A conversation with... John Kerry

Tuesday 15 December 2020

Note: This conversation took place on 2 November 2020 before the 2020 US presidential election

The International Bar Association was delighted to welcome John Kerry for a conversation with its Executive Director, Mark Ellis, as part of the IBA 2020 – Virtually Together Conference. Kerry served as a US Senator from 1985 to 2013, was the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004 and served as Secretary of State from 2013 to 2017. He has authored major legislation on drug trafficking, money laundering, humanitarian aid and climate change. Over the past 12 months, he has helped to lead a new campaign to address the climate crisis. He spoke to Ellis on the day before the US Presidential election, after which Joe Biden appointed him Presidential Special Envoy for Climate. During the conversation, Kerry provided his unique perspective on the election, its aftermath and the implications for the world.

The world after the election

Regarding the implications of a victory in the US presidential election for Joe Biden, who was Vice President of the US during the Obama administration, Kerry identified a number of key international policy issues that Biden must deal with urgently.

Firstly, the pandemic is a global challenge, but ‘it hasn’t been treated that way, regrettably, by this president,’ in Kerry’s view.

‘Trump knew that Covid-19 was dangerous,’ added Kerry. ‘He was told early on by his intel brief that it was going to be one of the most serious things he was going to have to deal with. And he, by his own admission in Bob Woodward’s book Rage, has acknowledged that he wanted to play it down.’

President Biden also faces the substantial challenge of inheriting a very divided county. Kerry highlighted that Joe Biden doesn’t pretend that this divisiveness is going to go away simply as a result of the election. ‘It may be pushed down slightly for a period of time, but there's a difference between being a president who plays to the lowest common denominator of human politics and a president who tries to lift people up for the highest common denominator,’ he said. ‘Joe Biden has talked again and again about ending a presidency that belongs to red states or blue states. He wants to be an American president.’

Other key issues for President Biden to address – beyond getting a hold on the pandemic to begin to bring the economy of the world back properly – include ‘cyber warfare and cyber attacks. We have to come up with rules of the road for cyber,’ said Kerry. ‘We need to create a cyber agreement not unlike the nuclear agreements in the 1950s and 1960s.’

Kerry also noted the global economic issues and the need to even out the playing field, to address what he termed ‘a lot of economic anxiety in all of our populations.’ And, crucially, ‘we have to deal with the global climate crisis,’ said Kerry. ‘Even if we did everything in the Paris Agreement, we’re still going to see a warming of the Earth’s temperature to 33.7 degrees. We’re actually not doing everything we said we’d do in Paris, so we’re heading to a 4.1–4.7 degree increase – that’s catastrophic.’

‘We’re going to have to have a presidency and a global community that comes together, hopefully with legally binding requirements, that are going to help all of us to move in the right direction to deal with the climate crisis,’ explained Kerry.

A return to multilateralism

Commenting on whether, given a win for Joe Biden, the US will return to a global approach and to multilateralism – to the Paris Climate Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear agreement – Kerry suggested the US would to a certain extent, but with a view to going further.

‘I had the privilege of negotiating the Iran nuclear agreement and Europe has tried hard to hold on to it,’ he said. ‘Vice President Biden has made it clear that he intends to go back to it, but he intends to go further. We need to deal with the Iranian engagement in various parts of the Middle East, and with the weapons going to Yemen.’

Kerry believes the US needs to look at Hezbollah and the missiles coming from Iran and Syria, which are aimed at Israel. ‘We need to deal with Iraq. We need to deal with the games the Iranians are playing with the Saudis,’ he added.

He summarised that there is a lot to put on the table. ‘When we negotiated with Iran last time, we first wanted to get nuclear weapons off the table. We can get back to that, I think, pretty quickly, perhaps improve on it. But then we've got to go further.’

Kerry noted that Joe Biden has made it clear that he will go back to the Paris Agreement. He added that, in order to get the job done, the international community must raise the ambition from where it was in Paris.

‘The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) meeting in Glasgow next year – the follow on meeting from Paris – is an absolutely critical meeting to try to codify what nations are going to do to meet this challenge,’ said Kerry. ‘I think we will also invite massive global engagement in the technology race, to do innovation, research and development of new products that could even go further than just solar, wind, hydropower, hydrogen fuel and so forth.’

Kerry added that in terms of the important issues that need dealing with – from the pandemic to cyber, nuclear weapons to extremism, to the climate crisis – nothing can be achieved without putting China and Russia at the table at the G20. ‘The major carbon emitting countries all have to come to the table and it takes multilateralism to do that,’ he explained.

The art of diplomacy

President Trump has taken a certain hardline approach towards China, in particular by engaging in a trade war with them. A number of countries have come to President Trump’s defence, saying that the US and others need to get tough with China. At the same time, China needs to be at the table in order to create this global initiative on the major issues facing the world.

No one in history has ever won a trade war. Trump didn't win this war, it's still going on – all he did was get back to the starting point we left it at

‘No one in history has ever won a trade war,’ highlighted Kerry. ‘Trump didn't win this war, it's still going on – all he did was get back to the starting point we left it at, where there is a dialogue twice a year with China on the economic issues and the security issues. But has there been any change in intellectual property being stolen as a condition of doing business? No. Has there been any change in access to the marketplace for a bunch of companies, similar to the access they get in Europe or South Asia or other places? No. The fact is he hasn't succeeded.’

In Kerry’s view, the way to achieve that is for the US to work with its friends and allies. ‘The US is not enough alone, even though we're a huge part of China’s market,’ he said. ‘The fact is that Europe and other parts of the world are also big markets for China. With China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the trillion dollars they’re spending, they're fully engaged in shifting to some degree so they don't have to depend on just the US.’

Kerry suggested that a thoughtful strategy would be to gather a number of countries, including Australia, Japan, Korea and perhaps some South Asian countries, as well as Canada, Mexico and the US for the North American trading bloc, and then Europe. ‘And you all come together because we all share the same complaint about how China behaves economically – then you have leverage,’ he explained. ‘You don't have to start a trade war to do that, you have to exercise good diplomacy.’

A key challenge is developing a more strategic approach with China economically and balancing that with putting pressure on China over human rights violations. For instance, it has been argued that the forced sterilisation programme against Uighur women there is a form of genocide.

Kerry described this as ‘the art of diplomacy – I'm not being cute when I say that. When we were dealing with Russia, when they invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine, we went to a lot of countries in Europe and said we have got to put sanctions in place and make it clear this is dangerous stuff Putin is doing. But, nevertheless, even as we bitterly pushed back against what happened in Ukraine, we worked with Russia very closely on the Iran nuclear agreement for example.’

The art of diplomacy, he said, is being able to talk to people that you have significant differences with and to be able to compartmentalise things and keep working with them. With China, ‘we never failed to raise the issue of the Uighurs and other human rights issues, and we got a little nibble here and there of progress. Sometimes that progress gets traded off against the other in a way that is not always tasteful, but it's the reality of how you make a little bit of progress, save some lives and keep pressing the issue.’

A greener future

Kerry co-chaired Joe Biden's climate taskforce prior to the US presidential election. The purpose of this taskforce, he explained, was to try to bring elements of the Democratic Party together with people who had different views about how to proceed in dealing with climate, a goal which was achieved, he said.

Every sector of our economy will be approached in a thoughtful way by Vice President Biden to move the ball forward on the reduction of emissions

‘Every sector of our economy will be approached in a thoughtful way by Vice President Biden to move the ball forward on the reduction of emissions and the effort to deploy renewable, sustainable energy opportunities,’ explained Kerry.

He described how a Biden administration would look at the transportation sector, which represents 20 per cent of US emissions. This approach will deal with electric vehicles, hydrogen possibilities, the transition to batteries, battery storage and all the elements of how the US can increase renewables rapidly.

Further, Biden is looking at requiring new standards so that buildings in about ten to 12 years will be carbon free, Kerry added. ‘It will not be command and control, it will be an exciting incentive, if you will, for people to change behaviour,’ he said.

‘The production of electricity has to change, moving off eventually of any carbon producing effort, including gas,’ continued Kerry. ‘It's going to take us 20–30 years, who knows how long, but we have to accelerate our efforts. It will deal with agriculture. It will deal with heavy industry, cement, concrete and so forth.’

Kerry believes that a Biden administration would rely heavily on the private sector to push the curve in terms of the move to sustainable energy. ‘We will look to the finance community, particularly to practise environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) investing, to pursue the global standards for sustainable development and ultimately to help us create the products that are going to just leapfrog technology,’ he said.

Referring to how 85 per cent of all emissions come from about 20 countries, Kerry highlighted that more developed countries are not going to get less developed countries to follow them if they’re not setting an example. ‘That’s why bringing China on board in 2013 was so critical to the Paris Agreement,’ he noted. ‘China is about to bring 21 gigawatts of coal-fired power online. That will undo everything else that's happening if we don't get people to recognise there are better alternatives and we need to move together in order to resolve this.’

Kerry is absolutely confident that the paradigm shift away from fossil fuels can occur without leaving economic wreckage. He pointed to how the fastest growing job in America, pre-Covid-19, was that of the solar power technician, and added: ‘It’s happening, it's just not happening fast enough yet.’

‘Increasingly, big oil companies are diversifying very rapidly. They are now pursuing alternative and renewable. They are beginning a transition and they can be absolutely critical to the deployment of new technologies,’ he explained.

Kerry gave an example of charging stations for electric vehicles across the country. ‘We've got to build them out – that's revenue-producing,’ he said. ‘Imagine what would happen if Shell, for example, starts to build those out and you begin to transition. So, half the cars coming in are still going to gas, but the other half are charging in a supercharger. There are ways to do this if we provide incentives and begin to get excited about it.’

This is an abridged version of a longer interview, which is available on the IBA website: www.ibanet.org