Remarks at Global Chiefs of Mission Conference

Press Release – US Department Of State

Good morning and welcome, everybody. Joe, thank you for entertaining everybody this morning. I will not challenge you as to when the last time was you were at high mass, but thats all right. (Laughter.)Remarks at Global Chiefs of Mission Conference


John Kerry
Secretary of State

Dean Acheson Auditorium

Washington, DC

March 25, 2015

Good morning and welcome, everybody. Joe, thank you for entertaining everybody this morning. I will not challenge you as to when the last time was you were at high mass, but that’s all right. (Laughter.)

Really happy to welcome all of our chiefs of mission here. Thank you all for traveling far, and thank you most importantly for the extraordinary way in which everyone is carrying out responsibilities – major responsibilities – in a very complicated world. And Joe, thank you for reminding me that there is pool press here because I didn’t know it. (Laughter.) So it’s good to know.

John Kennedy had his first press conference as president right here in this room, and the next morning The New York Times said that this room was as warm as an execution chamber. So welcome home, folks. (Laughter.)

The – I want to thank Pat Kennedy, who I see sitting over here. Pat, thanks so much. And Mr. Ambassador Macmanus, thank you for your tremendous leadership. And Gloria Berbena – they’re the ones who really have pulled this together and I want you all to know – I think you’ve seen the schedule – you know you have a terrific couple of days ahead of you with major hitters from the Administration coming in, beginning with John Brennan, to share observations about where we find ourselves in the world today. And frankly, I think this is a wonderful opportunity for diversity of the planet and all of the various extraordinary, complicated, cross-currents of policy and ethnicity and religion, strategy, everything that is swirling around in every mission anywhere in the world today – and it’s all interconnected. So it’s a great opportunity to bring it all together under one house. And I welcome you back to Washington. I’m sure it’s a good respite.

I know visiting some of the places I visit that a lot of you live in difficult circumstances, restrained, and so I know it’s good to welcome you back to Washington where spring is just about to blossom and we have so much to be thankful for – including 47 other secretaries of state on Capitol Hill. (Laughter and applause.)

So my privilege this morning – and I mean that – and I want to welcome all the folks at different levels of the Department. I thought there’s so much that goes on in this meeting – and rather than wait until you are an ambassador, I thought it’d be terrific to share with those who are doing a lot of the hard work at various levels to be able to be here and get a sense of what we are talking about and how their job relates to your job and my job and all of us. So I welcome them here, and I’d just begin by saying to all of you what an extraordinary privilege it is for me to be able to serve as Secretary of State at this moment in history.

Twenty-six months now as Secretary has given me a much different perspective than 29 years in the United States Senate, even including a number of years as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. And at that point, you kind of get a snapshot of what you all are doing out in the field and you come through on a co-del, as you all know – and there are different co-dels. Some are shopping co-dels, and some are death marches like mine were, and you get different things out of them. But inevitably you just don’t get the full picture. No senator, no congressman, will ever leave on one or two days getting the full measure of what you’re dealing with. And as everybody knows, we’ve had to pull people out of Tripoli and pull people out of Yemen, and we’ve been out of Damascus for a period of time, and other places, so that we’ve had to make tough choices. And some of you have had to move in the dead of night in complicated maneuvers, all calculated with the good efforts of our DS people and Pat and everybody, to guarantee safety.

So it’s a very different picture that you have when you’re in here working 24-7 every week, every day, to provide safety and security for our people but also to implement a strategy, to advance American interests and values simultaneously. And as all of you know, I think diplomacy more and more is an incredible balance between the opportunity to advance the interests and values simultaneously versus a kind of higher level of interest or higher level of value, and it doesn’t always match. And that’s when the decisions, frankly, are toughest – is – excuse me – is when they don’t match.

So you’re in the arena, in every respect. And somebody’s going to come at you looking to you for information, or they’re going to look to you for advice or they’re going to look to you for money or all of the above, and they’re going to look to you for a way forward out of difficult situations. In some cases, you’ll feel powerless because of the bureaucracy and the difficulties of getting decisions quickly, and in other cases, you’ll be able to respond. But you’re also going to be made a scapegoat at times, and as we were shockingly reminded in Seoul just a few days ago, sometimes even the target of an attack.

Each day, you are asked to cope with very difficult personal and family, security matters, budget matters, resource questions, problems of U.S. travelers abroad, changing technology, threats that range from violent extremism to dysfunctional politics to cyber warfare to excessive nationalism to the crosscurrents of religion and religious extremism. This is about as complicated a job as exists and that’s precisely what makes it so interesting and so rewarding.

Sometimes the countries to which you are credited may blame you for something that you have no power over and that we were not involved in. That happens frequently, and particularly in certain parts of the world. But all in all, we all are privileged to be doing what we’re doing. And I can’t think of any job in the world where you can get up in the morning, at any level in the State Department, and go to work and know that you’re able to help other people, that you’re able to shape your country’s interests and future, and be able to have an impact on very, very important issues of life and death that define nations and that will write the future of history. You all remember, I’m sure, Lee Strasberg’s character in Godfather II, who said, “This is the business that we have chosen.” A little different here – (laughter) – but I think you get what I mean. (Laughter.)

So I particularly come here, and I hope all of you do, particularly grateful to our predecessors because they’ve set some very high standards – Dean Acheson; many, many others here; George Kennan and so forth. I was born in the very month that Dwight Eisenhower was appointed supreme allied commander. And I can remember, as many of you have heard me tell the story, going to the beaches of Normandy very early on and seeing the detritus of war. And I remember very well, as all of you do, I think – “remember” is the wrong word. I think we – thinking back, we all are really privileged to look back on a group of people who not only knew how to win the battle, but they knew how to win the peace.

And that’s the most important part of diplomacy. We need to excel on the battlefield – and believe me, we have military that is second to nobody in the world, and we are so proud of what they can do. But we also need to excel at the bargaining table. And we need to have the courage to take the risk, as President Obama has, to go to that bargaining table even when there are bitter foes of talking or willingness to try to do that. Because the alternative is conflict, the alternative is war. War is the failure of diplomacy. So any time there’s a war, we have to challenge ourselves, all of us, to ask whether we did enough and whether we’re doing enough.

So look back just for a moment at – if you want a model, the folks who set the standard for us created the United Nations, and it was on the second try, if you all recall your history, and I know you do. To guard against the Great Depression, they pioneered innovative economic institutions, global institutions that have stood the test of time to this day, though now, signs of fraying. To rebuild Europe, they designed the Marshall Plan, which was opposed by the American people. People couldn’t understand it, but leaders understood the importance of rebuilding a Germany that they had just been fighting, rebuilding a Japan. And today, they are two of our strongest allies in the world against the sort of crosscurrents of daily political fare in the country. And to stabilize Asia, we helped an old friend become one of our most trusted allies – an old enemy, excuse me, become a trusted ally. And we forged incredible alliances since then, NATO continuing to this day. So even during the height of the Cold War, our leaders, Republican and Democrat alike, had the political space, or at least the courage, to be able to reach out and cut an arms deal with the then-Soviet Union.

So now, it is our turn, and believe me, we face a challenge that is no less significant. It’s not the same kind of static force-on-force, state-upon-state conflict, but is a conflict no less important in terms of the potential consequences because all you have to do is stop and try to imagine what life would be like for a whole bunch of people under an extended caliphate of a group like ISIL.

So even a cross-border confrontation, like the one that we see in Ukraine today, is affected by and affects events far beyond Europe. Because principles are involved – the principle of sovereignty, the principle of integrity of borders, internationally sanctioned borders, and the difference between lies and truth. And that’s a difference which is universal.

So all of this impacts every one of your lives every day, all of our lives. Because we have to decide priorities. Where do you begin in this cacophony that we wake up to every single day? Today, Yemen, Hadi, Houthis; Saudi Arabia, Emirates, others – what’s their response, what’s our response? Major questions on which we’ve been spending a fair amount of time in the last hours. We also have to consider that what the United States says on any given day is heard everywhere and has an impact everywhere.

Madeleine Albright had a pretty good solution to all of that. She said the good news was that she cut her priorities to six; the bad news was that each was a continent. (Laughter.) The same ploy could work for me except that last year, I convened a conference on the oceans. I don’t know how you manage that one. And next month I’ll be in Canada chairing the Arctic Council. So add seven.

Here’s the tension. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. So we actually have to try to pick, even as I’m telling you – and I’ll say a word about it in a few minutes – we are more engaged everywhere in the world, doing far more good than more people have awareness of than at any time in American history. I have no doubt about that. And the 275 missions and posts that you all represent are not there by accident. Everyone is there for a purpose, and everyone is engaged in this greater endeavor.

So I want you to take these two days to think about how we can do what we do better. How do we improve? How do we open our minds up? How do we break out of the sort of bureaucratic constraints? How to – I challenged people with that last year; we’ve made some progress. We just had a retreat of the senior leadership. We’ll be putting out some thoughts about a number of things we think we can do more of and better. But what we need to make sure of is that we are maximizing all of the opportunities available to us. An exchange on Twitter is good, but it is no exchange for a handshake, for a breakfast, for a lunch, for tea, for somebody coming to your mission, sitting down, talking to them. And this message was deeply reinforced to me in the meetings I just concluded with President Ghani and CEO Abdullah.

Last summer, when I was in Kabul, the post-election differences really had Afghanistan on the brink. If that had not come together, we would not be doing what we’re doing there today. I don’t know what would be happening, certainly with Taliban or otherwise. And I deal today with a lot of presidents and a lot of foreign ministers that I got to know over 29 years on the Foreign Relations Committee – built relationships. One of the wisest people I ever met was Lee Kuan Yew, who just passed away. And I talked to the foreign minister last night, and we will send a high delegation there, because he was deeply pro-American and deeply involved with the United States and much of our strategic thinking through that time. But his views that he shared with me as a young senator have helped to shape my thinking today as a Secretary of State. And those are the things we build on.

And you, every single one of you, need to be building those relationships. There’s no free time as a chief of mission. It’s a constant process of building those relationships, because you never know how they’re going to come back to help us deliver a peace agreement or a status of forces agreement or some ability to get a hostage released or any other number of challenges that come out of nowhere at us in this new world we’re living in.

Now, it is critical for us to recognize that we are always guided by our values, not just our interests. And so we will always stand up for human rights. We will always stand up to advance LGBT rights, to stand up for people’s ability to be able to live life as we live it in the United States. But we have to always be sensitive as to when and how and – so what’s the methodology. There’s no template for doing that. There’s no automatic just barge in and say, “Hey, why aren’t you doing it this way?” And I think you know this. You have to work it, feel it, get a sense of how you can advance that cause, not set it back, or any other like it. And obviously, there are different challenges today. And I want to just talk very quickly about several of them, and then I want to get into the Q&A with Judy.

Daesh represents the real difference of the world that we are living in and all of you are having to deal with. The ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, even the first part of the 21st century, even with the terrible events of 9/11, which is when the real transition became most marked – all of those years were not as complicated to figure out as today because it was a very bipolar world. With – in some of those years, people like the Titos and others sort of tampening down all of this ethnic and religious differential. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall and a certain triumphalism that entered into people’s thinking after that, there was kind of a missing, if you will, of the challenge of building states and of empowering people. And as you know, we have an Office of Stabilization here, but we didn’t do enough stabilization in various places, including, may I add, where we needed to do more – and I think President Obama would be the first to say this – in Libya in the aftermath of the events there.

So what we have to recognize is that those forces have been unleashed now, and they’ve been unleashed in a world where people are more in touch than at any time in human history. Everybody has mobile – or almost everybody has a mobile device, even in the poorest countries. They may not have a job, they may not have much opportunity or education, but they can communicate and they get a sense of what’s happening in the world. And that changes their aspirations; it changes their hopes. The people in Tahrir Square were not there driven by the Muslim Brotherhood or any other religious affiliation. They were young kids who wanted jobs and opportunity, a future. A fruit vendor in Tunisia who set himself on fire was tired of being slapped around by police and not allowed to sell his fruit where he wanted to. And so, so frustrated and so crushed in his aspiration simply to sell his fruit, he burned himself to death.

And in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad missed history when young people went out following these other examples and demanded a future, and instead they got whacked on the head by police and thugs. And when their parents protested the way their kids were treated, who were simply protesting for a future, they were shot. That’s how this whole thing in Syria began – not religious-based, but have a vacuum and look who moves in. That’s the lesson. And so we see the Boko Harams and the al-Shabaabs, and run the lists. They’re too many and too numerous to list.

So Daesh, however, represents something different because Daesh is taking territory. Daesh has got resources. Daesh has a media strategy. Daesh is putting out messages sufficient to attract young kids from Great Britain, people from America, from Australia, from France, from Germany, to go and fight for this distorted image which has no basis in Islam, and frankly, offers nothing. They don’t talk about building schools; they destroy schools. They don’t talk about getting kids to read books; they burn the books. They don’t talk about freedom; they talk about living the way they tell you to live, by one stricture that is a false interpretation of Islam. So that’s why it’s a threat to all. And they’re already threatening everybody, and sending people to do acts of terror in various places.

So this is a major challenge that we have to step up to. We have to meet this challenge. It’s the challenge of our generation, I believe, and it requires much more than the deployment of troops. It requires us to understand that we are going to have to do more in terms of helping people to provide the alternatives to millions upon millions of young people who feel crushed in the pursuit of those aspirations. Pretty old-style stuff in a way, in terms of what this Department was created to do.

Another example of the challenge we face is obviously the Iran negotiations – and I apologize profusely for leaving early this morning. I really would like to be here because I love the exchange and I want to have more opportunity to talk with everybody. But we resume tomorrow morning – actually, Wendy Sherman will be there today in some meetings – and I need to leave to get there and see whether or not it is possible to meet at a bargaining table with the P5+1 and Iran in order to achieve an agreement that could actually prove that they have a peaceful nuclear program.

Now, what happens if, as our critics propose, we just walk away from a plan that the rest of the world were to deem to be reasonable? And that could happen. Well, the talks would collapse. Iran would have the ability to go right back spinning its centrifuges and enriching to the degree they want, if they want, if that’s what they choose. And the sanctions will not hold, because those other people who deem the plan to be reasonable will walk away and say, “You do your thing, we’ll do ours. You’re not willing to be reasonable, we’re going to do what we think is reasonable.” And then you have no sanctions regime at all.

So then there would be no visible, agreed-upon checks on Iran’s nuclear program. I thought that was the whole purpose of putting the sanctions in place, was to get agreed-upon checks on the program. Now, obviously, you have to know that they are agreed; you have to know that you can enforce them; you have to know you have the insight. And that’s our job – to provide an agreement that is as good as we’ve said it will be, that will get the job done, that shuts off the four pathways to a nuclear weapon: the pathway at Fordow, the pathway at Natanz, the pathway at Arak, and finally, the covert pathway, which is the hardest of all but which I can assure you we are deeply focused on.

So this is not a choice, as some think it is, between the Iran of long ago and the Iran of today. It’s not a choice between this moment and getting them to give up their entire nuclear program, as some think. It’s not going to happen. It’s a choice between a regime that has already developed its ability to master the nuclear cycle, that has already proven its ability to enrich, that has gone from 164 centrifuges in 2003 to over 19,000 today – but is only spinning 9,400 of them, but which would have the ability to free, if we don’t have an agreement, just to expand its program full speed ahead, and you know we can’t accept that. So where does that take you?

Anybody standing up in opposition to this has an obligation to stand up and put a viable, realistic alternative on the table, and I have yet to see anybody do that. So we’ll see where we go.

The third goal of our foreign policy that is critical, and you’ve heard me banging on it a lot with you, is the shared prosperity agenda, which is part of the antidote to the Daeshes and to this sense of hopelessness. Now, we have made economics a centerpiece of our international agenda, focusing on innovation, and entrepreneurship, and the creation of jobs, and we favor a free and open global system of investment and trade, and we’re working on the TTIP, the TPP, and hopefully we can begin to build on the existing agreements with South Korea, with Central America and others in order to show people that that’s the best path forward, frankly, to provide for people’s hopes and future.

And the final example I just want to give you of setting priority is climate change. I know a lot of people were sort of surprised, but President Obama and I could not agree more that this is a threat to the planet itself. It is a national security threat, it is a health threat, it’s an environmental threat, it’s an economic threat. We’re spending billions upon billions – $110 billion last year on the damages that occurred because of the increased level of major weather events around the world; droughts that are 500-year droughts, not 100-year droughts; places that have less and less water; food that is less produced where it used to be. There’ll be climate refugees that all of you will be coping with at some point, if not now, in the not-too-distant future. And the science? 97 percent of all the scientists for 20 years tell us unequivocally that this is happening and happening now, and humans are causing it, and we have a responsibility to respond to it.

So let me just close by saying to everybody that, look, our purpose is to bring nations together, to build democracy, to advance human rights, rule of law, and we are always committed to peace. I am proud of that agenda, and I think every single one of you knows – we’ve heard claims in the recent days that, especially when you look at the Middle East, some people try to say, “Wow, the international system is unraveling.” Actually, the story is very different. I don’t see that.

We are in a moment of remarkable transformation – not all of it in our control. But because of technology, because of more and more people in the middle class, because of travel in today’s world, because of access to information, more and more people are demanding more from governance. And in too many places, governance is not up to the task. It’s a failure of governance in many places that is giving us the challenge of these failing states – not our failure, if you don’t mind my saying so.

And more than any other country on the face of the planet, we are out there trying to make a difference. When Ebola came along, it was President Obama’s courageous decision to send 4,000 young Americans there, before all the answers were clear, in order to make sure we could build the capacity to respond. And now in Liberia – Ellen Sirleaf Johnson was here recently saying thank you to us for what America did in order to bring their epidemic under control – not gone yet, but not threatening the world the way we thought it was with a million people potentially being dead by January.

We are helping to save forests in Zambia. We are saving young children’s lives and preventing people from getting AIDS in Southeast Asia and Africa. And no country has put up something like our efforts in PEPFAR anywhere on the planet. We are breaking Central America’s cycle of poverty, and the President has proposed a billion-dollar program to try to deal – and that’s the way you deal with the unaccompanied children coming up and crossing the border because they’re trying to flee violence and abuse, narcotics and so forth. We’re developing life-saving vaccines in partnership with India in order to reduce infant mortality in that region. We are expanding the use of solar and wind power across Africa. We’re educating girls in Afghanistan. When we went in in 2001, no girls were in school, none – 900,000 boys. Now there are upwards of 8 million people in school and about 4 million of them are girls, even as we know that things are still difficult and there are challenges for women in Afghanistan.

But we are changing that. We’re ending piracy and building security in Somalia where we actually have progress. We are standing up for religious liberty all around the world. We’re defending the rights of journalists and democratic activists and LGBT community and persons with disabilities around the equator.

We led the effort together with Russia – Lavrov and I sat down in Geneva and we cut a deal and were able to get all the chemical weapons out of Syria in the middle of a conflict. Imagine what would have happened if we hadn’t done that, and ISIS has taken over half the country today and had chemical weapons.

So my friends, you may feel some days like Sisyphus rolling a rock up the hill. I think we’re getting that rock up there and I don’t think it’s rolling back on us. We have problems, yes. We have challenges, yes. But when have we not? Thomas Paine – he was premature when he wrote that the times that try men’s souls are over in 1783 when the war ended. Our souls are still tried. But I’ll tell you what, I can’t think of a finer group of people or a better moment for us to be engaged, and I am confident we are going to make a difference. Thank you all. (Applause.)

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