Washington: Jonathan Tepperman*
After serving five terms in the U.S. Senate—including four years heading the Foreign Relations Committee—and surviving one unsuccessful run for president, John Kerry became President Barack Obama’s secretary of state in February 2013. Since then, Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, has been in near-constant motion, logging more miles than any of his predecessors (1,281,744 at last count). Kerry met with Foreign Affairs’ managing editor, Jonathan Tepperman, in Washington to discuss his tenure and his plans for his last months in office. They spoke again after a deal Kerry negotiated with the Russians over Syria collapsed; their second conversation is appended below.
You just negotiated a deal with the Russians on Syria. How is it different from the last one, and what gives you the confidence that this one might work?
I can’t sit here and tell you with confidence that it will work. What I’m saying with confidence is that this is an opportunity, and it carries hope. But it depends on a lot of moving parts. It’s very, very complicated.
What makes it different, and the reason I have hope, is that it imposes a series of actions and responsibilities on the players in ways that will encourage them to conform. For instance, Russia has to meet our mistrust and skepticism by providing seven consecutive days of reduced violence. That would be a confidence-builder.
As an incentive for them to do that, they can’t get what they want—the cooperation of the United States in going after Nusra [the al-Nusra Front] and ISIL [also known as ISIS]—without that seven days. And unless we get our [allies in the] opposition to comply, we don’t get the establishment of the Joint Implementation Center, which would lead to the first [joint] targeting, which would be the trigger for [Syrian President] Assad to not fly in the agreed-upon zone.
There’s also a mechanism here for dealing with the most significant confusion exploited in [earlier negotiations], which was Nusra being integrated with some of the opposition. That gave Assad cover to lump everybody together. Hopefully, that will now be diminished significantly.
How are you getting the word out to the opposition groups to separate themselves from al-Nusra?
We’re reaching out through all of our contacts to the armed groups on the ground and speaking with them very directly and encouraging them to live by this [agreement]. It’s not as if they’ve been winning enormous amounts of territory in the last months or growing in strength. So there are real reasons for them to try to get to the table in Geneva. If we can get something moving there, then there’s a prayer.
People say, “Oh, my gosh, this can’t work.” Maybe they’re right. But the alternative is to throw up your hands and add to the 450,000 people who have already been killed—a spectacle that would put the world to shame. And I don’t think that’s acceptable.
A week ago, President Obama said that one of the things preventing an agreement was the gap of trust between the United States and Russia. What changed?
We sat at a table and worked through a methodology that gave us each confidence. Both of us are required to do something. That could conceivably build some confidence that both sides are serious about making this happen.
Do you see a model there for other areas of U.S.-Russian friction?
Sure. We’re already doing it. When we were in Hangzhou, China last week for the G-20 meeting, President Obama put to President Putin a new way to try to resolve the challenge of Ukraine more rapidly. And we have a group working on it right now. Our hope is that we can get [Ukrainian] President Poroshenko and Russia to a place where we’re simultaneously teeing up both security and political measures that will give each side confidence that the other is actually going to deliver.
So that’s the lesson from this Syria deal: structure agreements with sufficient incentives for both sides to comply?
That’s the trick in any negotiation. Getting to yes means getting the other party satisfied that its interests are being met sufficiently. You rarely have one side completely happy and the other completely unhappy. You’ve both got to get something out of it, enough that you’re prepared to go fight for [the deal] at home.
Best-case scenario, where does this deal take Syria a year or two from now?
Best-case scenario is that you actually achieve a political transition, a plebiscite where the people choose their new leadership. You have a secular, constitutional, democratic Syria that is able to stay united and embraces the rights of its minorities.
And how do you get there with someone as intransigent as President Assad, who just a few days ago said he’s still planning to reconquer all of Syria?
People say things. Some of the opposition still says Assad has to go tomorrow; I don’t put a lot of stock in that [either]. Let’s see what kind of song Assad sings if Russia and Iran and others view it as in their interest to keep the peace and find a way forward. If you provide stability, and people begin to come home, and the dynamics begin to change, the politics of the negotiation will also change. You can’t predict every piece of that, but I’d rather get to that problem than see the continued disintegration of the country.
Don’t you think that has already happened?
No. It’s close. But I think the country can still be unified.
Can you envision a deal that the United States, Iran, and Russia can all live with?
I can envision it. Whether they’re prepared to compromise is up for grabs, and no one is going to telegraph his bottom line at this point. But better to be at the table trying to test that through negotiations than witness the utter destruction of Aleppo and of Syria.
You’re choosing between very difficult options here. If you decide—as Americans seem to be pretty overwhelmingly disposed—not to put American forces on the ground and go in and fight another war in the region, then that’s the bottom line.
You have only a few more months on the job. What’s the one thing you’d most like to accomplish?
It probably will come as no surprise to you, but there is not just one thing.
We are pushing extremely hard right now to get the Paris agreement [on climate change] ratified and in force. The president and I want to see that brought to fruition.
I would like very much, obviously, to see if we can put Syria in a better place. I’m working very hard on a Yemen resolution right now with the Saudis and the Omanis and the Houthis and so forth. We may even be able to get a cease-fire in the next few days.
We’re working very hard to try to put Libya in better shape, working with the Emiratis, the Egyptians, and the [Libyan] Government of National Accord, and I think we’re making some progress. It’s a little slower than I would like, but we’re pushing on that very, very hard.
The number one priority is making sure that when we leave office, Daesh, ISIL, is in extremis to the greatest degree possible. We’ve put a real dent in ISIL’s capacity. They haven’t gained any territory in almost 18 months. The leadership has been significantly diminished. We’ve limited the number of troops coming in. They’ve lost major battles in Iraq and Syria. We’ve taken back communities and are bringing the population back. I went out at the president’s direction and put together a coalition of 66 countries, and we’re working very effectively in a unified, multilateral effort to get rid of this scourge.
We’re also very involved in the Colombia peace process. I want to see that come to fruition.
TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership] is another key priority. We’ve got to get that done. It’s critical for business and for the future of the region. It would underpin the [administration’s] rebalance [to Asia], and it’s also critical to important relationships, like with Vietnam, where there are huge transitions in the labor market as a result of what we’ve done.
I can say with some confidence that our agenda is going to remain very full until the last day, including, I might add, the Oceans Conference, which we are sponsoring. We will have some 35 foreign ministers here, 25 environment ministers, over 100 countries represented. We will have 120 different initiatives. A dozen countries will announce marine protected areas. We’re going to establish a new, global Safe Ocean Network that will help to protect sustainable fisheries and put a new focus on the oceans.
When you look over your tenure, what’s the big one that got away?
It’s obvious to everybody that the constant elusiveness of peace between Israel and Palestine stands out as a continuing challenge.
What prevented progress? It seems that you’ve applied the same dogged approach to a lot of different issues. That paid off on issues such as Iran but didn’t work here. Why is that?
Because you had intervening events that just got in the way, frankly.
Events or personalities?
A combination. You have to have willing partners to complete an agreement. People have to want to get to yes. And there are serious questions about whether either side wanted to get there at that moment.
You also really did have external events. For instance, to hear on the radio, while you’re in the middle of negotiations, that a reconciliation is taking place between Hamas and Fatah—that was a kind of disruption that took a while to get over.
If we had more time, we could get back to the table. We have laid out a superb road map. We have a very clear sense of what has to be done. We did more work than any administration in history on the security issues. General [John] Allen and I worked extremely hard in developing something that would provide absolutely and unequivocally for Israel’s physical security on its borders and so forth. And then there was a plan for the internal security in terms of the management of the [Palestinian] state that went way beyond anything that had been previously developed. It was really very precise, and I think people will come back to that. We have five more months in which we will continue, as we are right now, having a dialogue with these parties. We’re not finished. We’re not in the same kind of visible, day-to-day direct-engagement effort, but we’re trying to get the parties back to a place where the next administration can pick things up.
You mentioned the TPP. One of the extraordinary things about the TPP is the enormous gap between how the professional foreign policy community sees it—as an essential good for the United States and much of the world—and how much of the American public and Congress sees it. What accounts for that?
This is well-trod territory, but America has a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. Increasingly, people perceive that they are not sharing in the benefits of globalization. Anger has built up over the unwillingness or inability of Congress to deliver on campaign promises. So people are angry. Their lives are not what they were before. Their purchasing power has gone down. In many cases, their income has gone down even if they have a job. Some people have lost jobs at an age in life when it’s really hard to get another one. So these [anti-trade] forces have been unleashed. But they don’t have to be—there are answers to all of those problems.
But what can we do about it now?
We have to make sure that people understand that the problem is not trade per se. You have to make certain that people get the things that they need, are paid a decent salary, get the benefits that they deserve. But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. You can’t give up trade when 95 percent of the customers are in other countries.
There’s a mistrust now, because the political system has let people down. I understand that. But I also understand that we will not be better off as a country if we do not get TPP passed and have rules of the road for business that create a race to the top rather than the bottom, rules that increase rights for people around the world, protect the environment, establish labor standards, and open up markets. If we shut ourselves off from the world, believe me, there are plenty of people waiting to fill our shoes.
But this isn’t just a policy problem now; it’s a political one. How do you overcome the fact that there’s so much political hay to be made from opposing trade?
Well, I’m not in politics now. I’m in the job of trying to strengthen America’s position in the world and make sure we protect our interests and our values. I believe that our interests lie in passing TPP, and I think we will cause a terrible self-inflicted wound if we don’t succeed in passing and ratifying it.
There’s a growing sense both abroad and at home that the United States is retrenching. Perhaps as a consequence, there’s also a growing sense that the United States can be pushed around without consequences. You see this in various ways, whether it’s Russia buzzing U.S. airplanes, Iran harassing U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf, or the Chinese offering Obama a rude welcome on his recent visit. Meanwhile, U.S. allies are complaining about feeling unsupported. Does all of this make your job harder? And what can be done about it?
The nature of conflict today makes the job much harder. And the levels of corruption and the number of failed or failing states, coupled with massive increases in population, lack of opportunity, an increase in radical religious extremism, and the clash of modernity with cultural conservatism—all of these forces and more are creating a much more complex set of choices for American foreign policy.
A lot of people react to this situation by throwing up their hands and saying, “America is not doing what it used to do.” But that’s just false. It could not be more incorrect. We’ve just put $3.4 billion on the table for reassurance plans for frontline states in Europe. NATO stands strong. Putin is not in Kiev; he’s wrestling with the eastern part of Ukraine—and our sanctions have worked.
You know, buzzing an aircraft is not a casus belli. It’s a stupid activity. It’s provocative. But it’s not the first time in history it’s happened. And the fact is, our military is the strongest in the world. Everybody knows that. I don’t think anybody is going challenge our military in some sort of overt way.
The United States has made it crystal clear to President Putin and other would-be challengers that we’re going to take them on. Witness the strengthening of our alliances in the Mideast, the proactive strengthening of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the work we’re doing on a missile defense system for the Gulf, our continued leadership in Afghanistan (where we helped put this unity government together, which has kept the country from imploding).
Our leadership has been critical to keeping Ebola from moving around the world. When people said a few years ago that there were going to be a million people dead by Christmas, President Obama deployed 3,000 troops, and we—joining with the French and the British, who did an amazing job, and the Japanese and others, who gave materials—we took that on. And we succeeded.
Look at AIDS in Africa today. Because of our work, our leadership, and PEPFAR [a Bush administration program], which we continued and upped in many ways, we’re on the cusp of seeing the first generation of children born AIDS free.
We’ve been engaged in Power Africa. We’re engaged in Nigeria. We helped [President] Buhari and the government have a clean election. And we’re fighting Boko Haram.
We’ve done the same thing in Somalia, where we’ve put al Shabab on its heels. We’ve strengthened AMISOM [the African Union peacekeeping mission there]. We’re leading and have led those efforts. You can look at what we’ve done with respect to Yemen, Libya, Syria, the coalition we put together in Syria to fight Daesh.
Remember what was happening there recently. ISIL was sweeping across Iraq. Mosul fell. It didn’t fall because Americans weren’t there; it fell because the Shia army that had been built by [Iraqi Prime Minister] Maliki as a personal army didn’t have any investment in standing and fighting in Mosul, which is Sunni. They backed out on a sectarian basis and folded. And so in came ISIL. And what happened? The president of the United States made the decision to send U.S. warplanes in, started attacking ISIL, pushed them back, protected Baghdad, helped build the army, and we have methodically taken back Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah, and are moving up now, surrounding Mosul, and have put ISIL on its heels in Syria as well.
Then there’s American leadership on climate change, on the oceans. Everywhere you look, things are happening, and they’re happening with important American input and leadership.
So why is this not recognized? Why is the message not getting out?
Because there are still these places of conflict and turmoil. People think it only takes an American decision to solve this or that problem. There is a lack of awareness about the degree to which the United States is already leading and working.
Look at what we’re doing on North Korea, on the sanctions in the UN. Look at what we’ve done with the South China Sea. Look at what we’ve done with our allies in Korea and in Japan. We are front and center on Arctic issues, on Antarctic issues. We’re leading on each one of these things.
The United States is more engaged, involved and leading in more places, and making a greater difference with respect to global security than at any other time in American history.
Are your hands and the president’s hands tied by the lack of appetite among the public for direct U.S. intervention abroad?
Yes, yes. Of course. There is some restraint as a result of that. But we’re also restrained by the fact that this is a moment when the world needs a new Marshall Plan. The world desperately needs the United States and other countries to contribute significantly to providing education and jobs and opportunity now. You have about 1.5 billion kids in the world who are 15 years old or under. They have smartphones or watch TV. They know how the rest of the world is living. They know what other people have and they don’t. That drives aspirations, and if you don’t meet those aspirations, the result will not be good.
My point is, we know what we can do and how to do it. Helping would be an investment in America’s security. There’s no “over there” anymore; “over there” is everywhere. If we’re not engaged in helping countries meet their challenges, then really dangerous, nihilistic ideologies can fill people’s heads, and you wind up with conflict.
Do you think we have a Congress and a public that would get behind such efforts?
Not yet. But you have to ask for it. You have to educate. You have to talk about it. That’s why I’m laying it out for you right now. At some point, people are going to realize that this has to happen. We need to plus-up the budget of the State Department, increase the amount of aid we give, and help the world through this difficult moment. That is the price of leadership. But in the end, it’s far cheaper than spending the trillions of bucks that we spent on Afghanistan and Iraq and other misadventures.
Do you think your administration is making that case adequately?
I think we’re making the case. You’ll hear the president in the course of the campaign make the case for why America needs to lead and be engaged. But we have a Congress that is not ready to embrace it.
By the administration’s account, the nuclear deal with Iran is working well in achieving its narrow objective, which is pausing work on Iran’s nuclear program. Is there any reason to hope that Iran will moderate its behavior in other areas, anything that can be done to encourage it?
Well, the most important thing we can do is make sure that we live up to our side of the bargain.
Are we doing that?
Yes. We’ve even gone beyond it in efforts to try to make sure that banks that are reluctant to do business [in Iran] for various reasons will do business. We’ve lifted all the sanctions that we agreed to lift. But there are other problems. We need to help Iran recognize that it has some challenges internally it has to deal with relative to its own banking system, to its own business practices, its transparency.
Can we really help Iran with those problems?
Yes. We could help on technology and certain other things. But it’s very difficult when Iran is engaged in Yemen and supporting Assad and supporting Hezbollah and firing missiles that people deem to be threatening and so forth. That hugely complicates efforts to move forward rapidly.
I think the supreme leader is, unfortunately, extremely suspicious of the West and us. And that puts internal pressures on the political system. That’s unfortunate. But over time, my hope is that Iran will rejoin the community of nations in constructive ways to try to make the region more stable and bring peace to places that need it.
It’s no secret that you wanted this job for a long time. Has it turned out to be what you expected? And what’s your advice for your successor, whoever it is?
Actually, I didn’t want this job for a long time. I wanted to be president of the United States, and ran and tried and it didn’t work out. So I think it’s safe to say that I thought this might be a good job for four years.
I’m not going to give advice to the next secretary through an interview. I’d rather deliver that advice personally. But I will say, generally speaking, to anybody who wants to do this job or another like it: it’s really important to make sure that the entire policymaking establishment understands the country they’re making policy about and sees it through the eyes of the people in it, not just through our eyes. We don’t always do that. We’ve gotten ourselves into some real pickles because of it. The Iraq war, the Vietnam War—things like that.
And you have to move fast in today’s world. You don’t get a lot of latitude [for mistakes]. There are too many things coming at you too frequently. So you need a capacity for multitasking and intensity.
But I would say to anybody, you’re about to come into what is probably the best job in the world—in many ways, better than being president, because you’re not distracted as much by politics. You’re focused on policy, diplomacy, particular negotiations. You can really bear down, and you have the luxury of picking and choosing where to bear down—something the president doesn’t get to do.
[A month later, Kerry spoke to Tepperman on the phone.]
When we spoke about a month ago, you were just back from Geneva, where you’d negotiated the Syrian deal with the Russians. You were cautious but made a strong case for why you thought the cease-fire might work. Then, of course, the deal collapsed within days of our talking. What happened?
It fell apart for several reasons. Predominant was the fact that, even as we were meeting with the International Syria Support Group in New York City, [the Russian] military launched an attack. I know that the [Russian] Foreign Ministry, which was negotiating [with me], had no knowledge of it. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sent his people out immediately to get on the phone and clearly was surprised by it. But they began a massive attack on Aleppo, which we called out at that meeting. And that made it exceedingly difficult. The opposition understood that that was happening. They had been very wary of the agreement, because they had zero trust in the Russians—that their assault was going to distinguish between the [moderate] opposition and al-Nusra [as agreed]. And that mistrust proved to be well taken.
The Russians used the accidental U.S. air strike on a Syrian military installation as a pretext for resuming their attacks.
That is accurate.
Do you now feel like the Russians were negotiating in bad faith all along, and that the deal would have collapsed even without the pretext of a U.S. air strike?
I could certainly make accusations and be critical, but we want diplomacy to continue. We’ve told the people of Syria we’re not going to abandon them. So I’m not going to get into good faith, bad faith. People can draw their own conclusions. But I think we made it clear that the [Russians’] excuses were just excuses, not explanations, and we made it absolutely clear that they can’t make up their own facts.
Is your increasingly sharp criticism of Russia a sign that the administration has given up on trying to work with Moscow directly?
We haven’t given up. We’ve suspended the bilateral conversation about cooperation in the fight against Nusra and Daesh. But we’re not going to give up on the multilateral effort to try to achieve a cease-fire and to see if we can produce a political track that works. The alternative is to sit there and do nothing while innocent civilians are bombed and the protagonists get a sense of impunity. That’s why we are hosting a meeting in Lausanne on Saturday: to see if we can, with a number of different countries, refocus people on the urgent need to do something about the violence.
You said that the only alternative to more negotiations is to sit by and watch the Syrian people die. But of course, there is another alternative, which is for the United States to take a more confrontational, more engaged military approach. Is that now in the cards, given the collapse of U.S.-Russian cooperation?
The president has called for options. He’s asked for a review. So I will reserve my recommendations for the president’s ears. But I have previously said, publicly and otherwise, that it’s important for us to have means of changing Assad’s calculation in this process and that we need to have accountability for the things people say they’re going to do.
On that note, are you going to pursue a war crimes investigation against Syria and Russia?
Well, I’ve called for it, and it needs to be pursued. But one of the problems is that Syria’s not a party to the International Criminal Court, and therefore the ICC claims it doesn’t have jurisdiction unless the UN Security Council requests that kind of investigation—and we know which country would veto such an effort. But that doesn’t mean it may not be worth trying to go get it anyway.
Given everything that has happened in the last month, do you see any realistic chance of engaging with the Russians on other issues, such as Ukraine?
Yes. We’re engaged with them right now on Ukraine. We’ve had meetings in the last week or so on the subject. Foreign Minister Lavrov and I have talked about next steps and process, and our teams are engaged, and we hope that we can actually make some kind of progress there. We’re not ignoring the fact that there are other issues that we have to work together on, whether it’s North Korea or other issues in the Middle East.
So Syria hasn’t set those other conversations back?
The other issues remain complicated on their own, but we are trying to find a way forward on them. I think the Russians are as focused as we are on trying to compartmentalize some of these things and see if we can’t make progress where progress is possible.
You mentioned earlier that Foreign Minister Lavrov seemed surprised when the bombardment of Aleppo started. Do you have a sense of whether part of the problem was that he and President Putin don’t see eye to eye?
[Foreign] Minister Lavrov reports very consistently to President Putin. He’s been an accurate messenger, and I’ve no evidence of what you just suggested. I do think that sometimes the Russian Ministry of Defense can operate in ways that make life complicated.
Where does all this leave Syria?
As I said, we’re determined not to abandon the Syrian people. We’re working very closely with our like-minded colleagues. I’ve had any number of conversations in the last few days with Foreign Minister [Frank-Walter] Steinmeier of Germany, with Foreign Minister [Jean-Marc] Ayrault of France, with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson of Great Britain, with [Foreign Minister Paolo] Gentiloni of Italy about how to proceed. Everybody remains deeply committed to trying to reduce the violence, get a cessation of hostilities, and move to the table and get into a genuine conversation on the subject of a political transition.
That’s what this Lausanne effort is focused on. To ignore what’s going on in Syria would be immoral, irresponsible, and a form of diplomatic malpractice. We have to be engaged, and like it or not, Russia is essential to helping to find a solution.
What do you think is the best realistic outcome for Syria?
I think Syria has the ability to reunite. I can envision a process where you have a transitional effort that brings members of the opposition into the governance of the country. You have a cease-fire that holds. You unify people against Nusra and against ISIL, and you create a political transition that leads towards an election where the Syrian people have an opportunity to choose their future. I can envision that. Getting there will require a reduction in the violence, a focus on the true terrorists, and a legitimate political process that begins to empower people, lay down a constitutional transformation, lay down a political road map that people can buy into. You’ll need some monitors and others on the ground, to deliver humanitarian assistance and make a difference. That’s the vision. But getting there is very, very complicated.
*Foreign Affairs’ managing editor