Enduring Optimism: Secretary Kerry at UChicago

Secretary of State John Kerry joined the Institute of Politics at Mandel Hall for a conversation moderated by Walter Isaacson on October 26. He wasted no time delving into the key issues of his time as secretary of state, such as Syria, US-Russia relations, and the importance of addressing climate change. Kerry began the mid-afternoon discussion with a reflection on his own childhood. Growing up the son of a Foreign Service officer, he learned to value service to his country. He contrasted his time living in West Berlin as a boy with the connected world of today, commenting that the world we live in now is much better than the one he experienced as a child in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. In spite of this, the world has grown in complexity as new challenges have emerged.

Kerry emphasized issues related to technology and cybersecurity throughout his talk. He touched on the factors driving the success of the Trump and Brexit campaigns: namely, that they were supported by the masses of people driven by the forces of technological and consequently economic change. According to him, such changes have led to “dramatic changes in organization of citizens around government,” affecting both domestic and foreign policy. He cited recent cyber-attacks and private email releases to Wikileaks (which he adamantly affirmed were the work of Russia) as a negative example of such changes. When questioned about the role of artificial intelligence in war, Kerry cautioned against taking the “dangerous road in terms of the mechanization of war,” a personal feeling that he clarified was not an administration-vetted policy. However, he promptly pivoted to his department’s recent success in negotiating a “set of standards” with China regarding artificial intelligence, ending on an optimistic note about the positive impact the agreement could have.

Kerry also considered the topic of Syria at some length, mainly defending the US’s approach to the country’s civil war. Calling it “gigantically complicated,” he gave context for the US’s approach as “diplomacy with the threat of war.” Kerry, quick to defend his boss when pressed, justified President Obama’s decision not to use force after the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its own people by outlining the context and successful alternative plan that the US used. In particular, he noted that Obama had “never decided not to bomb”: it was Congress’s refusal of his request that stopped the administration from taking action. He then pointed out that successful negotiations that allowed the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to enter Syria and remove “all declared and registered chemical weapons” achieved the administration’s goal to “get all chemical weapons out of Syria.” During the following question-and-answer session, Kerry reaffirmed the US commitment to removing chemical weapons wherever and whenever possible.

The Q&A session was a lively discussion where Kerry fielded questions on a range of foreign policy topics. An ardent defender of the president and a firm believer in the power of diplomatic relationships, positions which he reaffirmed vigorously when questioned by students, Kerry ended the discussion, and pushed the time over, with a passionate plea for students to engage in service. He encouraged everyone to join the State Department, USAID, and other organizations that work for the betterment of the US and the rest of the world. Kerry’s unrelenting optimism shone through the entire event, proving that even after fifty years of public service, it is possible to believe that positive change is possible, attainable, and necessary.

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