John Kerry: "We Are Not Frozen in a Nightmare"

John Kerry addressed attendees at the Aspen Ideas Festival Tuesday. John Kerry addressed attendees at the Aspen Ideas Festival Tuesday. State Deptartment

Amid tumult in world affairs, with a deadly attack on an airport in Istanbul, Turkey, EU countries grappling with Britain’s impending exit, and an ongoing war against ISIS, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to reassure an Aspen audience Tuesday that “the world is not witnessing global gridlock. We are  not frozen in a nightmare. Where we are engaged with a clear strategy, using our power thoughtfully, we are making progress, most places.” There are “a lot of Cassandras around,” he said, but “I don't believe the world ahead is only defined by turmoil and strife.”

Kerry was speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. In recent days, he has shuttled between European capitals, touching down in Rome, London, and Brussels, hoping to ensure that “nobody loses their head, nobody goes off half-cocked, people don’t start ginning up scattered-brained or revengeful premises” while negotiating Britain’s secession from the continent. 

He declared Tuesday that the first challenge that the United States needs to confront is “countering non-state violent actors." The second most important challenge, in his view, is “imminent climate change,” and the third is a “global crisis of governance” that requires leaders to fight corruption and make hard decisions.

In short order, Kerry alluded to geopolitical challenges in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, among other places. "The United States of America is more engaged in more places with greater impact today than at any time in American history,” he declared. “And that is simply documentable and undeniable."

In Aspen, that was an applause line. And it is in harmony with the foreign policy vision articulated by Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, across many years. But it is hard to imagine a Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump crowd applauding a proponent of waging wars and other aggressive geopolitical interventions across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond.

Later in Kerry’s remarks, he harkened back to American resolve and triumph during the Berlin airlift, and suggested that the United States ought to be similarly resolved to intervene on behalf of whatever state is targeted next by terrorists or extremists. If there is anything left in Kerry's worldview of the young man who came home from Vietnam disgusted with U.S. interventionism, it wasn’t evident Tuesday.

For Kerry, the Obama administration’s geopolitical engagement and even its interventions have been characterized more by success than by failure. Last year, he said, the Obama administration helped to contain ISIS; next it assembled a coalition of 66 countries to fight the terrorist group; and now, “we are moving methodically and authoritatively to destroy them." Meanwhile, the secretary of state added, “We are also diligently working to destroy the narrative that they are successful."

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On Syria, he declared, “You can never have peace when Assad is still there."

And with regard to Iran, he defended the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama Administration as a victory that will prevent the country from building a nuclear weapon.

After the speeches, while being interviewed on stage by Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, he took a question from my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, who pressed the secretary of state on why the Obama administration is allowing Boeing to sell airplanes to Iran even as it continues to designate the country as a sponsor of terrorism, particularly given its history of passing weapons on to Hezbollah.

Kerry responded that the Obama administration is trying to “thread a needle” that is “a very difficult needle to thread.” On one hand, he said, it wants to hold Iran accountable. At the same time, he said, “60 percent of people in Iran are under the age of 30,” and the Obama administration considers Iran their country and wants to lay groundwork for good relations in the future. “Now, it's complex, folks,” he said. “Issues in foreign policy ... if they lend themselves to black and white, simple lines, you draw it, you're often wrong." He added that since Airbus is allowed to sell airplanes to Iran, prohibiting Boeing from competing on those deals would hurt American workers without making any effective difference in what Iran buys.

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