John Kerry discusses his American life as a Navy lieutenant, prosecutor, lieutenant governor, Democratic nominee for the presidency of the United States, five term senator, and U.S. Secretary of State, and how those experiences shaped his thinking on international affairs and foreign policy.
RUBENSTEIN: Welcome, everybody. We have the honor of having Secretary Kerry here. Let me give you some of the ground rules.
For those who don’t know, I am David Rubenstein, and I have the honor of presiding today. I also have the honor of being chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations. And everybody here is a member, I hope, of the Council, or pretty much a member? Great.
So this is today the John B. Hurford Memorial Lecture—although it’s a(n) interview, not a lecture. And John B. Hurford was a distinguished financier at Lazard, Credit Suisse, died way too soon. His family, in his honor, established this lecture. He was very involved in the Council. And his wife and widow is here: Hilge is right here. Thank you. And his daughter, Jennifer, is here. Thank you very much for supporting this. (Applause.)
So what we’ll do is we’ll have a conversation with Secretary Kerry for about thirty minutes and then we’ll have thirty minutes of questions from our members. And when you rise to ask a question, please identify yourself and any organization you’re affiliated with, and please ask a question, maybe one question—no statements and so forth—so everybody can get a chance.
So I don’t think we need much of an introduction, but I will give a modest one.
KERRY: Yes, we do. Yes, we do. (Laughter.) Full monty.
RUBENSTEIN: So Secretary Kerry served as our sixty-eighth secretary of state. And before that, he had served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for four years. He had been a member of the United States Senate for twenty-eight years, elected five times. Prior to that he had served as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, prior to that as a practicing lawyer and as a prosecutor. Graduate of Boston College Law School and also undergraduate at Yale. After Yale he went into the Navy and served in Vietnam. He won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. He ran for president in 2004, and but for Ohio he would be president of the United States. But Ohio went the wrong way, from his point of view. But returned to the Senate and did very distinguished work there.
And we are going to have a conversation a little bit about his career, but also about a book that he’s just written, Every Day Is Extra, which I just finished last night. I highly recommend it. There are copies out there for people who are interested and he is willing to sign these. And it’s a terrific book that he actually wrote. Yes—(laughter)—a political figure actually wrote his own book, and it’s a terrific book about his life and some things in there that I think maybe many of you didn’t know.
So, when you’re secretary of state, everybody pays attention to every word you say. Some people say—Jim Baker told me it’s the best job in Washington, better than being president of the United States. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s a great job. When you’re not secretary of state, when you get up in the morning people don’t pay as much attention to you. So was that the—
KERRY: My dog does. (Laughter.)
KERRY: I’ve got a great dog.
RUBENSTEIN: So do you miss being secretary of state and the burdens of every day having to make these decisions, or do you like the idea of you don’t have to have all those burdens on you?
KERRY: No, I think—yeah, I do miss it. Yeah, I do miss it. I miss being able to pick up the telephone and call somebody when you see something terrible happening in the world and you want to try to do something about it, and you can do something about it. So it would be impossible not to miss that.
RUBENSTEIN: All right. So some of the things that you worked on as secretary of state, I want to go through some of them. One of your major accomplishments was the Iranian nuclear agreement. Obviously, President Trump has withdrawn from that. You think that was a mistake, the withdrawal.
KERRY: I think it’s an enormous mistake because a number of different things.
First of all, his withdrawal has actually empowered the most complicated, difficult forces in Iran. So President Rouhani was trying to move the country in a different direction, trying to reach out to the world, change the dynamics, even as he had to balance being a regimist. And people need to note that the ayatollah, Ayatollah Khamenei, was dead set against negotiating with the United States. It took a great deal of diplomacy and persuasion to bring him to a place where he said, OK, you can go negotiate with them, but I got news for you, you can’t negotiate with the “Great Satan”—quotes—and they’re going to burn you. And you said, you can’t trust the United States.
So here we are beginning to make some changes under the radar screen, behind the scenes, talking about how to deal with the missiles, how to deal with Hezbollah, how to deal with Iraq, how to deal with their interference in Yemen, and actually getting them to do things quietly, which they did—several ceasefires in Yemen, several other efforts. So we consistently raised the problem of their transfer of weapons to Yemen or their interference in Israel or interferences—their threats to Israel, and all of those things we cared about. But we decided as a matter of policy that it was smarter to prevent Iran—which was two months away from breaking out to have a nuclear weapon—that it was better to keep them from having a nuclear weapon and deal with them without a nuclear weapon on all those other issues.
What Trump has done is now empower the guys in Iran who said don’t deal with the U.S.; they’ll burn you. He has—he has made it more likely that if there is an implosion in Iran internally, through pressure or otherwise, it will not be a(n) unknown Jeffersonian democrat who’s going to appear to take over, it will be the IRGC or another Ahmadinejad, and we will be worse off, and the people of Iran will be worse off.
And finally, he’s made it more likely that there will be conflict in the region because there are people there who would love to have the United States of America bomb Iran. When I met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, he said to me point blank the only way to deal with Iran is bomb them. When I met with President Mubarak of Egypt, he said you have to bomb Iran, you know. And I said, yeah, and if we do, Mr. President, you’ll be the first person out there criticizing us the next morning. Of course I will, ha, ha, ha, ha. I mean, this was, you know—(laughter)—
RUBENSTEIN: OK. But, I mean, the counter-argument would be—
KERRY: And the prime minister of Israel visited Washington and asked Obama for permission to go bomb Iran. And Obama, to his credit, though, whoa, wait a minute, we can’t rush to that; we need to see if diplomacy can work.
So we put diplomacy to the test, and guess what? We took Iran from two months away from having a nuclear weapon to more than a year of breakout time. We got 130 additional inspectors into Iran. We limited them to a three-hundred-kilogram stockpile with which you cannot make a nuclear weapon. We limited them to 3.67 percent enrichment. We took twenty-seven thousand centrifuges down to about five thousand. We destroyed their plutonium reactor. I mean, this is the single strongest, most far-reaching, transparent agreement on the face of the planet, and he’s just walking away.
Final comment. Last week in New York, China, Russia, France, Germany, Britain met with Iran to talk about how they keep the deal alive. They’re working to keep it alive; Trump’s moving in another direction. Same thing with Paris, and we can get into that. So this is a very destructive, dangerous foreign policy that puts our nation at risk.
RUBENSTEIN: The counter-argument might be by the Trump people, well, he’s withdrawn, but the Iranians are still complying with the agreement and the Europeans are willing to go along with our sanctions still, so—
KERRY: No, the Europeans are fighting to find a way to fund—to have business continue with Iran without running awry of our sanctions. And the Europeans are enraged at the notion that their ally, the United States of America, is unilaterally deciding what to do with Iran, putting them at risk and hurting the ability for them to do—to make choices about their own business. It’s—so—
RUBENSTEIN: OK. Well, now, when you’re having a negotiation in the United States, when you’re in the United States Senate, sometimes in the cloakrooms they’ll say let me tell you what I can really do, or let’s go have a Coke or something, or coffee. When you’re negotiating with the Iranians, are they the same? Do they say, here’s what I can do. I got this crazy guy who’s the supreme leader. I can’t get around him. Let me tell you what I can do. Is it like that? Or they didn’t give you kind of those insights of what—
KERRY: Well, first of all, in the Senate, David, back in the day, they wouldn’t offer you a Coke. They would just—(laughter)—
RUBENSTEIN: Oh, would it be—well, Diet Coke maybe, or?
KERRY: No, no, it was—
RUBENSTEIN: It was something stronger, OK. (Laughter.) But anyway, so, I mean—
KERRY: Serious stuff.
RUBENSTEIN: Is it like—negotiating with the Iranians, was it like negotiating with senators, where they tell you what they really can do, or they’re never that frank with you?
KERRY: No, it was very—it’s a very—it was a very—it’s very difficult. No, they’re never that frank with you, and it’s a very—it was a very complicated negotiation. I worked for two years with the Omanis and others to just figure out whether it was possible to have a negotiation, and it really didn’t become fully possible until Rouhani was elected and I sat down with Zarif in New York at the United Nations in September. It was the first time we had met. It was the first time a U.S. secretary of state met with the Iranian foreign minister in almost forty years.
You know, I believe in engagement. Evidently Trump does too, because he is in love with Kim Jong-un now. (Laughter.) So he’s engaged in engagement. And—
RUBENSTEIN: So let me ask you about another agreement that the president has withdrawn from—you mentioned it before—the Paris Climate Agreement. I assume you’re not happy with his decision there. And do you think that really means anything to withdraw? Because it takes years to technically withdraw, as I understand it, so we’re really not out of it.
KERRY: Well, we’re not out of it, but we’re out of it. I mean, we’re not out of it technically, you’re correct. We don’t technically sever our relationship with the Paris Agreement until—get this—the day after the 2020 election. So there’s some motivation in the course of the next months to make sure that’s an issue in the—in the—in the race.
But, look, I’m upset by it, and it’s not personal. I don’t—well, I mean, I guess—I guess if you consider a livelihood of your children and your grandchildren, it is personal. What Trump has done is going to cost lives. I can’t put it more bluntly. What Trump has done is going to cost billions of dollars of damage and may wind up making it too late for countries to respond.
Now, David, yesterday I think it was The Washington Post had a terrific article summarizing the negotiations going on right now between the scientists of the—of the IPCC, who wrote the original report about climate change. And they’re trying to figure out—you know what they’re debating? They’re debating how to manage delivering bad news, how to write this in a way that will be palatable, that people can actually digest and then perhaps function on, because we are already at one degree of increase of temperature. The goal in Paris was to keep the temperature to 1.5 (degrees) as a really aspirational goal, and the fundamental goal was two degrees centigrade of warming.
We are on course today, as we sit here, to hit four degrees centigrade in this century, seventy-five years from now. So my grandchildren will experience it. And we’re already seeing the impacts. The impacts are devastating. We have a storm in Texas, Harvey, which was a once-in-fifty-thousand-years storm. We’ve had twenty-six once-in-five-hundred-years storms over the course of the last decade. If you go into the—there’s a graph that was incorporated into the story, and if you punch it on your iPhone you will see from 1880 or something the tracking of anomalies in temperatures in various cities of the world. And it goes from blue and blue and a little bit of yellow into almost sheer red by today.
The last decade? The hottest decade in human history. The last year? The hottest year in human history. The decade before that? The second-hottest in history. The decade before that? The third hottest in history. When does a leader start to say this is serious?
And, you know, what we did in Paris was not guarantee we were going to keep the Earth’s temperature to two degrees centigrade. We sent a message to the marketplace, to the private sector, that 196 countries were going to move in the same direction. It’s the world’s biggest market, David. It’s the—it’s four to five billion users today. It’s going to be nine billion users in the next twenty, thirty years. It’s going to be a multitrillion-dollar market. And we—we’re betting on the private sector giving us the battery storage we need, lowering the price even further on solar, because of use. The demand has worked. In the last year, $358 billion went to alternative, renewable, sustainable energy, the first time in history that we spent more money there than on fossil fuel.
But the danger is we’re not doing it fast enough. I’m working right now to try to get Vietnam off of coal. We’ve made a proposal to them with McKinsey Company and Citibank and others to show them how we could finance the saving of $50 billion in their budget; move them into a virtuous cycle with solar, wind, hydro, and gas; and we’re having trouble moving them away from coal. But we have to stop using—I mean, coal is the dirtiest fuel there is. And yet, China is going to move to 250 gigawatts of more coal. You’ve got India moving still towards coal. We’re killing—we’re going to kill ourselves the way we’re going.
So I’m serious about this. I’m deadly serious about it, and people in public life need to be deadly serious about it. And it’s not a choice between the environment and jobs. There are more jobs—we have fifty-five thousand coalminers or people associated with the industry today; we have three hundred thousand people in alternative/renewable energy in America alone. So there are many more people already working in this field.
And the idea that we’re pulling out and we’re going to lose American leadership, there’s only one reason. Paris happened because President Obama and I went to China, and I went and negotiated with Xi, and we got an agreement that the Chinese would for the first time be part of the solution. That’s how we got it done. And Trump is now moving away. And I’ll tell all of you here today that because of that leaders in other countries are now actually saying to themselves, well, we—the U.S. isn’t doing this. They don’t think it’s important. And people are moving in the opposite direction rather than the way we were moving.
RUBENSTEIN: So let’s talk about President Obama for a moment. When you were the nominee of the party for president in 2004 you had the right to pick the keynote speaker at the Democratic Convention in Boston, and you picked a skinny state senator from Illinois. Had you really met him before? And—
KERRY: Yes. No, no, I met him. I met him when I went to Chicago. I met him at an event we did together. I listened—
RUBENSTEIN: All right. He got a lot of attention. So you picked him. He gave a speech that was well-regarded.
KERRY: He gave the speech I thought he’d give and he became a star.
RUBENSTEIN: So when he was the presidential nominee and elected president, did he ever call you and say thank you for giving me this—(laughter)—did he ever do that, or that didn’t happen?
KERRY: You know what he did? On Inauguration Day, when I walked up to congratulate him in the Capitol afterwards, after the ceremony, with Ted Kennedy and others, he took a program and he wrote me a note, which I have, which is framed. And it said: I’m here because of you. Thank you.
RUBENSTEIN: OK. So later he thanked you, perhaps, by making you—
KERRY: No, I don’t know if I can cash that in or not. (Laughter.)
RUBENSTEIN: He made you secretary of state, but—
KERRY: I’m trying to figure it out. (Laughs.)
RUBENSTEIN: You point out in your book one of the frustrating things in being secretary of state under him was Syria. You were all geared up to launch a search—launch a mission against Syria for chemical weapons, and you had briefed people about it, and all of a sudden the president said I don’t think so. You write about it fairly skillfully and you don’t really criticize him that much directly in the book, but can you describe how embarrassing it might have been for you at the time, or?
KERRY: I didn’t think I criticized him in the book, but that’s all right.
RUBENSTEIN: Well, I think in the book you said that you didn’t really understand him as well. Maybe—
KERRY: Well, I told the—I told the—I told the truth of what the discussion was. But, look, let me make it clear, I didn’t have frustrations and I didn’t live with some general frustration about being secretary of state for Barack Obama. He gave me more leash, more leeway than most presidents ever give to a secretary of state. He allowed me to go out there and screw up or, you know, make an effort.
RUBENSTEIN: On the Syrian agreement, you—
KERRY: On the Syrian agreement, we disagreed. On Syria, I believed from the get go—when I was being confirmed I was asked, what do we do about Syria? And I repeatedly said, as I believe to this day, we have to change Assad’s calculation. Assad was calculating that he didn’t have to do anything. And I thought that once we got an agreement, which we got—with Russia, with Iran, with all the parties in the region—that we would have a ceasefire. And we had several very serious ceasefires, folks. I mean, they lasted for three months, four months on occasion. I thought during that time, when it was clear that Assad was breaking the ceasefire by flying his planes, dropping barrel bombs, and there was a sense of impunity, and Russia was not yet in Syria, I thought that we needed to make it clear to him there was a very serious cost to this aberrational behavior, and I wanted to take his planes out. I wanted to take his airfields out. I wanted to take some assets out that would make it clear to him we might yet come in, and then leverage to go to Geneva and get something done.
RUBENSTEIN: Right. You—
KERRY: There are certain situations where, if another’s country interest or another party’s interest is not so powerful that it makes them behave a certain way, the only way to get people to negotiate in that circumstance is to push them and give them a reason to want to negotiate. And we didn’t do that.
RUBENSTEIN: In the—in the book, you thought that we were going to launch Tomahawk missiles or something like that. We decided not to do it because the president said he wanted to go to Congress to get their approval. Congress didn’t want to give approval. But then you kind of fixed it by working out a deal with the Russians so that the chemical weapons would be taken out, and that was trumpeted as a pretty good agreement. But later the Syrians seemed to still have chemical weapons.
KERRY: Well, we knew that at the time, David. There was no illusion about that. In fact, we went to the U.N. Security Council to get the other weapons.
At the time we agreed under the OPCW—the Organization for the Prevention (sic; Prohibition) of Chemical Weapons—structure, you have a declare—declaration with respect to what your weapons are. It’s what the administration now is trying to get from Kim Jong-un, and they should get—and should have gotten, frankly, in some structured way as part of the original meeting in Singapore. But they didn’t really think about the communique or what the results needed to be; it was more focused on the glitz.
Let me talk for a minute on Syria.
RUBENSTEIN: OK, go ahead.
KERRY: So, in Syria, we got 1,300 tons of the major stockpile of chemical weapons, which was the best that the OPCW could do to assess what they had versus what they declared, which is always a trouble. And in the middle of conflict, which is what we were in, it was exceedingly difficult to put people in over a long period of time to verify what they might have had left. We started to do it.
So we knew they’d hidden a few things. We knew that there was a discrepancy between the 1,300 tons and what we thought was remaining. So we went back to the U.N. Security Council and said we need to get in, we need to inspect, we need to get the rest of the weapons out. And as the war deteriorated and as—and when Russia came in in September of 2015, that got even more complicated. And Russia blocked us several times at the U.N. because they didn’t want us in a position to hold Assad accountable at that point.
So we did the best we could get them all out. But I’ll you this, thank God we got that deal to get the 1,300 tons out, because when ISIS swept across Syria those weapons would have fallen into the hands of ISIS. And, you know, the subways of London or Paris, or airports, or other things clearly would have seen an ISIS retaliation as a result of that.
But in fairness also to President Obama, David Cameron went to Parliament without asking us or advising us. He just went to Parliament because he felt he needed to have a vote. And on Thursday, he lost that vote—the Thursday before the weekend when we were going to bomb. And on Friday we had a meeting in—or earlier, I think, even, we had a meeting in which the president was really only talking about what action we were going to take. But on Friday, after Cameron lost the vote, he had a long conversation, I think, with Denis McDonough, or I’m not sure exactly how it evolved. I got a call at 9:30 at night at home from the president: John, I’m thinking about this and that, about having to go to Congress. We need to have the Congress invested in this. Cameron just lost his vote. There’s a—there’s a—you know, I don’t want to be hanging out on a limb without—if we can get their support very quickly, it’s worth it. Biden and I and the president all believed we could get Congress to move very quickly and it was worth it. And, lo and behold, Congress was not willing to endorse and embrace some responsibility for it, and so that’s when it got more difficult.
RUBENSTEIN: A lot of your efforts as secretary of state—early on as secretary of state, and you wrote a lot about it in the book, were designed to bring peace to the Middle East, the Palestinian-Israel issue. Why do you think that didn’t come to pass? And do you think there’s any prospect of getting an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians now or in the foreseeable future?
KERRY: No. No.
RUBENSTEIN: OK. Want to go to the next subject, or are you—(laughter)—it was just—it was the most frustrating thing you worked on?
KERRY: Look, well, of course it’s frustrating. I mean, I still believe deeply that you have to have two states. I believe that there will not be real peace in the Middle East without it. I think Israel faces a fundamental—and I say this as a great friend of Israel; twenty-eight years, I had a 100 percent voting record. And we did a lot for Israel. We put Iron Dome in. We created a $38 billion, ten-year military memorandum of understanding on the annual budget and so forth. We went to countless numbers of international organizations and beat back assaults on Israel.
But I think the biggest assault on Israel ultimately will come from the absence of peace, of genuine peace. And if you have a greater population in Israel that is non-Jewish in a unitary state, the looming question is, how can that state be a Jewish state and a democracy? That’s the question I put to the world in December of the final year of our—of our term because I think it is the critical issue.
What’s happening is Oslo Accords decided that there would be two states, that there would be a turnover of the West Bank over the course of a year and a half, that the West Bank would be divided into area A, B, and C: A being the Palestinians have both security and administrative authority; B, Israel keeps security, Palestinians have administrative; and, C, the—reverse that—and, C, Israel keeps both administrative and security. The larger proportion of the West Bank, sixty percent of it, is C. And what’s been happening since Oslo is more and more settlers are moving into C. We’ve gone from one hundred and ten thousand settlers at Oslo to over five hundred thousand today. We are now in a situation where there is a slow annexing of portions of the West Bank. The settlements have grown sufficiently that you clearly have to embrace the biggest settlements and bring them into Israel.
So we said we can get ninety percent of all the settlers into Israel. We would—we would—we would annex Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Adumim, Ariel, the major settlements that exist, bring them into Israel, and then deal—and then, for people who wanted to stay in the West Bank, you could stay, but you’ll live under Palestinian law.
The problem is there’s been a slow reversal of—a slow reversal of Oslo. There are eleven thousand pending Palestinian structure demolition orders. Outposts that are deemed illegal when they’re built are now being translated into legal and are becoming settlements, and you have this reversal. So the question remains: What kind of citizenship will non-Jews have in a unitary state? Will some factotum thing be created? If so, it won’t be accepted by the Palestinians as a viable contiguous state, so you will have perpetual conflict. And what will happen eventually is, you know, with Hamas remaining in Gaza and an inability to resolve even the difference between Palestinians, someone is going to at some point get fed up with the status quo and take matters into their own hands. That’s not peace.
So I think, David, what we wound up with—and I don’t feel a personal failure about it. I think it’s a failure for the international community and for life, because neither leader was prepared to take the risk to do what was necessary to make it happen. And you know, you can lead a horse to water, you can’t make them drink? In this case, you couldn’t lead two horses to water in the desert and make them drink. And that’s where we are.
And final comment is I think that the truth of what I’ve just said is in the fact that the majority of the current governing cabinet of Israel has publicly stated there will never be a Palestinian state. So if that’s the government’s position, it’s going to be up to Israel and Israelis and Palestinians to figure it out. We can’t do it for them. We can’t impose it on them. But it’s a very difficult situation.
RUBENSTEIN: Now, when President Obama met with President-elect Trump in the Oval Office right after the election, President Obama apparently said to President-elect Trump, the biggest problem you’re going to have is North Korea. Now President Trump has met with Kim Jong-un. Everything is fine. Everybody’s happy. Why didn’t you think of meeting with Kim Jong-un? (Laughter.)
KERRY: Well, we did. Obviously, we thought a lot about meeting with Kim Jong-un, and we worked at it very hard through back channels. And there were a number of different things. First of all, the sanctions—the sanctions on North Korea today, which does have nuclear weapons, are less than the sanctions ever were against Iran, which did not have nuclear weapons. So we had much tougher sanctions against Iran than we ever did, or do now, against North Korea.
I went to China several times and worked with President Xi and his leaders, the leaders of China, to ratchet up the sanctions against North Korea. And we pointed out repeatedly—I mean, I literally sat as close as I am you to me to President Xi, and I said, Mr. President, you provide one hundred percent of the fuel to North Korea. Every plane that flies, every car and truck that drives, you’re fueling. You provide one hundred percent of the banking, such as it is. It all goes through Beijing. You have the ability to put real pressure on him.
So they would reluctantly ratchet up slowly, which we did on two or three occasions with them. But when we left, we told President Trump and the administration incoming, you’ve got to get the sanctions up more. They’ve got to bite harder before this guy is going to move. And so they did get them ratcheted up twice, to their credit. And ultimately he did move, and they’ve had a conversation.
But we weren’t willing to meet unless we got some confidence-building indication of freeze on the system, what they were willing to do. And right now they haven’t frozen the building of nuclear weapons. Our intel community is telling us that while this wonderful romantic dance is taking place, they’re very busy building more weapons.
And one of the reasons why he can afford to destroy one of his facilities is that he’s just making weapons. They don’t need the facility to test. They did the testing. They’ve got the weapon. Now they’re just, you know, building up the arsenal. So it makes it harder for us, because we don’t know where that arsenal is. We don’t know where he’s hiding the weapons.
And as Lindsey Graham said yesterday—Lindsey was quite cautionary about it. He said, I’m really worried that we’re getting taken on this. And that’s the problem. We insisted on evidence and a process, not just a meeting. And, by the way, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have insisted similarly on a reality check here. President Trump was willing to just go have a meeting. That’s the difference.
RUBENSTEIN: Let me ask you a couple of questions, before we have questions from our members, about your background. One is, you went to Vietnam and you won the various medals I mentioned. But when you ran for president in 2004, people criticized you for—I don’t know—not winning enough medals or maybe you didn’t deserve the medals you won. How could that have happened? How did you let that happen?
KERRY: Well, we didn’t let it happen. We countered—it gets pretty complicated, David, in a lot of ways.
First of all, obviously, if you’re a soldier and you’re in a war, you don’t control where or how you get wounded. And they saw fit to try to attack, because they had a group of people who were still angry about my opposing the war when I came home. That’s really what it was all about.
KERRY: And they were prepared to lie at the record. Now, we countered the lie. Every major newspaper in America carried my record, my service record. My military records were made public. Every person on my boat, on both boats who were part of any action I saw, were out in public countering and telling exactly what happened. Guys on other boats who were very close to us in the action did.
And what happened is the group that is now actually the same group of people—they’re the same—I think it’s a firm, a PR firm or something, that is currently working the Kavanaugh nomination is the same group that was working what we would—you know, the swift boat guys. And what they did was they put ads up on TV that were powerful that challenged me, and we did not have countermanding ads for various reasons—
RUBENSTEIN: Well, why were you in Vietnam to begin with? People of your background very often in that period of time were figuring out how to get in the Reserves and staying in the States. And you ran against somebody for president who didn’t go to Vietnam. So was it frustrating for you that you were running against somebody who didn’t go to Vietnam? And also why did you go?
KERRY: Well, yes, it was frustrating. (Laughter.) And it was frustrating to the point I wanted to—look, I made the mistakes. My campaign, I made a decision. I was advised by everybody in the world in politics, do not be your own campaign manager. Everybody says that to you in politics. And so I tried to heed the—OK, I may not be correct here. And a whole bunch of incoming data and information, from polling and otherwise, suggested America doesn’t care about what happened thirty years ago. They know you’re telling the truth. Your records have been out there. You’ve got to get back to the issues that matter in the campaign.
I kept saying, no, I think this goes to who I am. This is a core issue, and I’ve got to answer it more directly. And we had a big fight in the campaign over it. And we ultimately did decide to cut an ad. I thought it was going up. It didn’t go up. And that’s another issue.
KERRY: But the bottom line, David, is that I wanted to stop the campaign and give a speech, much as Barack Obama did on Reverend Wright. I thought I should do that on the whole subject and on Vietnam. If I had it to do over again, that’s the one thing I would do over. I would do that. And from that moment forward, everything I did as secretary of state, everything I did as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, I did based on my gut, pure gut. That’s the only way to operate.
RUBENSTEIN: In that election—
KERRY: Great lesson learned.
RUBENSTEIN: In that election, the exit polls indicated you were likely to win. In fact, somebody called you Mr. President already that afternoon.
KERRY: It was a great five-hour presidency. (Laughter.)
RUBENSTEIN: Right. But—
KERRY: It was a great administration—flawless, folks. We had no scandals.
RUBENSTEIN: Some people said that you should have contested Ohio—
RUBENSTEIN: —because in Ohio there seemed to be, some people said, voter fraud. You decided not to contest it. Why did you not contest Ohio? Because had you won Ohio, you would have been president.
KERRY: Well, it was a hard decision, obviously, a very, very hard decision. I sat in my kitchen in Boston with Ted Kennedy and my brother and Teresa, and we talked about it at length, obviously. I didn’t concede till late in the afternoon on Wednesday.
And there were many reasons to want to challenge Ohio—the Diebold machines, which were owned by two brothers who were both chairs of the Bush campaign from Nebraska. We challenged those machines before the election. We actually wanted to test the algorithm to make sure that it was on the up and up. And we were denied by the court. We were denied access to do that on the basis that it was proprietary information. And I write in the book about the absurdity of the notion that machines that are being used to elect the president of the United States is proprietary to a private corporation of partisans. We can’t function that way.
But, you know, we had machines in—we had machines taken out the morning of the election day of precincts in Ohio when they called our headquarters and said, on pushing Kerry, it comes up Bush. And we had those machines taken out.
But David, here’s the problem. At the end of the day, the count, the numbers of provisional ballots versus, you know, the tens of—whatever it was—sixty thousand gap, would not have been made up by the provisional ballots themselves. And, you know, we didn’t have the kind of smoking gun that you needed.
RUBENSTEIN: But some people said you had extra money that you didn’t spend in Ohio, and turned out later you had—
KERRY: Well, we had extra money that you keep in case you have to have a recount, in case you have to have a challenge, and so forth.
RUBENSTEIN: There’s one way—
RUBENSTEIN: —to solve this problem.
KERRY: Let me just finish. (Laughter.) The one thing—
KERRY: —is that I knew that if we challenged on a probably due process, equal protection under law, because precincts—our people were waiting ten and twelve hours to vote. Republicans were racing through their precincts. You know, there were more machines in the Republican, less—that’s not equal protection. That’s not a fair vote. But if I’d challenged, I knew the challenge was going to come out exactly where Al Gore came out.
RUBENSTEIN: Five to four.
KERRY: There was going to be a 5-4 decision. In the end it would be awarded. And I felt very deeply—and I said this at the time—I just didn’t think the United States of America, we needed another round of three months of being in a war. We’re one year into the war at that point in Iraq. I didn’t think that it was going to—
RUBENSTEIN: Well, there is a way to solve this problem.
KERRY: —take us where we needed to go.
RUBENSTEIN: And let me just ask you a final question. The way to solve that problem—
KERRY: I know what you’re going to come up with, but no. (Laughter.)
RUBENSTEIN: You could redo Ohio and you could, you know, solve all the problems we’ve just talked about by doing something in 2020. Have you had any thoughts about that ever?
KERRY: Have you had any thoughts about funding a major presidential campaign? (Laughter, applause.)
RUBENSTEIN: Well, we’ll see. OK. Well, if we keep the carried-interest rules maybe. (Laughter.) But OK.
So Jane? Jane or—
Q: Jane Harman, Wilson Center. Good morning.
As we speak, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is landing in Pyongyang to negotiate with Kim Jong-un about a second summit with the president, and perhaps whatever is the predicate to that. Does President Trump’s pulling out unilaterally from the Iran agreement make it harder for the negotiation in Pyongyang to yield something that would be acceptable to most of the people in this room as a predicate for the next step with North Korea?
KERRY: Well, that’s a hard—you know, that’s a hard one to guess at. I’m guessing at it, because there’s no way to know what’s in Jim Jong-un’s mind. But I think not necessarily, for the simple reason that Trump is Trump and he’s not going to pull out of his own deal, I presume, if he got one. So at least, you know, Kim Jong-un knows that he’s dealing with.
But I don’t think it’s going to be very easy to get very far very quickly on this. I think they’re operating with—let me begin—threshold. We want them to succeed. Everybody does. We need this to work. I hope Secretary Pompeo gets the details that we need in order to be in a position to move forward, which require some sense of what is the mutually accepted concept of denuclearization. What’s the definition here? What are we both trying to achieve? And if you can reach an agreement on that, we’ve gone a long way.
Number two, where is their arsenal? What is the size of their arsenal? And how are we going to be allowed to ascertain that there isn’t additional arsenal elsewhere? Those would be the most critical components of this. And so if they can arrive at that, then maybe there’s somewhere to go here.
But most people who’ve been following this for a long time—and, by the way, I don’t want to suggest that there is an inherent wisdom because you’ve been following something for a long time. You can be wrong. You can have old thinking. I mean, I believe in new-think. And you always have to test your own propositions and your own theories. You can’t be stuck. So I’m not stuck. I’m not saying this is only way to do this.
But I think he has a different sense of what denuclearization is. It means certain things done by the United States that we may well not be willing to do in terms of timing on troop deployments, amounts of troop deployments, where they might be, what kind of weapons we might be allowed to have in the region, what the relationship might be with Japan or Korea. Those are big concepts here, and they’re all going to have to be fleshed out. And I think you know this.
So I wish him well. I hope the administration can—it is far better to be doing what we’re doing now than to have a tweet storm leading you to conflict. And so I think everybody should hope that this mission can be successful. Let’s see where we are.
RUBENSTEIN: Right here. Right here. Stand up please, identify yourself, and then one simple question.
KERRY: You’re not getting this very well? OK.
Q: Michael Gordon, Wall Street Journal.
Sir, a few weeks ago Secretary Pompeo criticized you rather severely for your meetings with Foreign Minister Zarif, and essentially accused you of undermining American foreign policy. And he did this from the podium, as you know, in the State Department briefing room. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a secretary of state criticize a predecessor in that way, certainly not in that kind of language.
My question is, when did you last communicate with Foreign Minister Zarif? And what was your message to him? Did you urge him to stay in the JCPOA? Would Secretary Pompeo’s—did his—would his statement deter you from communicating again with the Iranian foreign minister? And what is your basic response to this criticism from the current secretary of state?
KERRY: Well, I gave my basic response very directly. In fact, I gave it also to the president. I think the president tweeted that day about my having had a conversation, and I—and I said in my tweet that I really thought that the conversation the president should be worried about that day was the conversation that Paul Manafort had with Robert Mueller. (Laughter.) So I was very blunt about it. And that was the day that Robert Mueller cut a deal with Manafort. So I suspect there was an element of distraction in the attack, number one.
Number two, it was, as usual by this administration, completely fictional, without a basis in historical analysis or fact, because the meetings that I had—which I was the one—I acknowledged these meetings. Why? Because they took place at international convenings and conferences. I saw the foreign minister in Norway at an Oslo peace conference called the Oslo Forum, I saw him in Munich at the Munich Security Conference, and I saw him in New York at the U.N. General Assembly on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, as did sitting United States senators, The New York Times Editorial Board, the Council on Foreign Relations, and many other people. And as far as I know in the United States of America still private citizens have the right to have conversations with people in other countries. I wasn’t negotiating anything in the world. And at the time I was supportive of American policy because we were still in the Iran nuclear agreement, and I wanted to know what their reaction might be if he did pull out, what were the options to try to fix things in the region, what was their attitude about missiles and Israel and their threats and Iraq and interference in Yemen, and was there a road to diplomacy to move forward.
Before the president made the decision to pull out, I had a long conversation with Secretary Pompeo on the telephone. And he was very cordial. It was a very open, frank conversation. He listened carefully. And I conveyed all the arguments and reasons gleaned from those conversations as to why it was not advisable to get out. And I suggested the better course for the administration was, in fact, to build the support of Russia, China, France, Germany, Britain by saying to them I want to get out of this agreement, I don’t like the agreement; but if you will agree to work with me in conjunction to get results on the things we don’t like with respect to Hezbollah, arms trafficking, terrorism, Israel, Iraq, then I’ll agree to stay in the agreement for the next two years until we get that follow-on agreement which could help fix things that we don’t like. To me, that would have been smart, good diplomacy. It was the way to try to do this, not just abruptly pull out, rupture your relationship with your own allies, and go off on a flier unilaterally that is going to empower people you don’t want empowered in Iran, as I said earlier.
Now, they chose not to do that, Michael. And from the moment of that choice until today, I have not had any conversation with any Iranians. Our policy has changed. It’s not up to me to go to them and try to suggest what they do or don’t do. But it wouldn’t stop me from having a normal conversation with them, as any former senator, secretary of state, or citizen might do, to learn about their attitudes and their—and perhaps, you know, some potential choices for the future, which I would then convey to the administration very readily and very willingly. So, frankly, I thought that playing politics from the podium and I thought playing politics with that issue in the way they did that day was, in fact, what was inappropriate and unseemly.
RUBENSTEIN: OK. Right here. Right here. Mic.
Q: Thank you. Steve Charnovitz from George Washington University Law School.
Senator, you talked about the urgency of action on—
KERRY: Are you demoting me now, “senator”? (Laughter.) I’m just—I love senator. (Laughter.)
Q: You’ve talked about the urgency of action on climate change and mentioned the Paris Agreement, and the one thing you said about it was that it sent the signal to the market. You didn’t say a lot about the content, the norms, the obligations in the Paris Agreement because they are not a lot of them, which is odd given how important the problem is. So my question to you: Is the design of the Paris Agreement, without much in the way of substantive obligations, is that—was that design dictated because you thought that was the best way to address the climate problem, or was it dictated by the fact that you didn’t think you could get congressional support for a treaty that had to be implemented or Senate support for a treaty that went to the Senate, as the climate change—
KERRY: Well, several of those. Very good question, and it’s really several of those.
Look, I’ve been to most of the conferences of the parties through the years. I was in Kyoto. It was a mess. I remember the difficulty of the negotiations. And when I came back and was in the Senate I was responsible for managing Kyoto on the floor of the Senate, and I remember dueling with Robert Byrd and others on how we might try to build support. And what became evident was it was impossible. We wound up passing a resolution, ninety-five to nothing I think it was, because we had to kind of join in to this notion that other countries have to do something. Now, this was back in a period of time where the top twenty countries represented probably, you know, eighty-five percent, ninety percent of all the emissions in the world. The developing world had not yet gotten to a point where their contribution was so significant it made a big difference. Now it does. Now you can’t solve the problem of climate change without the developing world also being part of the solution. So there’s been a melding of need here.
But what I decided was—and what we all decided; what the president understood and everybody involved in it—was we’re just not going to be able to make progress if we try to get a mandatory structure because we can’t resolve the difference between the developed countries and the needs of the developing countries. And the developing countries, which China was leading—the G-77 bloc was led by China—and there was this—there was this phrase which had grown up in the context of climate negotiations, common but differentiated responsibility. The common responsibility was that everybody had to do something. The differentiated was clearly developing countries couldn’t do what the developed were going to do, so you had to arrive at what the differentiated components of the deal were.
So realizing that, that’s what drove me to go to China, first six weeks of being secretary, to say to the Chinese, look, you need to care about this. And I knew from my prior visits to China that the leaders in Beijing, in China, respond in the same way we should and do usually in politics, which is if your citizens are expressing a need and an anger or frustration about something, you need to address it. They’re sensitive about that in China. Mayors and governors were actually saying we’re hearing a lot about the quality of the water. We’re getting a lot of feedback. People don’t like the air they’re breathing over here. And the party felt a need to respond to that, so we built on that to get China to come into the deal.
But we still knew we had to have differentiation in what people were going to do if we were going to get an agreement. So we agreed to try to bring people to Paris understanding that the real boon of Paris would be getting everyone onboard to do something. Knowing we couldn’t get everybody to do what we—if I had my druthers and was able to mandate here are the levels you’ve got to meet, we’d have had a very different agreement. But we’d have never had an agreement.
So we had no choice in Paris but to try to do the best we could to move the world in a different direction. That’s why I said the real significance of Paris was that 196 countries each agreed to do what they could. And this is partly why, David, the president mislead America. On the day he got out, he stood up and said: This Paris Agreement places an undue burden on the United States. No, it didn’t place an undue; we accepted the burden that we defined for ourselves. And we only accepted to do what the business community and all American entities involved in this felt we could do.
So we had ExxonMobil. We had Shell. We had BP. We had all the major oil companies, everybody urging the passage of Paris because it was within the capacity of what we could do. So the value of the Paris Agreement was it began the process. And obviously we were counting on a president and a following-on administration that would pick up the baton and continue to carry it to get done the things we needed to do. Example, we agreed in Paris to put $100 billion into the Green Climate Fund. There’s 10 billion (dollars) in it. Three billion (dollars) of it came from our commitment. And we’ve only put in one billion (dollars). One billion (dollars) because we got it under the budget before we left. And it’s impossible to get any money in there now in the Trump administration.
So, folks, what’s that money for? That money is to help less-developed countries be able to get electricity, develop their economies, but do it in a way that is sustainable—not by building coal-fired power plants. Instead, no money, no effort, people are starting to shred at the very moment that we face one of the greatest challenges we’ve ever faced on this planet. I believe we should not be building one new coal-fired power plant anywhere. We don’t have to. I would rather build a nuclear plant in a nanosecond.
And when I was negotiating the deal in the Senate, which we got up to fifty-five votes on, we had a coalition of faith-based community, environment community, of business, chamber of commerce, and all of the stakeholders agreeing we would have a price on carbon—which the oil companies were ready to accept—and have a nuclear component where we would actually help reestablish the nuclear pipeline. Because now it’s very expensive because we don’t have a pipeline. We’re doing one-offs. But if we had fourth-generation modular, we could begin to put energy out there very quickly and in a very safe way. And we could deal with this problem, folks.
The solution to climate change is not something we have discover in the future. It’s here. We know what it is. It’s energy policy. Right now, we’re letting solar contracts for 3 cents a kilowatt hour, 2.9 cents. It is absolutely cheaper than coal. And when you do an honest accounting—which we don’t do anywhere in the world, coal is vastly more expensive because no accounting takes into account black lung. No accounting takes into account coal sludge in rivers, lakes and streams. No accounting takes into account the impact of transporting coal in trains and spillage and so forth. And no accounting takes into the fact we spend $55 billion a year in the United States of America on the greatest cause of children being hospitalized in the summer, which is environmentally-induced asthma.
So, folks, it’s vastly more expensive to use coal, not to mention what we’re doing to our planet overall. So I think in answer to your question, we have an ability to be able to do what we—what we can do under Paris, with the hopes that it was going to move us to a stronger position of doing what we need to do in time. And regrettably, because of Trump, we’re in extremis now.
RUBENSTEIN: In the remaining few minutes we have a couple of personal questions. You—first of all, what’s the—the title of this book, Every Day is Extra, where’d the title come from? What does it refer to?
KERRY: The title comes from a saying that a lot of the guys who came back from Vietnam with me had, or my crew, that we were the lucky ones. We could have been killed on any given day—any of us. We came back—
RUBENSTEIN: Did you come close to getting killed?
KERRY: Many times. Sure. I mean, when you say many times, if you count—
RUBENSTEIN: Well, people were shooting at you, I guess. (Laughter.)
KERRY: I mean, if you count—I had one-hundred-and-some holes in my boat—
RUBENSTEIN: Do you have shrapnel in your body now?
KERRY: I do have shrapnel in my body. But if one of those holes that was four inches below my head had been four inches lower, I wouldn’t be here today. So that’s coming close. If you count watching a B-40 rocket fishtail 10 yards in front of your boat, in front of you, and explode in another bank because it missed you, that’s coming close sure. We were lucky. I mean, one of my best friends was killed because the B-40 rocket didn’t fishtail in front of the boat. It went right into the pilot house and killed him. So those of us who came back believed we had a responsibly to live a purposeful life, to live a life that does honor to the legacy of those who gave theirs for our democracy. We have to make our democracy work and work better than it is today.
RUBENSTEIN: Why don’t we end on a—your initials are JFK. I’m sure people have pointed it out to you before.
KERRY: And I’ve run away from it ever since President Kennedy got elected. (Laughter.)
RUBENSTEIN: OK. But you might—you describe in the book—and why don’t we close on this? You describe in the book how you met President Kennedy. You went sailing with him. And described what happened when you realized that he had been shot. Where were you when you realized he had been killed?
KERRY: I was—I was a sophomore at Yale, playing in the Harvard-Yale soccer game. I had just come off and—
RUBENSTEIN: You had met him earlier, though.
KERRY: I had met him earlier. I’d met him when I—when I first—I met him in between high school and college, when I was working for Ted Kennedy’s Senate campaign. And I was—I was—I’d just been substituted. I came off the bench. I was sitting on the bench. And this ripple went through the crowd. And I heard people saying: The president’s been shot. The president’s been shot. And that ripple of he’s been shot turned into, oh my God, the president’s been killed. He’s assassinated. One o’clock Central time, 2:00 p.m.—I remember it and I wrote about it in the book. I didn’t even remember who won the game. I actually had to go research. I had to go back to the old daily news to find out who won the game, or if we even finished the game. Didn’t remember. But that period of time was pretty tumultuous. It’s actually is probably a good way to end this morning.
RUBENSTEIN: When you met him on a sailboat, you met him—what was he like? I mean, did he say what are you doing on my sailboat? I mean, you were a college kid, or something? And you’re using my initials? Did he say anything about that?
KERRY: How’d the Secret Service let you get here? I don’t know. No, you know, it’s really funny. I was driving down from Boston. I was working at First National Stores loading trucks. I had a pretty typical summer job for a college student. And I was racing down because I’d been invited down to visit a friend who was in the household. And I was late. I drove up. There was one Secret Service guy out in front of the—it’s called Hammersmith Farm in Rhode Island, Newport. And he waved me in. I said who I am, and they knew I was coming. And so I go in. One guy. One guy outside the house. Hi, I’m John Kerry. Oh, yeah, you’re expected. Go on in.
I walk in, and there’s nobody in the foyer. And I look over in the dining room, and there’s this guy standing there, white pants and blue polo shirt. Turns around, it’s the president of the United States. And he walks over towards me. And I am so green I don’t know what I’m doing. I say, hello, Mr. Kennedy. (Laughter.) And he shakes my hand. And he says, well, what are you doing? I said, I’m working for your brother now. And he says, oh, yeah, campaign seems to be going pretty well. And then he says, well, where are you going to school? And I rolled my eyes and frowned and said, well, I’m going to Yale. And he said—and he laughed, because he, you know, was a Harvard guy. And he said, oh, no, no. Don’t worry about it. He says, you know, it’s OK. I’m a Yale man too now myself. And he said—but this was the famous June, summer, when he stood up and said: I now have the best of two worlds: A Harvard education and a Yale degree. (Laughter.)
And so it was funny. It was a very relaxed and easy conversation. But it brings up something. I’ve had a kind of Forrest Gumpian life in that way. You know, that was a Forrest Gump moment. And I had another Forrest Gump moment when I introduced John Lennon as my best buddy in New York at an antiwar rally at the time that the government was thinking of deporting him. And so we were trying to sort of show the embrace of American veterans who liked John Lennon and were being supportive. And years later, I was playing in a hockey game—and there are other Forrest Gumpian moments; I won’t go through them all. But I was playing in a Christmastime broom hockey game, which we do. And I was skating down the ice and a guy fell in front of me. And I leaped over him. I tried to avoid a crash. So I sort of dove over him, thinking I’d clear him and slide on the ice.
And I didn’t. He started to get up before I cleared him. (Laughter.) And so my legs went up in the air and my face went down plant—faceplant on the ice. No time to get my hand or anything there. Absolute splat, broken nose. And you could hear the crack across the ice. And I get up, said who the hell is this A—you know—who did this. (Laughter.) Turned around, and there, ladies and gentlemen, is Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks. (Laughter.) I swear to God. It was the funniest thing in the world. Anyway.
KERRY: Could I make one comment here folks?
KERRY: Look, I apologize—and I’m being rude to my interlocutor.
RUBENSTEIN: No, go ahead.
KERRY: But I don’t want you to leave here—I want to just—I write in this book, which is a journey—an American journey. It’s not a foreign policy tome, though I deal with Iran, I deal with Syria and other things. It’s a journal of sort of how we travel this road. And what I want to say to all of you is this is a depressing moment for a lot of people because we can’t establish what basic facts are in public life. We’re having trouble making our democracy work. Washington is dysfunctional. And there’s a certain kind of corruption that has entered into American politics because of gerrymandering, where we can’t even have a legitimate national general election, because you can’t have people run in certain places. We have too much money in American politics. Run the list. The point I want to make is, we’ve been here. We’ve been in tough places before.
You know, we had a president who was attacking the Justice Department, who fired the special prosecutor, who had an enemies list, who lied to the people, who was found to be a crook, and who left office within a year and a half of having won forty-nine states in reelection. And we had pipe bombs going off in America. We had people carrying guns and kidnapping people. We had streets and cities burning with riots. I mean, we’ve been through tough times. I believe the institutions of our country are fundamentally really strong. And I believe that we—all of us—have got to recognize that one of the biggest reasons our democracy’s in trouble is not enough Americans are making it work, are taking part. The magic number is 54.2 (percent). That’s the percentage of eligible Americans that chose to vote in the last election. When Barack Obama won in 2008, it was 62.3 percent. When I ran in ’04, it was 60.3 percent.
So the story of where we are in our country today is not the story of who voted, it’s the story of who didn’t vote. And I believe that if people would start, you know, taking advantage—in thirty-four days, we had a course-correction moment. We have a chance to make a difference. And the biggest thing I could say is—I’m about to go to Philadelphia. And I’ll be speaking at a lunch there. And I’m reminded of how Ben Franklin walked down the steps of that hall, Constitution Hall, after the hard work of coming up with our Constitution. They’d finished. And he walks out late at night, and a woman famously shouts at him: Tell us, Dr. Franklin, what do we have? A monarchy or a republic? And he says: A republic, if you can keep it. That’s our job.
And I believe if Americans will embrace that, we can get back on track and resume the very critical role we have, not of unilateral American first-ism/new doctrine of patriotism, but of patriotism that reflects how we engage multilaterally, bring people to our side, and reinvigorate the liberal order of the West that’s governed us and the world ever since World War II, for which so many people did die, put themselves on the line to defeat fascism and so forth. We’ve got to get back to that, and not this notion that we can disengage and have a world that’s going to solve Ebola, or AIDS, or nuclear weapons, or cyber, without being engaged on a multifront basis, on a global basis. And I hope everybody will leave here with feeling that we can do that, but also that we have to. (Applause.)
RUBENSTEIN: Thank you very much, Dr. Kerry. Great. Thank you very much.
KERRY: Thank you.
RUBENSTEIN: Thank you. Thank you.