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Herald speaks with John Kerry P’97

Former Secretary of State John Kerry highlights issues with Kavanaugh nomination, Iran, China

Science & Research Editor
Saturday, October 6, 2018

In anticipation of his lecture in Salomon Auditorium Wednesday, former secretary of state and long-time senator John Kerry P’97 spoke with The Herald about recent events in foreign policy, the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh and his upcoming speech at the University.

Herald: You played an instrumental role in the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal) and recently urged Foreign Minister of Iran Javad Zarif to stick to the deal. You’ve been highly critical of President Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement. Is there a viable future for the United States to rejoin the deal, or have we lost credibility to stick to an agreement?

Kerry: I think the challenge here is President Trump’s credibility, not the United States’. I don’t think that we should just think about a simple rejoining. I think the situation is now such that it may require some kind of a follow-up agreement. We could rejoin the current agreement but we would have to work out some additional issues.

Any indication on what some of those issues might be?

Well, it’s not going to happen in the near term because I believe it’s going to be very, very difficult for the Iranians to come back to the table under the current circumstances.

President Trump has done a lot to undermine much of the work you did as Secretary of State: the JCPOA, the Paris Accords and more generally, the demeanor and tone of the United States to the outside world. Do you see U.S. foreign policy continuing down Trump’s belligerent path or reversing the trend over the next couple of years?

It depends a lot on what the next couple of years bring us. If it’s certainly Donald Trump’s current policy with unilateralism, his willingness to pick a fight with our allies, divorce America from some of the most important initiatives that we were engaged in, then I think we’re going to have some problems. It’s hard to predict, however, what it’s going to be, but the current trend from the speech that he gave at the United Nations indicates that he intends to pursue a very different set of relationships. And I think it’s going to be very complicated because the world is demanding greater leadership from the United States and from countries as a whole because of the types of challenges we face on a global basis.

Many things can’t be resolved without engagement with other countries and also without leadership from the United States. This is a very difficult period for a lot of reasons. When you look at the climate change issue, for instance, Donald Trump may have pulled out of the agreement, but the vast majority of countries are staying in the agreement and trying to keep it. It’s a loss to the United States, but it’s also a loss to the world because as every new piece of data is indicating, the challenge of climate change is getting much more difficult, not easier. Paris was never calculated to get the job done completely; it was a start to get the job done. Getting the job done will require major leadership in our country and Donald Trump is moving in the opposite direction.

In the New York Times Magazine this summer Nathaniel Rich wrote an essay entitled “Losing Earth arguing that democratic societies aren’t suited to mitigating climate change because the incentives just aren’t there. How would you respond to this position?

He’s right that the incentives aren’t automatic and easily there, which is why you require leadership. But in fact, the incentives are there, if you are presented with the proper set of choices.

Dealing with climate change is one of the greatest market opportunities we’ve ever had because the solution to the problem of climate change is energy policy. If we would make the right choices about our energy policy, then we could begin to grow our economy in virtuous ways. For instance, getting off of coal-fired power plants to produce electricity is imperative and doable by moving to any number of options including nuclear, which is 100% clean. It’s safe and you could move faster to deal with the problem of climate change. There’s an urgent agenda that is actually job-creating, very good for our economy and good for American economic leadership.

You mentioned on Monday on CNBC that the Chinese “do not react well to bludgeoning” and that the U.S. will have a difficult time negotiating with the country over tariffs. What tactics do you feel would be successful in negotiating a trade deal with China?

I think that tariffs as a last resort can be useful after you have approached a number of different ways to bring the Chinese on board less publicly than beating them over the head because that tends to not get the result you want. Specifically, if the United States were to lay the groundwork with our European allies, rather than alienating them — bringing Europe together as a trading block with the United States and with some others — then you have an enormous amount of economic clout. If you work that together with the WPO, you’re going through a process that makes it easier for the Chinese to respond.

If they don’t respond to that, then you always have the virtue of having exhausted a legitimate channel or remedy and taking other action becomes far more understandable, acceptable, palatable and functional. I think that there are other ways to at least exhaust other steps, but if you just leap into a tariff and start to publicly put the Chinese in a corner, it’s harder for the leadership of China to respond in a way that you want them to.

Some have criticized that the Kavanaugh nomination process has displayed how the Senate has strayed from its norms. What are your opinions on the nomination and how do you see the Senate handling future confirmations?

It’s been an extremely unfortunate process. It’s done great damage to the Senate and I think both sides actually bear responsibility for that. I don’t think anyone’s without blame. Neither Christine Blasey Ford nor Brett Kavanaugh were protected in this process and things leaked out that should have been handled more privately.

I also think that the abuse by the Republicans of the process itself in terms of timing (and) pressure to rush the nomination without properly investigating it is inexcusable. There’s room for everybody to be upset, and they are upset. Both sides of the aisle, all across political thinking, people are angry about this process.

It’s done harm to the institution. It’s done harm to the Supreme Court itself, no matter the outcome. It will particularly do harm if Kavanaugh is bum-rush passed and goes to serve.

You’ve hinted several times that you may not be done with politics yet. Are you going to make a run for the 2020 Democratic nomination?

I haven’t ruled anything out. I’m really focused on 2018 right now. We have an election in 32 days which is a possibility for a major course correction in this country. We have some terrific candidates running around the country, and I think it’s absolutely vital that people are focused on it. I don’t think (I) ought to be talking about 2020 until we get past this November.

How can the Democratic party engage young people? Do you think there’s a place for a younger leadership within the party?

I think younger leadership is absolutely essential not just to the party but to the country. Everything that I saw in my life, which I write about in the book, is a reflection of young people, myself included, being involved in change. We grabbed the mantle of leadership at a period of time where we pushed the civil rights movement, we pushed the peace movement, we pushed environment movement, we pushed women’s ability to break many ceilings and be treated as equal citizens in America. We tried to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Most of the leadership on many of these issues came from young people.

Every time I’ve done anything in political life, young people have been at the core of those initiatives. One of the things I want to talk about when I come up to Brown is that you can’t ignore the power that is in your individual hands to deal with new things and to get things done.

For most of the important things that have happened in recent years in our country that have made things better, young things have been at the center. Look at the Parkland students. Look at what happened on guns. Adults walked away, were standing back. It took some young folks to come back and remind people what was really at stake. That’s power. That kind of power can be taken a lot further than it is being right now. We need to talk about that.

Last time you came to campus in 2005 you focused your speech on Katrina, among other topics. You’re coming to the University on Wednesday — can you give me a preview of what your remarks will look like?

I’m going to talk about the challenge to our democracy and the way in which we’re going to be able to restore what we want in this country. I intend to talk about my book, “Every Day is Extra,” which plays out a roadmap for how we restore what we need to to make things function in America.

We’ve got serious problems, and I’m going to talk about those problems. There’s a level of corruption in our system. There’s excessive ideological extremism that is robbing us (of) the ability to make good decisions, or any decisions. We face very serious global challenges that are not being addressed. I think people are really angry at what is happening because there haven’t been responses to the transformations taking place culturally and economically, and in terms of security.

There’s just as much on the table as I’ve ever known in political life and I’ve been 28 years in the Senate, four years as Secretary of State. We have to talk about these things and people need to start to mobilize and get active. There are ways and reasons to do that that I intend to talk about when I come to campus.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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