Remarks by Secretary Kerry on the United States Foreign Policy Agenda for 2016

Thank you. Good morning. Thank you. Thank you very much, Major General Padilla. Thank you, all of you. It’s a great privilege for me to be able to be here today. I’m delighted to be in the presence of so many people currently serving our nation, all with great distinction. And it’s a privilege to be at NDU. I’m also honored that the Secretary of the Air Force Debbie James is here. Thank you very much for being part of this.

Before I begin, I want to underscore how pleased I am that our sailors were safely returned into United States hands this morning. (Applause.)

As a former sailor myself, as the general mentioned, I know as well as anybody how important our naval presence is around the world, and certainly in the Gulf region, and I could not be – and I know the President could not be prouder of our men and women in uniform. I also want to thank the Iranian authorities for their cooperation and quick response. These are always situations which, as everybody here knows, have an ability, if not properly guided, to get out of control. And I’m appreciative for the quick and appropriate response of the Iranian authorities. All indications suggest or tell us that our sailors were well taken care of, provided with blankets and food and assisted with their return to the fleet earlier today. And I think we can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago and, in fact, it is clear that today this kind of issue was able to be peacefully resolved and efficiently resolved, and that is a testament to the critical role that diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong. And that is really at the core of what I am here to talk about today.

As all of you know, yesterday President Obama delivered his final State of the Union Address. And I might add, for my part, with nearly 29 years in the United States Senate, I have been attending State of the Union messages since 1985. Ronald Reagan was my first. So it was my last too.

The President’s agenda for 2016, it is clear from the speech he gave last night, is bold and ambitious – and I think that is particularly true when it comes to foreign policy. The reason for that is simple: In this extraordinarily complicated time, the demand for United States leadership – the demand for leadership everywhere – but the demand particularly for leadership from what the President appropriately called the most powerful nation in the world is as high as it has ever been. And we understand that and we accept that responsibility willingly. That is why the United States will remain more engaged in more places around the world than at any other time in history.

The President’s primary responsibility, as all of you know, is and always has been to protect the people of our country, protect the American people. He underscored that again last night. And I know that each of you here can relate to that because NDU’s mission is to educate, develop and inspire national security leaders – not all of them from our country but to inspire national security leaders. And many of you here today have already contributed significantly to our nation’s security and safety – including some of you on the front lines of battle and we are grateful, very grateful for that.

The goal of keeping our country safe for American officials – but I know I’m talking to visiting officers from various parts of the world – the goal for all of you with respect to your own countries and at the core of everybody’s foreign policy is to have a strategy that most effectively represents the interests and values of your nation. That is our goal. Certainly, a big part of achieving that is addressing the immediate crises of the day, and believe me, they arise suddenly and without anticipation. I was yesterday sitting with Secretary of Defense Carter to my left and with the secretary of foreign affairs and of defense from the Philippines to our right when we got a message regarding our two vessels in the Gulf and the fact that they were at Farsi Island. So things can change in a nanosecond.

As we plan for the coming year, we are focused on looking for long-term solutions – not the crises of the day – but on finding a way to lay the groundwork for security and stability for decades to come.

Now, some people look around at the daily headlines and they suggest that the world is increasingly chaotic and doomed to disorder. Well, I’m about to enter my fourth year as Secretary of State, and let me make it clear from all that I have experienced, from all that I have seen: I strongly disagree with that judgment. Yes, there are challenges. When are there not? But as I travel the world, as I talk to foreign ministers, prime ministers, presidents, people all across this planet, I don’t sense an unraveling of the global fabric. On the contrary: I see a world that in critical areas is actually coming together.

Now, obviously, in some respects, 2015 was a year of turbulence and tragedy. But the fact is we also saw and measured remarkable advances in every single corner of the globe. We witnessed barriers that have long divided nations begin to break down. We reached historic agreements on climate change, the Iran nuclear program, trade. We made progress on issues that have seemed intractable for years, and in some cases decades. We hadn’t talked to the Iranians in 35 years. We are working, making progress in various sectors of economic diplomacy as well as straightforward security diplomacy.

And the key word that I ask you to focus on is “progress” – progress. Obviously, our work isn’t over. It’s far from over. It’s never going to end for one administration to another. We witness a process of transformation. But this is a very different century we are entering from the last century, a century of two world wars and of major conflict – Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

So as we look to the year ahead, we have a unique opportunity to build on what we have achieved in a number of critical areas. Now, obviously, a top priority is the conflict in Syria – to deal with the refugee crisis that it has spawned and the violent extremism to which it has contributed.

Let me just say a word about that quickly. Much if not all – no, I suppose ldquo;much” is the most accurate assessment – of the conflict of the last century was a conflict between nation-states. It was much of it defined by what Henry Kissinger has often defined as the balance of power, the great game.

But that is not what is defining the conflict that we see today. I think most of you would make the judgment that there is not the same sense of threat that nation-states are ready to put it all on the line given the stakes and the types of weapons that we have today which do act as a deterrent. But what we are seeing today are non-state actors who have a very different sense of the stakes, who don’t react the same way to the concept of deterrence, many of whom have decided, by the way, that they’d just as soon die as live, which is not the norm for most people’s judgment.

So our strategy is different. Our strategy with respect to Syria certainly is three-fold. But what we’re seeing emerge is really a transformation that represents not a clash of civilizations, because there’s nothing civilized about Daesh. It’s barbaric. It’s a step backwards in time not by years, but by centuries. And it represents a clash not of civilizations, but of culture and modernity, a clash of people who have been left behind and who find some false notion of explanation for their acts in the hijacking of a great religion or the distortion of the most fundamental notions of how people should choose to live.

So with respect to Daesh, we have, first of all, intensified our campaign – first, through a 65-member international coalition that we have mobilized to degrade and defeat the terrorist group known as Daesh – ISIL, some people call it, but there’s nothing Islamic about it and there’s nothing that merits being called a state. Daesh is literally the embodiment of evil – psychopaths who murder and rape; adventurists in some cases, criminals in many cases, who torture and pillage and call it the will of God. Earlier this week, we heard about one terrorist – a member of Daesh – whose mother pleaded with him to leave the group because she thought they were going to get beaten and she didn’t want her son killed. What did he do? He turned her in and then, by his own hand, publicly executed her. To quote the President, “These people are killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed,” period, and we will do that.

Our efforts are directed both at Daesh’s core networks in Syria and Iraq and at strangling attempts by the terrorists to establish branches and inspire attacks elsewhere in the world, including in the United States.

Now, we have known from the moment that we formed our international coalition in the fall of 2014 – and by the way, it merits remembering that this coalition has only been at this for a little over a year now. We knew that success was not going to be measured in a matter of weeks and months; it would be measured in years, as it was with al-Qaida. And I said at the time – 2014 – that it would take some time. So did the President. But in the end, mark my words, not as a matter of braggadocio but as a matter of fact: Daesh will be defeated. Every country in the region that surrounds Iraq and Syria is opposed to Daesh – Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Turkey, down through the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and way beyond, which is why we have a coalition of 65 nations.

The progress we have already made towards that end of defeating them is undeniable. Last month, Iraqi forces, with coalition support, retook most of the provincial capital of Ramadi, further reducing the area that was controlled by terrorists. In the past half year, the coalition and its partners have worked with Iraqi forces to liberate Tikrit, and 100,000 Sunni have been able to return to begin to rebuild homes and find homes. We’ve been able to free Sinjar, remove terrorist commanders from the battlefield, including nearly a dozen leaders in the past few weeks alone. And we have worked together to cut off the terrorist supply lines, to hammer their oil facilities, to take away their resources, to deprive Daesh of more than 40 percent of the territory that it once occupied in Iraq. Daesh has not been able to seize a major town or city since last May.

And the coalition is stepping up the pressure even further. We are intensifying airstrikes in northern Syria, assisting our partners along the border between Syria and Turkey, and helping to squeeze Daesh’s remaining strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa, and we are opening the aperture for further cooperation with others in the region, including Russia. Meanwhile, we are doing more every day to prevent foreign fighters from joining Daesh and to stop those who do from returning to their home countries and engaging in terrorist activities. We are also doing more to rebut terrorist propaganda, to dry up revenue resources. We have opened a number of facilities on a global basis – one in the Emirates, another opening before long elsewhere – that will help deal with the challenge of social media management, in an effort to be able to take away the recruitment and the lone-wolf challenge. We know more than ever about Daesh’s sources of income, and that has allowed us to be more strategic in our efforts, with greater impact on Daesh’s ability to be able to sustain itself. There is no question that we have significantly degraded Daesh’s ability to profit from the oil that it controls, and we have made anyone who might consider doing business with them think twice.‎

So degrading and defeating Daesh is the first pillar of our strategy. The second is to work with our partners to prevent the violence from spreading. Just the other day we had a significant meeting with respect to Libya, and you can anticipate additional efforts with respect to Daesh’s efforts to spread its tentacles into Libya and elsewhere. And that is one reason why we are now providing a record amount of humanitarian assistance – more than 4.5 billion to date, which is more than any other nation in the world – directly to deal with the problem of displaced people out of Syria and Iraq. And we are doing more to strengthen the defense capabilities of Jordan, Lebanon, and other friends in the region. This is really important work, and I guarantee you it’s going to continue.

But the main reason for these efforts is the outrageous human suffering that this war has visited upon Syrians and their neighbors. Many of you may have seen the so-called Caesar pictures last year – more than 10,000 photographs, each individual, so not repetitive but individualized – showing massive torture, starvation, extraordinary government policy by the Assad regime, in addition to barrel bombing of children and innocent families, schools, hospitals, not to mention the fact that there was widespread use of gas, which we thought we had outlawed as an instrument of war after World War I.

This is precisely why we are expanding our focus now and our response to the worst refugee crisis that the world has seen since the Second World War. This fall, President Obama will host a summit on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York. And this event will be the culmination of a rigorous effort to strengthen the humanitarian system for delivery of help, to be able to secure new funding and increase opportunities for resettlement and humanitarian admission around the world – a comprehensive effort for millions of Syrian refugees, but also for those from any country who qualify for refugee status.

In that vein, I am pleased to announce that we have plans to expand the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program in order to help vulnerable families and individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and offer them a safe and legal alternative to the dangerous journey that many are tempted to begin, making them at that instant easy prey for human smugglers who have no interest but their own profits – I might add, making them also prey for one of the great scourges of the world today, which is human trafficking, and many, many people – millions, 20 million-plus – living in a state of modern slavery.

Global efforts also need to focus on ways to better integrate refugees into foreign communities in order to help them regain their dignity after the turmoil that they have endured. And this is in the best traditions of our country and of many countries around the world. That is why measures to help refugees build self-reliance through education and opportunities for local employment are so important, so that the men, women, and children who come to our nations are better equipped to contribute to the communities that welcome them.

After this speech, I will be heading to Silver Spring, Maryland, where I will meet with a group of dedicated Americans who work in one of our resettlement centers helping refugees integrate into their new communities in the United States. And lately, this critical work has been conducted against a backdrop of some pretty nasty politics, with people making statements on the refugee issue that seem designed to scare our citizens but have no basis in the facts.

Let me be very, very clear: We can both maintain the highest security standards and live up to our best traditions as Americans by welcoming those in need of help to our great country. That is who we are. That is what we do. That is how we wrote our history. That’s how we became who we are. And we dare not turn our backs on future people, generations seeking the same set of opportunities. We have the ability to protect ourselves even as we remain a country that welcomes migration.

And that is why while I am in Silver Spring, I will also meet with a group of refugees newly arrived, some well-established, in order to hear about their experiences and to emphasize how welcome they are in our nation.

Now, the refugee crisis is not just a Syrian problem, nor a Middle Eastern problem, or a European or an African problem. It is a global challenge of historic proportions and dimensions, and it tests our values, our self-confidence, and our very humanity. We have to do all that we can to respond effectively, and the most effective response of all, my friends, involves the pursuit of peace.

I said to my staff at the State Department engaged in the Syria conflict at the end of last year I’m tired of going out and bragging that we’re the biggest donor to refugee needs. Write a check, help the refugees – that can go on endlessly. We keep writing checks, we can set up a new camp. The question is can we make peace and end this endless supply of refugees? In the past four and a half years, one Syrian in 20 has been killed or wounded. One in five is a refugee. One in two has been displaced. And the reality is there will be no end to this crisis, no end to the pressures on Lebanon, on Jordan, on Turkey – no end to the flow of people to Greece and Bulgaria and through there to Europe and Germany – no end to this crisis unless there is an end to the conflict itself. One person stands in the way of that, and that is Bashar al-Assad.

That is why the third pillar of our strategy is to de-escalate the conflict in Syria, and that can only happen through a political transition. Every leader I’ve met with says to me there’s no military solution, you got to have a political solution. I mean, you can – I suppose you can sit there and make the argument there’s a military solution and you could wind up like the Roman historian Tacitus who wrote of Carthage, “They made a desert and called it peace,” sure. But if you want to hold the country together, if you want to restore the secular, united Syria that once was, if you want to bring people together in a way that allows Sunni and Shia and Druze and Ismaili and Christians all to live together, then you need a political transition and you need a political settlement.

Last November in Vienna, the United States and other members of the International Syria Support Group finally agreed upon a series of specific steps to stop the bleeding in Syria, to advance the political transition, to isolate the terrorists, and to help the Syrian people begin to rebuild their country.

Now, I can’t stand here before you today and tell you this is going to work. I know how it could, but it’s going to require the cooperation of countries in conflict. It was monumental that we were able to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran to the table together in order to join in this, and it is important that both have said they will not allow their current differences to stand in the way of working towards a settlement.

In December, we and the other members of the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution endorsing the work of the Vienna support group, the International Syria Support Group, bringing the full weight of the global community behind this process.

So for the first time, every one of the major international players has come around a table together with a specific timetable for negotiations between the responsible opposition and Syria’s government. And because of the hard work of all of those parties, those talks are now slated to begin later this month, on January 25th.

It will be difficult. It will require good-faith effort by Russia, Iran, by all the players to push for the implementation of the Geneva communique, which calls for a transition unity government. But it is not to be missed by anybody here that even Iran put forward an important contribution to the dialogue in a peace plan that called for a unity government, constitutional reform, a ceasefire, and an election. And that is part of what has been embraced by the Vienna support group.

So obstacles to peace always remain. There’s always an obstacle to peace. Look at the frozen conflicts we have in the world. But the need for settlement is clear. And the more progress we make towards that goal, the easier it will be to mount a truly effective and sustained and unified effort against Daesh.

Daesh benefits when great powers are squabbling among each other. Leave a vacuum in governance and we got plenty of people out there with mal intent who can fill the vacuum.

Now, in addition to our efforts in Syria and Iraq, another major priority for the coming year involves Iran and the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that we agreed on last summer in Vienna.

The JCPOA, as it is called, is a blueprint for blocking all of Iran’s potential pathways to a nuclear weapon. As agreed, Iran is now well on its way to dismantling – dismantling – critical elements of its nuclear facilities. Just yesterday the foreign minister reported to me that the calandria of the plutonium nuclear reactor is now out. And in the next hours it will be filled with concrete and destroyed. All of their enriched material has been put on a ship and taken out and gone to Russia for processing. That shipment that was taken out in one day more than tripled our previous timeline of two to three months for Iran to be able to acquire enough weapons-grade uranium for one weapon, and it is an important part of the technical equation that will bring the breakout time to at least one year for the next ten years.

In the meantime, the IAEA will build up its capacity to inspect, to know what Iran is doing. And for 25 years we will be tracking every bit of uranium that is processed, from the mine to the mill to the gas to the yellow cake to the centrifuge and into the waste. And for the lifetime of this agreement, Iran is subject to the Additional Protocol, which means that where there is a suspicion of some activity that is contravention of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, we will have the right to inspect.

I can assure you we will continue to monitor implementation of this agreement closely, because yes, existential challenges are at stake here. And we will ensure that the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran is removed as a threat to the Middle East security and global peace, and it is not insignificant that Iran has agreed to submit to this, agreed to undertake these steps, agreed that it will not build this weapon. Implementation day, which is the day on which Iran proves that it has sufficiently downsized its nuclear program and can begin to receive sanctions relief, is going to take place very soon – likely within the next coming days somewhere. And when that happens, we are convinced it will make us and our partners around the world more safe and secure.

Now, any agreement only works if it’s fully implemented. And that takes me to our next priority for 2016, which is building on the momentum that was generated last month in Paris, where nearly 200 nations – 186, to be precise – 195 were there, but 186 submitted plans for the reduction of emissions on a global basis. So nearly 200 nations came together to reach an historic agreement on climate change. And this agreement was made possible by unprecedented collaboration on climate issues between the United States and China, which began an initiative by President Obama that we would engage with China in order to bring China in instead of leaving it outside, as it has been in most of the meetings previously that we have had on climate change. And together, China and the United States stood up and announced well in advance of Paris what our goals would be with respect to our reductions and urged every nation to announce its own targets for reducing carbon emissions.

Now, you heard the President last night say if you don’t get this by now, if you’re going to argue the other side of this case, that it’s not happening or you want to be in denial, you’re going to be very, very lonely. That’s what the President said. Because our military, our experts, our scientists, people all around the world can see with their own eyes and are experiencing the impact of climate change. This plan coming out of Paris is designed to keep pace with technology and to get stronger as time goes by. The agreement sends an unmistakable message to governments and to the private sector alike. That’s the power of this agreement.

None of us went to Paris with a belief we’re going to get the two-degrees centigrade hold that is necessary to prevent a tipping point. We understood that. But what we also understood was that if you have 200 nations all coming up with a plan, all agreeing to reduce, all moving towards alternative, renewable, clean energy, the message to the marketplace at large is unmistakable. The message of Paris is that the time is now to undertake a permanent transition to a new and low-carbon energy future for the world. And I can tell you from the evidence that I see, this message is being heard and integrated into policies by prime ministers, governors, mayors all around the world – by energy corporations and investors, by innovators and entrepreneurs, and by consumers and civil society.

And we have to now stay vigilant to keep the pressure on here in the United States and around the world to formally adopt the agreement, take the bold and innovative steps, and transition to cleaner energy sources and to pursue every opportunity we can to cut carbon pollution, including by amending the Montreal Protocol to take on hydrofluorocarbons.

Now, the momentum is with us. And it’s with us because the world is finally coming to understand that not only is curbing climate change essential to our environment and our health; not only is it essential to our security, which is something that every one of you as leaders have been telling us for some period of time; but addressing climate change is also pushing us to take advantage of one of the single biggest economic opportunities the world has ever seen. This is an economic bonanza. Fastest growing jobs in Massachusetts right now are in the environment/clean energy sector, and that’s true in many parts of the world. We’re creating more jobs there than we are in the old sectors of energy production. And by 2035, energy investment is going to reach close to $50 trillion. Much of that money is going to go towards clean energy development. We’re now 20 times where we were before President Obama became President in the deployment of solar, three times in the deployment of wind.

Our economy is going to be further bolstered when Congress approves a trade agreement that includes 40 percent of the global economy, the TPP, and that is another priority for this coming year. In 2015, after seven years of negotiations, the United States joined 11 other nations along the Pacific Rim in completing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP includes the highest labor and environmental standards of any trade agreement in history. It represents 40 percent of global GDP. It will support American prosperity by lowering barriers to our exports and creating more jobs that pay higher wages. As the President said last night, 18,000 different taxes will be taken off of items that the United States tries to export. And it will help shape trade in the Asia Pacific for years to come. That builds security. The TPP is a critical component of the United States rebalance towards the region, advancing American leadership in the largest emerging market in the world.

The fact is that the work that we have done over the past few years has set the course, I believe, for progress in every corner of the globe. In Africa, we are working with local partners to train the leaders of tomorrow, to increase access to electricity, to improve food security, to deal with debilitating conflicts. We have special envoys to the Great Lakes area, to Sudan, working in Somalia, elsewhere. All of these we are engaged in, pushing back against Boko Harams, pushing back against al-Shabaabs, and might I say, making progress, ensuring our success.

An example of that is what we did with the Ebola crisis. A million people were predicted to die by Christmas of a year ago, but they didn’t. We stepped in, and thanks to the courageous efforts of our United States military and the President’s decision to send several thousand of them there, we built the platform from which we were able to build the response. And so we were able to knock Ebola down to a nuisance level, if not gone. We also made enormous progress in slowing the spread of HIV/AIDS, and we are on the brink now suddenly of perhaps seeing the first generation that will be born AIDS-free in Africa.

In Latin America, we have reached out to the people of Cuba by resuming diplomatic relations after 54 years. We’re also supporting Colombia with another special envoy engaged on our behalf to help Colombia as it seeks to negotiate an end to its decades-long struggle with the rebel group FARC, the longest-running conflict – I think about 50 years – on the planet.

In Central Asia, we’re working closely with Afghan President Ghani and with Chief Executive Officer Abdullah to address the security challenges of their country and to continue to move Afghanistan towards the better, safer future that its people deserve. That’s been going on for 14 years, folks. And guess what? The day we began in 2001, there were less than a million kids in school and almost none of them were girls. Now there are upwards of 8 million in school and 40-plus percent are girls. And when that goes on for 10 years, kids who were 10 years old are 20 today. They’re going to make a difference in that country. They have a different set of possibilities.

In Europe, we’re standing firm with our allies in support of a democratic and sovereign Ukraine, and in sending a strong message of reassurance that NATO’s promise of collective defense will be upheld.

So this is going to be a busy year. But the United States of America, we recognize, has a critical role to play on the world stage – a leading role – a role, which as I said at the very beginning of my comments, we welcome. And that is not going to change. So in many ways we just – we don’t have the luxury of slowing down. And this last year will not see us slow down.

Now, sometimes we forget – we do certainly in America – that history isn’t actually broken up into four-year or eight-year increments. The rest of the world does not pause for the United States election cycle. And President Obama has directed all of us across this Administration to keep our eyes on the future. Ultimately, we need to ensure that the next president can continue to build on the successes that we have seen over the past seven years, to pick up on the efforts still underway, and benefit from the hard-fought progress that our nation has made on so many different fronts.

This is not a new concept. As the man for whom this hall was named – Abraham Lincoln – said in his first State of the Union message to Congress back in 1861, “The struggle of today, is not altogether for today – it is for a vast future also.”

In spite of the many uncertainties we face, I have to tell you – and I say this after many years of public service as General Padilla said earlier – I am optimistic. I have a sense of confidence about the future because I know there is one constant: We are a nation of doers, conceived in a revolution against the world’s then-leading empire. We have survived the burning of our capital, the disgrace of slavery, a devastating civil war, a Great Depression, two global conflicts, prolonged military confrontations in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf, a superpower rivalry, four presidential assassinations, terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, Boston, California, and unfortunately, elsewhere. We’ve endured a whole lot more.

Now, obviously, no nation is perfect. We are not. No country on Earth is or ever will be. But we are resilient. And we are as strong. And I believe we are as strong as we have ever been. And if we remain engaged – if we will believe in diplomacy and in the effort to dialogue and to work to try to avoid conflict – if we will continue to mobilize to help and support allies and friends across the globe – if we will make the most of every single foreign policy tool at our disposal – if we think, not just about getting through next year but about building new foundations for generations to come, then I’m telling you we can and will live up to the magnificent legacy that we have inherited and we will enable those who follow us to do the same. That’s why you’re here. That’s why you wear those uniforms. That’s what we must accept as our responsibility. And I am confident we will, and we will be successful. Thank you very, very much. (Applause.)