Optimism for Global Cooperation: A Conversation with the Honorable John Kerry

Sara Kelly, International Relations, History. Class of 2020.

For some Americans, the closest they can get to the Secretary of State is watching Téa Leoni slay as Elizabeth McCord on Madam Secretary on CBS. Fortunately, this week I had the opportunity to look beyond the lense of fictional TV at Villanova University when I sat two rows away from the Honorable Secretary John Kerry. Kerry served as the 68th Secretary of State from 2013-2017 under the Obama Administration. Prior to his tenure as Secretary of State, Kerry served our country in Vietnam with the Navy and as a Massachusetts senator.  I was able to secure this opportunity to hear Kerry speak through my internship with the Global Smarts Program at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.

At first impression, Secretary Kerry is tall in stature which, in combination with his numerous accolades, can be construed as intimidating. Within minutes of taking the podium, however, Kerry created a comfortable and intimate atmosphere. And despite his casual air, every topic Kerry broached in his speech was strong and incredibly articulated. While many audience members expected Kerry to use the speaking engagement as an opportunity to publicize his upcoming autobiography, he focused on discussing the current state of global affairs. 

A central theme of Secretary Kerry’s speech was that America, and the international community as a whole, possess the solutions to the world’s pressing problems but are lacking the strong leadership that is integral to effective changemaking. During his speech, for example, Kerry jested that he worked to bring a bill to the floor during his time as a Senator “back when the United States Senate actually worked.”  According to Kerry, the current United States government is not effective due to a lack of bipartisan cooperation and determination. The political gridlock is halting progress. Kerry stressed the need for strong leadership that addresses these roadblocks head on.

When asked about the future, Secretary Kerry was largely optimistic. Politics in the Unitd States, he claimed, is just actors responding to the “felt needs” of the American people. He continously weaved this belief into his later arguments, and applied this definition to causes championed on both sides of the aisle. The results of the 2016 election, Kerry explained, was the American people responding to felt needs. In the same vein, when discussing the March for Life and recent discourse on gun safety legislation, Kerry explained that the Parkland student leaders are a population that is also responding to these forementioned felt needs. He then encouraged the Parkland students and their allies to not give up their fight, because their experience and needs are valid. The administration, Kerry stated, needs to step up and that, “instead of responding to obvious needs, we see self, party and ideological interests trumping — no pun intended — the real interests of our nation.” 

Kerry provided a scathing critique of the current administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate agreement and its rhetoric surrounding the Iran Nuclear Deal. Kerry warned the audience of the various consequences turning away from these agreements would create. In terms of the Iran Nuclear deal, Kerry detailed the contentious atmosphere of distrust and hostility that surrounded negotiations as a way to explain how it would take decades to re-negotiate with Tehran. 

A particularly interesting part of Kerry’s speech centered around his discussion on United States-Chinese relations. Kerry adamantly argued that the U.S. needs to work with China to affect global change, citing issues of extremism and climate change as a “should-be catalyst” for bilateral relations. Citing statistics displaying the influence that both the U.S. and China weild on the global stage, Kerry explained that the best path to a better world is to work together. Kerry criticised the idea of “America first,” asking the audience if it was more like “America alone” instead.

The overwhelming takeaway from Secretary Kerry’s speech was that there are still veteran leaders in the international community who are optimistic about the state of global affairs. While it will take some time to reveres negative trends set into motion, change can occur with strong leadership. Specifically, Kerry reinforced that the United States should be a force behind finding solutions to issues of climate change, extremism and cyberthreats. Ending the presentation in a quick Q&A, Kerry concluded by expressing that what he misses most about being Secretary of State is the ability to take initiative and pull together the necessary actors to convene meetings to solve global issues. And of course, the ability to slide through airport security with ease.

A group of SJU International Relations and Political Science students after hearing Former Secretary of State John Kerry speak at Villanova University.

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