. So myself, Director Gearen, and Alan, actually all have the honor of serving on the National Commission on Military National Public Service, which was chartered by Congress in the 17 Defense Authorization Act, and given two charges. One was to evaluate the Selective Service System in its current form, and whether it was still needed, and if things needed to be changed. And the second, and what I think is probably even more important, is how to make recommendations to increase the ethos of and propensity to serve our nation. 

So I have two questions for you. The first is, what do you think of the Selective Service System? Is it something that we still need to keep in the event of a draft contingency? And if so, what changes, i.e. do you believe women should have to register, or other changes would you commend to us? And secondly, as Mark says, your life of consequence, I have a little bit more mundane way of saying it, I think you’ve hit the service trifecta, because military service, and the three things we’re looking at—military service. You didn’t wait to be drafted. You joined the Navy. Your public service, both in elected and appointed office. And your national service, the involvement that you’ve had with NGOs throughout your career.

So you touched on your motivation to elected office. I’d like to hear your motivation to your military service and your involvement with the NGOs. And what recommendations would you make to use, in how to increase the propensity to serve, in today’s youth?

JOHN KERRY:  Great questions. Thank you very, very much. Great questions. Selective Service. We had the draft, as I mentioned to you a few minutes ago, in the 1960s, for Vietnam. And it was inequitably administered. It became a tool of the wealthy and connected and privileged. And it really divided the country in a terrible way. And frankly, hurt the military very, very significantly, ultimately, because the conscription kept reaching to a lesser standard, I guess is the only way to put it politely. And it changed the military. It changed our capacity. It changed our readiness. 

A lot of studies have been done in the Pentagon and elsewhere in the military, about what happened, and how it happened. And it was sort of those latter years of Vietnam, ’71, ’72, ’73, et cetera, until the troops came home. I, probably surprised, maybe this is antiquated, I don’t know. I haven't thought about it. I haven't spoken about it much recently. But I believe in the Selective Service, and I believe in the draft. And I believe that everybody ought to serve their nation somehow. I am not suggesting that everybody has to go into the military. And without any pejorative whatsoever, if somebody wanted to go work in a hospital for two years, if somebody wanted to work with kids in schools in the inner city, or somebody wanted to work with Youth Build, or you wanted to work outdoors, protecting the environment, there's more work to be done in our nation than you can imagine, folks.

And it doesn’t get done. We’re always behind. And with the mindset that we have in America today about resources, and allocating money to these things, it’s going to be the City Year and other people who are going to make the difference in kids’ lives. I went—in New York, I was invited by a woman named Dorothy Stoneman, to the 1992 Convention in New York. And I was invited by her to come up and see this program in Harlem. And so I went up one day, really sweltering day. I walk in, and she said, “You're going to meet these kids.” And I met 15 kids. Every one of them—well almost every one of them was a person of color. They were all kids off the street, all kids out of a diversion program, in the court system, all kids who either had been in jail or were headed towards jail, and certainly abandoned by their families. 

And one of the kids said to me, “You know, Senator, I've never heard anybody say the words ‘I love you’ in my life.” And, I mean, think about that. This kid was trying to put his life back together, and he did. Because of this program, because labor donated its skill to teach each of these kids how to rebuild a brime [?] stone in Harlem. And what the kids were doing was transforming old abandoned buildings into new housing, so they wouldn’t be crack houses, and so that they wouldn’t be places of crime. And in doing it, they were getting their high school equivalency, their GED, and gaining a skill set. 

And countless numbers of these kids in Youth Build have gone on to college and are married and have families and are productive citizens. So I took this program, I was so impressed by it, I was then Chairman of the Subcommittee on Housing, and I put it in Housing. And we funded it. And it began a long relationship of mine, for my entire 28 years in the Senate, with Dorothy Stoneman and Youth Build. And at one point, I was called “The Senator from Youth Build.” I've never been prouder of a moniker than that. Because we got it all across the country. It’s in countless states. And countless lives have been saved.

But the way I see it, because of that activist strain, I'm looking at all the ones who aren’t being served yet. If we had national service, folks, we could begin to do so much to build community and give everybody a stake in defending America. And every one of those things I just described is defending America. It’s defending society. It’s defending the future.

Now we also would gain a cross-section of people who have a stake in defending our nation at war. Enough people would decide, “You know what? I'm going to go for the military experience.” I strongly advocate to people, “Go into the military.” I didn’t like the war in Vietnam. I loved what I learned. I loved the Navy. I loved the leadership skills I learned. You learn hierarchy. You learn leadership. You learn accountability. You learn responsibility for people. You will never have the responsibility that I gained as a 25 year old kid, fresh out of commissioning, learning how to be the officer of the deck and drive a 535 foot, 500 crew ship through the ocean while you're in a convoy, and to turn wrong right, you kill people. And you have enormous responsibility. So I advocate that for people. But I think everybody should think about serving one way or the other. 

Now the second part of your question was the—

JOSEPH HECK: --your motivation.

JOHN KERRY:  --motivation. I'm the son of the greatest generation parents, born in 1943. And I write about this in my book. My mother was American from Boston, but she was living abroad, because her father was about business abroad when the war started. And she decided she needed to do something. She became a nurse immediately, trained. And she was in Paris, in Montparnasse Station the night before the Germans invaded Paris. And she learned the Germans were coming, and she and her sister and a friend escaped on bicycles across France, foraging across the country. And her home was used by the Germans as a headquarters during the war. And then, when General Patton came in to liberate, they burned and bombed the house.

My first memory as a child was holding my mother’s hand, walking through the ruins of the house, two years after the war ended, 1947. I can remember being in France, seeing a stairwell going up into the sky, a chimney going up into the sky. That was all that was left of the home. And you know, my mother was crying. And if you're a four year old and your mother’s crying, you're worried about it. So what happened? Indelible. That was my first sense of war. 

Then I played in German bunkers later on, when my father was in the Foreign Service, and being raised abroad. And I learned a lot about the war. I read a lot about it. I was fascinated by it. And fascinated by what it meant for America. You know, coming out of the sleepiness of our isolation, and coming to the rescue, if you will, and defeating fascism. The relationship—I mean I can remember what it was to be an American in Europe in 1950s. I was a kid, but everything American. People loved everything about us, for having done what we did. And those values have been somehow become murky today. People don’t have that sense of it. 

The other thing is, I've been, many times, to Normandy, to the beaches of Normandy. I went for the first time two years after that four year old experience. And I can remember seeing the detritus of the landings on the beaches still. Read—If you haven't seen it, I mean you haven't seen the movies, but you should read The Longest Day, or read Stephen Ambrose, or read the people who describe D-Day. You want to talk about sacrifice, going in in those small boats, charging that incredible fortress, bluff that beach, plowing ahead when the door dropped, and three people beside you on each side of you were dead within a nanosecond, you still have to forge ahead and go up that bluff. That’s incredible contribution to what we have here at the Kennedy School, and what we have in America. It’s an amazing gift, folks. 

And you’ve got to ask yourselves, would you do that? Would you be willing to do that, abstractly, for freedom, for liberty, for your country, for your people? That’s the kind of commitment that I came to have such awe of. And when President Kennedy was inaugurated and said, “We’ll pay any price, bear any burden. The torch has been passed,” we were all challenged and excited to think we could change the world. And that’s what brought me to public service. 

And I think it’s a tragedy, it’s a tragedy that we have what we have today. It is so antithetical to everything that leadership is supposed to be about, and that the Presidency is supposed to be about, that the United States of America is supposed to be about. And that is why every one of you has got to help us win it back.

MARK D. GEARAN:   So that’s a perfect segue, because we want to get Amy and Margaret into this before questions here. So let’s turn to politics. We've got the perfect Fellow. 

JOHN KERRY:  Politics. In the middle of all this? 

AMY DACEY:  Well I’ll give you an easy one first. Who was your favorite political staffer that’s ever worked for you? [laughter] No, we all know the answer. We won't bother to waste time on that.

MARK D. GEARAN:   Mark Geren. [laughter] 

AMY DACEY:  That’s not what he told me. [laughter] No, I will say this. It’s been incredible to be on campus this semester, because there's a lot of young people who come to me, they're looking for that politician, that elected official, to inspire them. So I want to thank you, because you’ve been that to me. And you gave me one of the most incredible experiences you can have in a lifetime. We traveled across this country together, from sea to shining sea, state to state.

JOHN KERRY:  With a lot of other people.

AMY DACEY:  With a lot of other people, yeah. [laughter]  

MARK D. GEARAN:   Things were getting so interesting. [laughter] 

AMY DACEY:  Okay, there were some other staffers there. You're right.

JOHN KERRY:  They just hash tagged me too.

AMY DACEY:  No, no, no. It’s all—You know, for the work that we were all doing together, collectively.


MARK D. GEARAN:   I think Setti Warren was getting—Where’s Setti? 

AMY DACEY:  We did meet a lot of people. And it was an incredible experience. And one of the things that stuck with me is that it was difficult, obviously, when it wasn’t the result that we wanted. But in your speech in November of 2004, you said, “In an American election, there are no losers. Because whether or not our candidates are successful, the next morning we all wake up as Americans.” And I'm wondering, with the way our politics are today, the division, do you still believe that? And do you think that we can come together as Americans? Or are we so polarized with our groups—

JOHN KERRY:  Well, I'm convinced we have to come together as Americans, but we are polarized. We’re in a very, very dangerous moment, folks. The political orthodoxy police that I talked about are antithetical to our ability to do that. But let me just say to all of you here, look. There's no mystery about what's going on. This is really not—You don’t have to get a degree in political science to understand what's happening in the country. And it’s happening, not just in our country, it’s happening around the world. 

Globalization is scary to a lot of people. It has changed life for a lot of people. And not everybody for the better. And if you digest the notion that was left with me by my history professor in college, John Morton Lum[?], who said, “All politics is a reaction to felt needs.” And if you think about that, it’s everything. It is. So what's the felt need here? Well, I've got to pay my mortgage. I got to send my kid to school. I want to grab the brass ring too. I want my kids to be able to live better than I did. I don’t want to be saddled with enormous debt so I'm spending the next ten years of my life not investing in my future and my children, but I'm just paying off, if I can. 

I mean run the list. If you go back to 2008, in the midst of this churning of globalization, you have the 2008 economic crisis. So a lot of people who had kind of bought into the theory, buying a home is the best thing you can do, and mortgage yourself and go right, all of a sudden they had a huge mortgage, but a home that was worth half of what it was when they got into it. And then they maybe were downsized. Their job got squeezed. I don’t know how many of you read Hillbilly Elegy. It’s the cry of—I hate to say it—but of the white America in the way that it’s seeing life changing. And a lot of people are blaming people for those changes in life. 

That’s historic. And this is why I think thinking about history, and thinking about what happened in Europe is so critical, for the following reason. When you have a bad economy, or a scary economy, and you have demagogues taking advantage of the fear and particularly starting to target people for religious or ethnic or racial reasons, you have what happened in Europe in 1939, folks. And it’s ugly. 

And we’re seeing shades of that arising again in various places. People being scapegoated by race, by religion and otherwise. And “them and us.” That is antithetical to everything we are as Americans. And we cannot fall prey to that. We can't become the prisoners of it. And some of our politics is imprisoned by it. 

I’ll give you an example. Immigration. We need to solve immigration. And immigration is a problem, not just here, it's a problem in Europe. Look what happened in Germany. The politics of Angela Merkel in Germany were changed by a million people being let into Germany. She overreached. And the politics of Italy have been changed dramatically because of that. But these are places where you’ve had—You know, you’ve got your alt democracy folks in Germany, you know, some of them neo-Nazis in the year 2018. And if economies take a dive, if we don’t keep moving forward and uniting ourselves around a set of multilateral principles, ugly things can happen, believe me.

So I think this is a very dangerous time in that respect. And on immigration here in America, you know, 12 million people is the public number—I think it could well be well upwards of 12 million, you know, double digit millions that are here illegally. So what happened? I mean how many administrations, republican and democrat alike, have lived with that, and bear responsibility? 

We have illegal people in the country. Now either the law does mean something or it doesn’t. Either sovereignty and nation state mean something or it doesn’t. Borders are supposed to mean something. Carry a passport. If you travel abroad, you're supposed to get a Visa. Entry into countries means something. And if that identity keeps getting ripped at a rate that people feel deeply threatened, ugly things can happen even here. And it’s up to all of us to demand—this is one of those felt needs. It’s not translating into action. And when it doesn’t translate into action, you get really bad political results. People panic. And they go, they’ll listen to the demagogue. They will respond to the wrong impulse. They’ll feel threatened in other ways. And we've got to get away from that ugliness.

Now I just, I want to put this in a larger context, because this is what I think about a lot, I really do. As Secretary of State, when I visited Northern Africa, I was with a Northern African Foreign Minister. And he—We went out to dinner, and we had a wonderful relationship, and we had a good conversation. And I turned to him, I said, “Look, you have a very large minority population. How do you manage it? Are you scared by the potential impacts of what’s happening?” And he said to me, “John, we’re terrified.” He said, “The extremists grab young kids at age 12 or 13, and they pay them a stipend, and they take them away from their family. And they proselytize to them for X number of months. And then, at the end of the time, they don’t have to pay them anymore. They’re hook, line, and sinker bought and sold. And they go out and become the next wave of recruiters.

And what he said to me is, “You know, these guys, the extremists, have a 35 year plan. We don’t even have a five year plan.” Now let me tell you, folks, we've got two billion young people, 15 years old to 28 years old on the planet. Most of them live in South Central Asia, Middle East, Northern Africa, and in Asia. 325 to 50 million of them will never go to school. They're never going to school. So there is no longer sort of just “over there.” You can't be an island state. You can't live without recognizing the connection to the rest of the world and the needs to deal with problems that way. 

And so those kids, they are our problem, too, because they threaten our security if we don’t deal with these issues. In a world of cyber, where 25 to 50 people working in a shed, somewhere in ungoverned space, can just work the internet in that shed and they have the ability to bring a nation to its heels. You don’t need another nation doing it to you. 

And final thought, there are 15-There's 1.8 billion children 15 years old and younger in the world. And they, similarly, will many of them not get to school, not have a stake in their society, not being franchised, not have any of the privileges and rights you have, or any of us have in our country. So we have to struggle with that. And I think we need a modern day, 21st century Marshall Plan. It’s obscene that we see—I mean more power to them. China is spending a trillion dollars a year touching 70 countries with one belt, one road. They're spending $500 billion dollars on building technology labs in those 70 countries that touch on the one belt, one road route. Technology and research labs.

We’re not even in the game. I rode in a train in China that goes 300 miles an hour, from Beijing to Tenjin, 300 miles an hour. Somebody put a glass of water on the table in front of me, that’s moving more than the water was at 300 miles an hour. We have the Acela, if any of you have ridden it lately. [laughter] You know, it’s kind of embarrassing, I think, that the nation that invented the internet, that has cured diseases, that has went to the moon, cannot run a train from Washington to New York that can go 155 miles an hour or more than 18 miles of the trip going over 150. It’s obscene. 

So folks, that’s the challenge. It’s so broad, it’s so big right now. And we’re not—Did you hear about that? Do you read tweets about that? Does anything instill in you a sense that Washington has an urgency of dealing with these kinds of things? Instead of having a show-and-tell summit in Singapore, where you can't even define denuclearization, and now we read in our public newspapers that they're building more weapons on a daily basis. But hey, I love Kim Jong Un. Come on. 

This is real stuff. I'm telling you, this is real stuff. And it’s going to be up to all of you to demand, through your willingness to break out of the mold, and go out there and make politics work. Now I'm excited about what happened. Both sides of the aisle, exciting people ran for office. Veterans, women, unbelievable numbers of qualified people. And that’s our best shot, folks. This is the biggest new class in Congress since the Watergate Class of 1974. And that’s the way we’re going to reclaim your future, our future for the country, is by being active.

MARK D. GEARAN:   They will be here next week, for the newly elected members of Congress program we run here. So I want to get Margaret’s last question, and then we’ll go to the audience.

MARGARET TALEV:  Thank you, Mark. Mr. Secretary, I do have a foreign policy question. I want to ask you about two slightly different policies in this administration than in the last, to do with Saudi Arabia and Iran. But I would be really delinquent and negligent on behalf of everyone in the audience if I didn’t ask you the obvious low-hanging fruit question, also, which is, you have a book out. It’s a beautiful opening. I was revered by it. It’s a fascinating read. But it also comes out a few months before people’s Presidential campaigns heat up.

So are you or aren’t you? And when will we know? And what are you thinking about? Are you a candidate for 2020?

JOHN KERRY:  I'm thinking about how the hell to get out from under that question fast. [laughter] That’s what I'm thinking about. I really am. You know, I said I'm not going to eliminate. I'm not taking anything off the table. But I'm not sitting around. I haven't been running around to the most obvious states, laying any groundwork or doing anything. Am I going to think about it? Yeah, I'm going to think about it. I've said that, point blank, simply because of all the things I've just talked about. If you care about these things, you have to think about it. 

But I would love it—I mean I'm the guy who picked Barack Obama to give the keynote at my convention. And I kind of thought it would be great if he renominated me four years later. [laughter] But it obviously worked out differently. I had no anticipation that I would be working for him a few years later. More power to him. I knew, when I met him in Chicago, and asked him to do that, that he would be a star. And I was the first national politician to endorse him publicly for President three days after he took a drubbing in New Hampshire from Hillary. He called me at midnight, and he said, “Are you still with me?” I said, “I told you I'm with you, I'm with you. What do you want to do?” He said, “Let’s go to South Carolina and do it.” 

And I did it. And the rest is history. And I'm proud of having served with him, as Ash Carter is. And, by the way, I'm sorry Ash isn't here tonight. And I'm delighted with the words he wrote earlier when we had a brief meeting. 

So the point of my saying that, folks, is not a diversion from the question. It is to underscore that I'm perfectly willing to embrace somebody that I think can win, who wants to address all the issues that I just talked about, and understands them. But I'm going to be very candid here, and some people who are thinking about it aren’t going to love me for it. But I'm not—I don’t see the person yet that I'm prepared to say that about. 

And so there are—Now I don’t know if Joe’s going to run. I love Joe Biden. He’s a great pal of mine. We’ve known each other 40 years. He’s clearly qualified, clearly great. He understands all these issues. And let’s see what he decides to do. I’ll shock everybody. I’ll say I also, you know, like [00:59:45] who was originally a Democrat and then a Republican, and he’s now back. And I like him very much. He’s been terrific on guns. He’s been terrific on climate change. He’s been terrific on inclusivity and other issues, and that’s Mike Bloomberg, [00:59:56], and has built a hell of a business. And he’s an interesting person. So I'm open. I'm looking like all of you are. And that’s my answer.

MARK D. GEARAN:   So Margaret, I think just in deference to students, you lose to students. I want to make sure. We’ll get to your question, depending on—But we have microphones here that people are lined up. And I think what I'm going to do, Mr. Secretary, if it’s okay with you, maybe we could take two questions at a time.

JOHN KERRY:  Yeah, and I’ll give more lightning rounds here.

MARK D. GEARAN:   Yale gave you a good education. I'm sure you can keep up with it. So let’s go here. Introduce yourself. Make sure your statement ends with a question mark, and welcome.

AUDIENCE QUESTION:   Hi. My name is Inata Shiraz. I'm a senior at Harvard College. I was born in Karachi, Pakistan and immigrated to the States when I was two years old. Former Secretary John Kerry, you have been a beloved member of my family. In 2004 my father said that he was going to be voting for you. And he said it’s everyone, even though he was not yet a naturalized citizen. Now your talk here has put me in kind of an odd position, and very conflicting. 

You have said, repeatedly, that we as American people, particularly the American youth, have to have a strong sense of moral being. We have to act with a sense of uprightness, to take care of the world. But, at the same time, you use language such as, these kids are, “our problem.” Now this is not something that you have to have a political science degree to know. But melanized people, brown people, black people all over the world have been bastardized for problems created by American political intervention. 

I ask you this, because one of the critiques of the US intervention is the drone strike program against many countries, including the country of my birth, Pakistan. In 2003, the year that you took on position of being Secretary of State, there were about 13 drone strikes that had taken place when you visited Pakistan. In the New York Times article release, it had been about 16 at that time. At the end of the year, 27. You have said, quoted in the article, that you hope this drone strike program will end. Over the course of your tenure as former Secretary of State, there were about 73 reported drone strikes. You might be able to say more correctly if that number is accurate. 

Now this has killed many countless individuals. The US government has intervened without having due cause, immediate or imminent threat has been able to be coopted by vague phrases like, “We don’t have to have immediate threat present.” People such as able-bodied males of military age have been labeled as militants. And their innocence was not investigated during the time of drone attacks. 

MARK D. GEARAN:   So I'm just going to push you for a question.

AUDIENCE QUESTION:   Knowing that we are attacking people without due reason, innocent people, I wanted to ask you if you could illuminate us on your understanding on why you were complacent with this brutal and cruel drone strike program against countries like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan, and if you could elucidate us with any regrets that you have.

JOHN KERRY:  Okay, thank you, thank you. We’ll come back to that. 

MARK D. GEARAN:   Why don’t we take it right over here.

AUDIENCE QUESTION:   Thank you. My name is Skazia[?]. I'm an international development student here from Russia. So Crimea hopefully is the only annexation we’re going to see in this century. But yet a lot of people would argue that we could see it coming. And it was fairly easy to predict that Russia with NATO rockets pushed against its border, would try to hold onto the main [01:03:21] that it had. And now there are people dying in Ukraine, and Russian people are under sanctions, becoming poorer every year. 

So my question is, could have NATO seen it coming? Could anything be done differently? And what's the lesson for aspiring?

JOHN KERRY:  What was the first part of the question? 

AUDIENCE QUESTION:   Could NATO have seen it coming?


AUDIENCE QUESTION:   Could anything be done differently? And what's the lesson for aspiring diplomats in this school? Thank you.

MOD:   And why don’t we take one more, right here. 

AUDIENCE QUESTION:   Thank you, sir, for being here. My name is Mina [01:03:53] And I'm a sophomore at the College, studying English. My question for you is, with the G-20 Summit coming up this week in South America, what do you think are going to be some of the most salient takeaways, specifically on the front of the trade war between the US and China, as well as the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the President’s recent statement allying with Saudi Arabia for economic and security reasons? 

MARK D. GEARAN:     Thank you.

MARGARET TALEV:   Thank you for the Saudi Arabia question, Mina. 


JOHN KERRY:  Well let me try to run through them quickly, because I want to make sure—so that a lot of students get a chance to ask here and engage. And I'm happy to stay a few minutes. I mean unless you have things like exams or anything. [laughter] So you used the word “complacent.” You said, “Why are you complacent?” And that’s an assumption that I disagree with. And I just—I've never been complacent. And I know President Obama never complacent on this.

We worked exceedingly hard to deal with the moral dilemma of preventing people from being blown up, innocent people, by terrorists. And the whole premise of going into Afghanistan, which is why I have never equated Afghanistan to sort of Vietnam or other things. There was a reason for us to go. I voted for us to go. We were attacked from Afghanistan. And the biggest attack since Pearl Harbor. And there was a reason for us to go there, which was to deal with ungoverned spaces from which we would be threatened. 

Now you can make arguments about where we are and what we’re doing now has greatly crept beyond that. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. It’s about the morality and challenge of drone strikes. President Obama put in place the most rigorous, at least ten standards if I recall, that had to be met before any strike could take place. And if there was any potential of collateral damage, significant collateral damage, the President wouldn’t do it, even if we knew a significant individual was in the house or in the target. Does that mean that innocent people would escape altogether? No. It doesn’t. 

And one of the balances that a President of a country has to make when you're trying to protect your nation is loss of life in order to save lives. This is the dilemma of the atomic bomb, Nagasaki, Hiroshima. It’s the dilemma of the fire bombing of Dresden. It’s the dilemma of warfare itself, and civilians being caught in the middle of it. And I think the standards the President applied, I went over to—I can't say where, but I went to special locations where I sat and looked at the standards being applied, I was so concerned about it, and so noncomplacent about it. Because I wanted to know how we make that judgment.

And I literally watched people running around in a yard where dogs were barking, and there were kids, and nothing was done because of that. People made unbelievable acts of discretion in order to protect life. But we also had to protect ourselves from having these guys who were willing to go into the subways of London or Paris or Istanbul, use gas or you know, whatever it was going to be, to take other innocent lives. And our responsibility was protect people against that. 

And you could imagine what would happen in the middle of an election in the United States, if all of a sudden there was an enormous explosion. As it is, we had a minor one or two things. But I think our public officials deserve unbelievable praise for the ways in which law enforcement, and the Homeland Security, and airport security, and everybody else, have struggled to keep people safe, and not have another incident like we had before.

Now there's another challenge in Pakistan, and nobody was closer to the government than I was, in working to try to work some of these things out. We had a terrible incident with a CIA contractor who shot some people in the streets. And we had to work through the difficulties of that. And we had to work through the difficulties of several terrorist organizations never being brought to account by the government of Pakistan, particularly in the western part of Pakistan, where literally, the Taliban had sanctuary. And the question of this sanctuary was an enormous diplomatic and moral equivalency challenge, if you will. 

So all I can say to you, is that these are tricky difficult issues. But I want you to know that the President of the United States demanded the highest standards from the Joint Chiefs, from every branch of the military, and from all of our intelligence agencies, before anybody was allowed to take any life. And I think the United States is unique in the level of standards that we did apply. 

That said, let me go to Russia and the question of could we have known something else. Yes, I think there were a series of mistakes made which pushed Russia in a certain direction and heightened the suspicion and mistrust between us. If Ash Carter were here, Ash and I did not agree completely on how we might try to work that out with Russia. We both shared a concern about what Russia was doing. But I felt that we needed to try to engage more, to see if we could work a few things out. 

To wit, let me give you an example. Europe made the biggest mistake, which was really punching Putin in the face by forcing Ukraine to make a choice between looking west or looking east. And that forced choice really laid a lot of the groundwork for, yes, feelings of encroachment through NATO’s expansion. Putin clearly felt encroachment. He said it to me many times. I spent more time with President Putin than I think anybody else in the administration. And we went at these issues. We dug into it. And when we’d sit as close as we are, and I’d say, “Mr. President, you know, you're doing this. You're doing that. How do you expect us--?” And he’d say, “Well, you're doing this, and you're doing that.” And some of his “you're and you're this” was, “You know, you guys are unilaterally deploying ballistic missiles. You know what that’s going to do? That’s going to change my perception of my deterrents, because all of a sudden, missiles I have may be shot down, you know, within a couple hundred miles of my country. They're no longer intercontinental ballistic missiles.” 

And so threat perception is at the heart of all, you know, unresolved conflicts, in a sense. And you know, Graham Ellison has written eloquently about this, a lot about Thucydides Trap, and people’s perceptions, that you know, something’s going to happen. It’s going to be bad. So let’s do it quickly now. We get ahead of it. You know, you have these preventative wars to prevent the little guy from becoming the big guy, and so forth.

Well, there's a long history between us and Russia. It goes back to the fall of the Berlin Wall. When Russia was a basket case economically, and still has challenges. But back then, folks, Russia needed a lot of money. And there was a triumphalism in the attitude of the United States during that period of time. And it was highly resented later on. So there are a lot of add-ons here. Nothing excuses. Let me make this clear. Nothing excuses their illicit engagement in our political life in hacking, in what they’ve done, nothing forgives crossing international boundaries with people without insignia on their uniforms, and violating international law. That is not the way to solve the problem.

So we have a lot of work to do, to get at it. And I regret that we’re in as deep a hole as we are. But I personally believe we can get at it. I think there are ways to manage it. And hopefully we’ll get an opportunity to be able to change this dynamic. This is a very bad dynamic for the world. We are wasting a huge amount of energy. You know, we’re wasting time. We’re wasting resources. We’re wasting political capital, confronting each other in an escalatory way that has the potential to lead to a new cold war. 

It’s not there yet, but it has the potential, when we ought to be working together on those two billion young people, on those 1.8 billion 15 year old and younger, when we ought to be working together on cyber. We need new international agreement on cyber. We need to do with cyber what we did with nuclear in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. We need to treat it with the same urgency, and I am convinced—I've been working with some folks in cyber world that it is absolutely doable. And it should be, and it will be the United States that has the ability to lead us to try to do that. Because if we continue down the road we’re going now, where once again you hear about anti-satellite weaponry, and space warfare, and that is just—You know, we’re not going to get where we need to go, folks, to deal with the next 12 years of crisis over climate change. 

Final question was the G-20 Summit. I was in China, as I said, a couple weeks ago, talking about this. China doesn’t want a trade war. But China clearly has some policy choices to make about its economy and its approach to public trade. There are problems with China’s approach to how our companies are allowed to do business. And the transfer of technology required in certain relationships. The lack of market access. I mean you know the litany. So it’s legitimate for us to go after those. 

The way I would have done it is not to just slap the tariffs on and start the tit-for-tat, which is not going anywhere good. I would have started it by saying, “Okay, we’ve got TPP in place. That’s kind of interesting. China doesn’t like that very much. Why don’t we work with the TPP folks. Let’s kind of use that as a fulcrum, fixing it in the way that we want to fix it.” By the way, three-quarters of the Canada-Mexico agreement is straight out of TPP. Not what he did, it’s what we did. So we could have used that. But, more importantly, get Japan onboard. And then get Europe onboard. Then you’ve got a trading bloc, folks. Then you’ve got leverage. Then you say to China, “We’re all in agreement about this problem of doing business with you, and you're taking advantage of our economies. We need to work it out.” To me, that’s a genuine negotiation and the way to approach it. 

So I think that—I'm hopeful, however. I will tell you, from my conversations in China, I think there's a chance that the Argentina G-20 might surprise, and we may be able to see an agreement to agree on something, and perhaps a movement in a different direction. Why? For a number of reasons. The global economy is slowing. China’s economy is slowing. A lot of people are talking about the potential of recession in a year. And there's an election coming up in 2020. And the last thing you want to be doing is, when you're at 36 percent, and you’ve got the best economy in years, the last thing you want to do is lose the economy. And that’s trouble. So that’s where I see those three things.

MARK D. GEARAN:   Let’s just do one quick lightning round of two questions. We’re going to go right here, and then finish with Matthew. Go ahead.

AUDIENCE QUESTION:   Thank you Mr. Secretary for being here. My name is Dora. I'm a senior at the College. And I was just wondering, the Iran deal was a huge achievement of the Obama administration. And the loss of that deal subsequently makes it much more difficult to negotiate with Iran in the future, as we have oscillated between gaining and then losing Iran’s trust. I'm sure you know this better than anyone, since you’ve actually sat across the table from them.

So I was wondering, even if we get a new change of administration who’s more open to Iran, if Iran is not willing to reciprocate or requires a show of trust or a significant signal that we’re willing to cooperate in the future, how do you think that the United States can restore trust and build a more positive relationship with Iran in the future?

MARK D. GEARAN:   And we’ll end with Matthew right here.

AUDIENCE QUESTION:   Hi. My name is Matt. I'm a junior at the college studying government. Secretary, you spoke a bit about the degradation of America’s reputation abroad. After the end of the Bush administration, President Obama made a concerted effort to travel abroad and reinforce America’s commitment to multilateralism. Once the Trump administration ends, do you believe this recommitment of American diplomatic values is possible? And how should the next President go about restoring America’s reputation abroad?

MARK D. GEARAN:   Terrific.

BRITTANY PACKNETT:   Can I ask one quick follow-up question? I just want to make sure that I was clear on something that you said earlier. And I may not be the only person in the room with questions. Earlier, when you were talking about immigration, you mentioned the phrases, as the young woman said earlier, that, “Those young people are our problem.” And you also mentioned the phrase “illegal people.” And I think especially in the shadow of what has happened this past week, as people have been trying to seek asylum at the border and were met with teargas, I'm trying to make sure that I was understanding what you were saying.

JOHN KERRY:  That was very important. I really appreciate your effort to clarify. Because if I left anything unclear—

BRITTANY PACKNETT:  Yeah, it was—I will say it was a bit uncomfortable for me.

JOHN KERRY:  Well, I'm sorry about that. And I’ll clarify it, because I'm confident I can. When I say “a problem,” well let me deal with the first pieces, and then I’ll come back to that quickly. On the Iran deal. Iran was two months from breakout to a nuclear weapon. When I sat down with the Iranian Foreign Minister, we were the first Foreign Ministers of our two countries to meet in 40 years. Iran had 12,000 kilograms of enriched uranium. They were enriching and capable of enriching up to 80-90 percent, which is what you need to make a bomb. They were about to—They were about to commission a plutonium reactor that would have produced enough plutonium, weapons-grade material, for two bombs a year. They had 27,000 centrifuges out deployed. They had 19,000 spinning. They had the ability to create a bomb. They had mastered the nuclear fuel cycle, period. End of issue. 

Today, they have a limit of 3.67 percent enrichment. You can't make a bomb with that. They are limited to 300 kilograms of stockpile. You can't make a bomb with that. They have only 5,000 of their oldest centrifuges that are operational. They have to destroy the others. They had to let in 130 additional inspectors into the country. They have television cameras watching everything that’s spinning and everything that’s being produced. They have cradle-to-grave tracking of every ounce of uranium that they mine in their country. They have 25-year requirement for that. They have a 20-year requirement for the television cameras in the site. In order to build up what is called trust, to build up their compliance with the nonproliferation treaty, which they have signed, and which they have lived up to. 

So they are living by the agreement. And it’s not one country, it’s seven countries. Iran signed it, China signed it, France, Germany, and Britain signed it. And what's interesting is, three weeks ago—well a couple months ago, now, I guess in New York, in September, China, Russia, Germany, France, and Britain all met with Iran to try to keep the deal alive. And they're trying to keep it alive. They're all living by it. 

So, just like Paris, where Trump pulled out, we’re trying to stay in. Just like that, people are trying to stay in. To me, that’s an affirmation of the strength of what we did. Folks—And Graham will—This is the strongest, most transparent, most accountable nuclear agreement on the planet. No other country has had to do what Iran has had to do to build up trust and to comply with the NPT. And if at any time in the future they try to break out, our entire defense establishment is convinced—our Energy Department, our CIA, et cetera, that we will know it immediately. We have the ability to have every military option available to us then, that we have available to us today. 

So why, if you want to deal with the issue of their missiles, Hezbollah, Yemen, just pull out, and put everything back on the table? It doesn’t make sense. The reason we only negotiated the nuclear deal was so as to not have to trade anything else for nuclear. Nuclear is nuclear. Take the nuclear weapon off the table, then deal with the other issues. 

Now there are other issues. We were ready to go forward and do a follow-on agreement. And I guarantee you, if Hillary Clinton were President of the United States today, they would be in full form, dealing with Yemen, dealing with Hezbollah, dealing with Iraq and each of these other issues, as a follow-on agreement, which we can always achieve. 

So the answer to the question about, so what will be the response going forward, et cetera, this was never built on trust. You don’t do an agreement like this with the Iranian regime, given what they are, and what they’ve done. You don’t build it on trust. You do this by not trusting, and verifying. A variation on Ronald Reagan’s theme. And that’s exactly what we are doing every single day right now, we’re building up the relationship. 

Now what's happened, by pulling out of the deal, the very people who didn’t want to have a deal at all in Iran, the hardliners, the IRGC, General Soleimani, the people who didn’t want the negotiation to even take place, have been empowered. Because what's happened is, the people who said, “You can't trust America. You make a deal with them, they won't keep it,” Donald Trump has now reinforced that.

And so, in fact, the hardliners have been strengthened. And I've got to tell you something, folks. If we haven't learned this by now, God knows when we will. We don’t do regime change very well. That’s what this policy is actually about. It’s trying to economically squeeze Iran into complete submission, so they’ll come crying to the table, “We capitulate.” Not going to happen. And anybody who knows Iran and knows Iranians would agree with that. And, by the way, there's no Jeffersonian Democrat waiting in the wings. If there is some sort of revolution, it’ll be the hardliners who take over. 

So on the issue of Obama’s efforts to reach out and sort of what will happen, the recommitment, I believe, given the fact that the House is now Democratic, and I think we’re going to have an opportunity to have a real battle over these thoughts over the next two years, I think that if we win the Presidency in 2020, it frankly will take only months to reverse this. There will be a vast sigh of relief. And people will move very quickly to try to make up for the difference. If it were eight years, it’s not so easy. That is a very big difference in what the equation may or may not be here. And obviously, the Supreme Court already is problematic. 

So let me come to the issue of immigration, this question of problem. When I said “problem,” what I meant was, not that they're a problem, that those kids are a problem. That’s not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is, their lack of ability to have an education, their lack of opportunity, their lack of enfranchisement, the fact that they can be proselytized to by extremists, and there's no better alternative, that’s a global problem for everybody’s security. Because a kid who gets trapped into that cycle, who’s willing to put on a suicide vest, who’s willing to kill randomly somewhere, is a problem to the security of everybody in the world. 

And I have already believed we all have a stake in helping other countries to be able to meet the felt needs of their people too. Why? Because we’re the richest country on the face of the planet. Why? Because we’re the ones who had the values system around which we’ve tried to organize the world for the last 70 or 80 years. And I believe it’s our responsibility to try to do that.

Now, with respect to kids coming up from Central America and Latin America, when I talk about immigration, and I say Visas have to mean something, borders have to mean something, that’s one side of the equation. I did not finish that answer. And the other side of that equation is we have to be a nation that is ready to receive people. We have to grant asylum. We have to still be the nation that welcomes people for opportunity and do it through the legal process. And in our efforts to try to get immigration reform in the Senate, I found that people always tried to exploit it. They tried to just go for the jugular on one side or the other, rather than look for, how do you really solve the problem? 

It’s going to take a compromise. You will have to prove to people who have no belief in the system that borders will actually be enforced, that you're not going to have another 12 million people illegally enter the country. You have to prove that you're going to have a system that works. But you also have to have a heart and humanity that is in keeping with the value system of our country. So you grant people citizenship. There has to be a pathway of citizenship for the 12 million that are already here. We know how to do that. We had a pretty rigorous test that people had to go through the steps to citizenship. I'm for that. I think you have to have a compromise, where your humanity is on the table. You recognize that these people are trying to escape for their lives.

Now how do you manage that? Well, I was in the Senate when Colombia was collapsing. And we put together something called Plan Colombia. We put a billion dollars on the table. We worked with Colombia in order to provide opportunity, to provide security, and do it in keeping with our value system. And guess what. Colombia became a model country. I mean one of the stronger countries in Latin America. And President Santos made peace with the FARC, and it’s still a work in progress, but it’s moved in the right direction.

We’re not doing that for Guatemala, El Salvador, for Honduras. I mean these—and Nicaragua. These are failed states, almost, if not failed. And the truth is, what we did in the Obama administration was put money on the table to work with the Presidents of those countries in order to try to minimize the violence, minimize the need for people to have to escape, provide education, provide health and other kinds of opportunity. That’s why I say we need a new kind of Marshall Plan. We need to be investing in our neighbors. We need to be investing in our security future.

And two of the best investments we ever made, folks, were rebuilding Japan and rebuilding Germany and putting together their constitutions and working with them to become strong democracies, strong economies. That is, to me, the better way to have a comprehensive approach to immigration. 

And when I talk about anything being a problem to us, it’s because the absence of opportunity, and the absence of freedom, and the absence of human right protections, and the absence of all the things that we are able, not everywhere in America, but in most parts of America, to not take for granted, we need to reinforce in other parts of the world. That’s who we are. And I don’t see it happening now. 

Can I take one last moment?

MARK D. GEARAN:   Yeah, the final word, Mr. Secretary.

JOHN KERRY:  Climate change. Please. When we did the Paris Agreement, we knew that we were leaving Paris without a guarantee that we were holding the earth’s temperature to two degrees centigrade increase above preindustrial levels. And the reason we couldn’t get a guarantee we could do that is because no nation, us included, would accept a mandatory requirement for what we had to do. That’s why. So every nation had to define its own approach to what it was going to do to reduce emissions.

 But what we were banking on was the fact that 196 countries were all going to move in the same direction at the same time. And that was going to unleash economic activity in the sector of energy more than ever before, anywhere. Energy, this is not—Climate change is not something we don’t have a solution to. It’s not a lack of capacity. It’s a lack of political will. And the solution to climate change is energy policy. 

Today, solar is less expensive than coal, particularly if you factor in black lung, particulates, cancer, environmentally induced asthma in which we spend $55 billion dollars a year in America, largest cause of children being hospitalized in America in the summer is environmentally induced asthma. So here is the deal. Last year, three storms cost you and your parents $265 billion dollars. Harvey dropped more water on Houston in five days than goes over Niagara Falls in an entire year. Maria destroyed much of Puerto Rico. And Irma had the first sustained winds for over 24 hours of over 185 miles an hour. 

Folks, this is happening. Everything we've talked about for 20 years, some of us, is happening. It’s happening faster. And I get mad about it. I get angry about it. I got kids. I got grandkids. And I got to tell you, decisions the President of the United States has made are going to cost American lives. It’s going to cost billions of dollars of property damage. And when scientists tell us we've got 12 years left to make the decisions that have to be made to take unprecedent—this is their quote—“historically unprecedented steps in order not to have the worst happen,” whoa. That’s heavy stuff. 

And what are we doing? We’re not doing it. No one is doing it. We are currently living out by omission or commission a mutual suicide pact. I hate to be blunt about it, but that’s what we’re doing. The fires, the oceans, the melting of the ice, which I went to Antarctica and I went to Arctic, both, as Secretary of State, to learn about this. And scientists from 23 countries taught me about this. And I believe in science.

So I just say to all of you, 2020, our democracy, everything I've talked about tonight, is solvable by you, by being active, by demanding your parents do things, by demanding where you work, that they're responsible about it, and by making sure that we organize to get above that 33 percent up to 60, 70 percent, whatever it’s got to be. We do that, we’re going to win this battle. 

And the last words I’ll say tonight are, remember what Nelson Mandela said. He said, “It always seems impossible until it is done.” Pretty simple. So let’s get it done. 


MARK D. GEARAN:   Thank you very much. Thank you very much.

JOHN KERRY:  My pleasure.

MARK D. GEARAN:   Well thanks to our Fellows and Secretary, thank you. Thank you all for coming. 


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:John Kerry on Tackling Today’s Challenges.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, November 28, 2018.