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Arms Control and International Security: Remarks at The Atlantic and Aspen Institute

MR CLEMONS: Thank you. So let’s get to Syria stuff. I hear a rumor – I don’t know if it’s true – that Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov are huddled around a screen right now in one corner of the world watching us, and I hear Lindsey Graham and John McCain are near another. And so I’d like to ask you, what would you like to communicate to the world and to those parties about Syria that they may not have heard? (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: There is absolutely no way possible to communicate with those four people (inaudible). (Laughter.)

MR CLEMONS: Okay, how about for our crowd here?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’ll take on a lot of challenges --

MR CLEMONS: Yeah, yeah.

SECRETARY KERRY: -- but Syria is as complicated as anything I’ve ever seen in public life, in the sense that there are probably about six wars or so going on at the same time – Kurd against Kurd, Kurd against Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sunni, Shia, everybody against ISIL, people against Assad, Nusrah. This is as mixed-up sectarian and civil war and strategic and proxies, so it’s very, very difficult to be able to align forces. So it’s --

MR CLEMONS: So in the middle of that, why did you think you could get a ceasefire?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we did. We got one for a period of time. We got one that held for a number of weeks, originally. And then this one was interrupted by two very tragic different kinds of events: One was a mistake; the other was the destruction of 18 UN humanitarian trucks, which is hard under any circumstances to find a rationale or an excuse for what happened. There is no excuse.

MR CLEMONS: And you now believe, as I understand it, that that was a purposeful action by --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think there is strong evidence with respect to Syrian regime engagement in the beginning of it and Russian involvement. But look, the point is that there’s just huge levels of mistrust on either side.

But you asked me the question, what makes me think? I make no apology, nor does President Obama, none whatsoever, for trying to reach out and find out if there is a way to achieve the political settlement that everybody says is the only way to solve the problem of Syria. You’ll find most people constantly saying there is no military solution. Well, if there’s no military solution, what is the political solution and how do you get there? And who’s going to get you there? Well, it’s the job of the secretary of state and it’s the job of diplomats to try to do that, as tough as it may be, and it is tough. So --

MR CLEMONS: Do you think diplomacy has become a dirty word?

SECRETARY KERRY: With respect to Syria, to some degree. It’s been marred by these breaches of the ceasefire and by the destruction and by Russia’s persistent support of Assad in a way that is beyond the seeking of a political settlement, if you will.

And I think that the bombing of Aleppo right now is inexcusable. It’s beyond any – beyond the pale of any notion of strategic or otherwise. It’s indiscriminate. It is – they took out a hospital last night. I think 400 civilians have been killed in the last eight days; 100 of them are children. And we’ve made it crystal clear to them that under those kinds of circumstances it is not possible to be cooperating, and we need to see a change.

MR CLEMONS: So are we on the verge of taking down this scaffolding and walking away from any chance of going back to your plan of a joint implementation center and a deal with the Russians on how to do it, or are you willing to give it another chance?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I think we’re on the verge of suspending the discussion, because you – it’s irrational in the context of the kind of bombing taking place to be sitting there trying to take things seriously. There’s no notion or indication of a seriousness of purpose with what is taking place right now.

So it’s one of those moments where we’re going to have to pursue other alternatives for a period of time, barring some clearer indication by the warring parties that they’re prepared to consider how to approach this more effectively.

MR CLEMONS: Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain have kind of lampooned you with threatening the suspension of talks and saying, how can this have any influence on the Russians? I just, look, because I’ve – you and I have talked about this before that I’d like to understand how you, if you’re putting yourself, as a diplomat does, in the heads and intentions of Russia, how do they see the map in their future and what are you trying to influence? And if we do walk away, then what influence do we have with the Russians?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not worried about lampooning, particularly from people who don’t seem to have the votes or the ability to be able to cobble together a legitimate plan or a legitimate approach. I don’t see Congress panting to put people on the ground to go to war in Syria. I don’t see people – it’s easy to be critical of the diplomatic effort because it’s difficult, but what is the alternative? Is the United States of America going to go to war in Syria? I don’t think that’s about to happen. We are at war against ISIL and we are going to win that war; I have no doubt about that. And we are making enormous progress, but that is different and distinct from involving ourselves directly into the civil war, which is the war against Assad.

And the Russian point of view, they look at it and they see Nusrah, Jabhat al-Nusrah growing stronger. Jabhat al-Nusrah is al-Qaida and Jabhat al-Nusrah al-Qaida is plotting against the United States of America. They are a designated terrorist organization, and we are prepared to go after them. But Russia doesn’t believe that because months ago there was a statement about our beginning to separate some of our fighters from them because they are “marbleized,” as the saying has come to be. And so, there’s a huge distrust by Russia that we’re actually serious about going after Nusrah. They think we’re using Nusrah in order to go after Assad, so there’s huge distrust on both sides here.

And the levels of mistrust, because of the type of operations that the Russians have chosen to engage in, is huge and appropriate on our side, incidentally. It is inappropriate to be bombing the way they are. It is completely against the laws of war, it is against decency, it is against any common morality, and it is costing enormously.

So that is why we’re going to have to – why we are pulling back from this concept of – so there’s no – no miscalculation in anybody’s mind about us cooperating in a way that is empowering them to do what they’re doing.


SECRETARY KERRY: We’re just not going to go there. We’re not going to do that, obviously.

MR CLEMONS: As much as I don’t want to leave the Syria subject of Syria and ISIL and Iraq, I want to ask you a bigger question.

My colleague, Jeffrey Goldberg, wrote probably one of the most important articles in foreign policy on the Obama Doctrine, one of our cover stories. And I thought it was useful, because it began to sort of raise this question of what is someone’s frame and filter, their dashboard, their priorities? And I’m really interested in what – John Kerry’s frame. When you look at a problem out there, I’m interested in what you see as a – as the nation’s leading diplomat, as a man who may have been president of the United States, how do you organize in your mind taking on one of these big national security challenges?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I mean, the first thing you need to do is obviously understand and define the interests of the United States of America. Our job, my job, the President’s job, is to protect our nation and to advance our interests and our values simultaneously. That’s really what foreign policy is. I mean, foreign policy is a combination of interests, values. Hopefully they’re melded like that, but not always. Sometimes interests are of far greater importance to a particular moment and you may have tension with the values because of the level of the interest, or the values may be – I mean, the Holocaust or Rwanda or – which is also relevant to the debate about Syria, by the way, is the killings and the torture and the barrel bombs and the gas.

MR CLEMONS: So you put Syria in the values category more than the interest category?

SECRETARY KERRY: It’s both. No, no, no, it’s in both. We have both. We have huge interests because of the stability of the region, because of the need to fight against extremism, the need to prevent the country from breaking up and having a negative impact on all of the neighborhood, including our ally Israel and Jordan and Egypt, so forth. So there are a lot of interests there, but there are also values, obviously. And what I’m just trying to say is you have to get a sense of the import of all of that --

MR CLEMONS: So what’s the John Kerry secret sauce in that if --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, you have to figure out --

MR CLEMONS: A lot of people can say what you just said.

SECRETARY KERRY: Once you’ve figured out those things, then you have to figure out whether you can find in the adversaries a meeting of the minds on any of the interests or – and/or values. And that mixes differently with different people at different times. With Iran obviously and negotiating the Iran nuclear agreement, Iran wanted out from the sanctions, Iran wanted to – didn’t think it was worth the cost they were paying to pursue a nuclear weapon, and I think the Ayatollah made it clear that he was going to outlaw it, not go after it. He made a calculated decision – I think the right decision, an important decision – and so there was something to work with. But at the same time, there was a huge level of mistrust, a huge level of questioning about sort of where they might go at some future point in time, so we had huge interests in making sure the verification was as strict as possible, that we were able to answer people’s questions about the technology and the capacities. And ultimately you could see a way to get from here to there.

That’s what you have to decide, you have to figure out. There are some frozen conflicts in the world today --


SECRETARY KERRY: -- Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan-Armenia, where you can’t quite see that right now because the leaders aren’t ready, because the tensions aren’t there.


SECRETARY KERRY: There are some where I think they’re difficult but you can see how you could get there if people made a certain set of decisions. I believe Israel-Palestine falls into that category.


SECRETARY KERRY: But you have to have people prepared to make a certain set of decisions.

MR CLEMONS: Is the Iran deal what you’re most proud of during your tenure?

SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t – I really haven’t stopped to sort of start to create a scale of --

MR CLEMONS: So what are you least satisfied with during your tenure?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not happy with Syria. I’m very, very dissatisfied with where we are in Syria. I’m extremely concerned about where it is going and what will happen to the people of Syria and to the region if a more rational and moral-based, common-sense approach is not found to deal with the situation. Yemen, Libya – I mean, there are challenges, many challenges, that are extremely difficult right now.

I feel good about where we are moving with ISIL. I think we could move faster to some degree, but I think the President has really gotten us on a track where you can see where we’re going in Iraq, you can see where we’re heading in Syria, and he’s constantly looking for ways to try to accelerate that.

I think the climate change agreement that we reached in Paris is a monumentally – a monumental agreement, extraordinarily important because of the threat of climate change, which we’re seeing manifest itself on a global basis everywhere. And to have brought 185, 186 nations together to reach agreement, which really largely grew out of the effort we made with China when we got China to agree to work with us rather than against us --

MR CLEMONS: On climate --

SECRETARY KERRY: -- which is what had happened in Copenhagen.


SECRETARY KERRY: That was a sea change, and that resulted in sending a signal to the marketplace in Paris which we’re now following up on with the aviation agreement, with the hydrofluorocarbon agreement which we hope to get in Kigali in October. And that alone, just getting the hydrofluorocarbons, could save one-half degree centigrade of rise of temperate on the planet. So these are critical issues.


SECRETARY KERRY: I think getting chemical weapons out of Syria was key --

MR CLEMONS: Right. So you’re laying out the net positives, the net gains in the foreign policy roster. And I think you probably talk to more world leaders and foreign ministers than any person alive right now, say per day. I mean, you’ve got probably the largest quotient. How are they seeing American engagement in the world today? Are they seeing us robust and out there? Because there’s a sense that the world doubts America’s staying power in the world.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I hear this, but it’s really interesting. I hear this and I hear people allege that the United States is retrenching and that we’re somehow pulling back or – but I have to tell you, Steve, I think if you measure all of American history, there has never been a moment where the United States is more engaged in more places simultaneously on as significant a number of complicated issues as we are today, and with impact.

On Ebola, predictions were a year ago a million people were going to die. President Obama had the courage to send 3,000 troops there. We built health care delivery capacity. We galvanized support from around the world. We led that effort. And that never happened. We never lost a million people. Ebola didn’t become the global scourge.


SECRETARY KERRY: AIDS – we’re in the front – we’re about to have the first generation of children born in Africa free of AIDS, and we have put an unprecedented amount of money on the table and expertise to deal with that.

Afghanistan – we’ve held Afghanistan together with a unity government after a failed election where it could have collapsed. We’ve been able to nurture that. It’s complicated, difficult, but we’ve been able to sustain the effort in Afghanistan.

In the South China Sea, we have been able to make it clear, freedom of navigation. We’ve been able to deal with China. We’ve held that from becoming a major conflict.

Ukraine – the sanctions worked. We are working on the Minsk application and implementation right now even as we sit here. We’ve been making progress. I hope we can further that.

On Yemen, we’ve put a peace proposal forward. The parties are talking about it. We’re on the verge maybe of a ceasefire there.

Libya – we’ve been able to build the GNA, the Government of National Accord. We’re working with the Egyptians, with the Emiratis. We’re able to try to grow the capacity, the sustainability of that government. It’s very tricky. It’s tribal. It’s complicated. There are extremists there. There is Daesh in some places. We’ve been able to limit the Daesh presence with a very aggressive effort.

Boko Haram in Nigeria, we’re pushing them back. We’re working with Buhari.


SECRETARY KERRY: Al-Shabaab in Somalia – we’re pushing them back. We’ve got a major planned offensive to really sort of, I hope, terminate the al-Shabaab challenge in Somalia.

MR CLEMONS: So maybe we need a bumper sticker or something like, “There’s a lot going on. More going on than you think.” (Laughter.)


MR CLEMONS: It sounds like a marketing problem, right? (Applause.) Yeah. So --

SECRETARY KERRY: I like that. It is a marketing problem. But --

MR CLEMONS: You’ll call your folks. We’ve got a couple of minutes, and I know you’ve got some hard stops and I know you’re going to Israel for Shimon Peres’s funeral, and we’ll work on that.


MR CLEMONS: But in the next minute and a half, I’m going to combine two things. One, I’d like to know just real quickly: What do you think about Iran today? Is Iran becoming more comfortable for us or does it still remain in the very, very uncomfortable, despicable category?

And I’m going to tack on – my last question is: Vietnam is such an important frame for you. I’d like to know what lessons you think we’re forgetting from Vietnam in your role that you think – that you’re worried about. So I’m going to ask you to do those two things because we’ve got to wrap up.

SECRETARY KERRY: Wow. (Laughter.) Two small little --

MR CLEMONS: David Bradley, our chairman, says you should never combine two big questions, but I’m doing it.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Iran is complicated. We just had a meeting in New York of the Joint Commission. The Iran agreement is holding. They are living up to their requirements in the Iran agreement. It is measurable and accountable, transparent. The IAEA knows what’s happening, we know what’s happening, and we are comfortable that Iran is meeting the agreements it met. They think we are not meeting our part of the agreement and they’re upset at us that more banking hasn’t – more banks, large banks have not engaged --

MR CLEMONS: Are we meeting our part of the agreement?

SECRETARY KERRY: We are. We’ve done everything and more. We’ve not only met our part of the agreement in terms of lifting all the sanctions we said we would lift, but we’ve personally engaged – I’ve engaged, and others, with banks. We’ve tried to help, because we think it’s important that we live up to our side of the bargain and that Iran get the benefits that they bargained for.


SECRETARY KERRY: Otherwise, there’s not a lot of incentive for them to continue to live by it. So it’s important. There are tensions in Iran; there is a battle in Iran, in a sense, for its own direction. That’s an internal struggle within the country, and President Rouhani I think has tried very hard to try to reach out to the world, but there are forces there that pull back on that. And so it’s – it will remain complicated and it just is complicated.

MR CLEMONS: So your successor is going to have a fun time with that.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I hope it’s not – I mean, I hope it’s not a time-consuming, tense time. It will always be challenging. There are things that Iran is doing in the region that we obviously object to. We don’t like the support for the Houthis, we don’t like the support for Hizballah, the support for Assad, some of their engagement in other countries – meddling. Obviously, those are things – the missiles, the concerns about human rights and terrorism – those remain.

And we left all of those, in fact, intact in the sanctions regime that we have, because we really were negotiating the nuclear piece. And the reason for separating it was we knew that if we put those things on the table, we’d still be there at the table and we wouldn’t probably get anywhere, so --

MR CLEMONS: And finally, quickly, I’m really interested on Vietnam and the frame – and --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Vietnam --

MR CLEMONS: Because it’s been so much a part of what you have framed. I’m interested, at this point when you’ve done so much in the diplomatic – what are we getting right, what are we getting wrong? And if you can do it in 30 seconds, you’ll make everybody real happy. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: I never thought I’d do Vietnam in 30 seconds. (Laughter.) Can’t do it in 30 seconds, but it’s – I think what’s happening in Vietnam is exciting. It’s incredible. Nobody would have imagined years ago that Vietnam, the, quote, “communist country,” the country that we went to fight to stop from being communist – it’s not communist. It’s authoritarian. It’s a one-party, authoritarian government, but it’s raging capitalism. And it is moving so rapidly into the marketplace – it’s one of the fastest growing countries in terms of transition, transformation. When I first went there in 1990, there were no cars. People were in black pajamas still. They were mostly on bicycles. The traffic lights didn’t work in Hanoi. It was just 50 years ago then.

Now skyscrapers everywhere, traffic, people wearing blue jeans and Western clothes and yearning for engagement with the world; fast, fast-growing, changing lifestyle; middle class, investment opportunities. And it’s changed and changing rapidly. They’re allowed labor unions, you can strike – that’s part of, actually --

MR CLEMONS: So that should be our lesson, then --

SECRETARY KERRY: So the lesson is that transformation comes through diplomacy. We went there and fought a war to prevent them from being something, and in fact, it’s only the aftermath of the war and the diplomacy – the opening up, the lifting of the embargo – which, by the way, John McCain was a partner with me in the effort to do that – and to help change Vietnam, and Vietnam has changed and is changing.

And we announced when I went there last – a few months ago, the opening of a Fulbright university in Hanoi – in Saigon, excuse me; in Ho Chi Minh City – that will be completely academically free, total independence, able to teach. And the Fulbright Program has been one of the real transitional vehicles, if you will – catalysts – in Vietnam. Many of the top leaders in the highest echelons of leadership of Vietnam have been part of the Fulbright Program, and they’ve studied either at Harvard or somewhere and come over here, and Harvard’s gone over there. It’s been an incredible transformation.

And the lesson is that – really underscores knowing why, if you’re going to go to war, you’re going to war and getting it right, and then afterwards also getting it right. And I think we did one part of it wrong, the other part we’ve gotten it right, and I’m very proud of that. (Applause.)

MR CLEMONS: So on that, Mr. Secretary, thank you. I hear President Obama is holding a plane for you, so --


MR CLEMONS: -- thank you very much.

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