By Duke Omara
Secretary of State John Kerry, in what will likely be one of his last major speeches as the nation’s chief diplomat, has dismissed criticism that America’s global role is diminishing, and that the country was disengaging from the rest of the world.
“The United States today is more deeply engaged, in more places, simultaneously, on more critical issues, with greater consequence than ever before,” Kerry said.
He called any talk of an American retreat from the world stage “absolute nonsense” while pointing to renewed American outreach in Asia Pacific, a region he referred to as “the world’s most dynamic.”
Kerry, who spoke at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Wednesday, spent most of his speech outlining the successes achieved during his time in office. However, he did not answer critics of the administration who have pointed to the failure of the short-lived U.S. and Russian brokered ceasefire in Syria as proof of waning American influence. The truce was the most serious attempt yet to jumpstart a long sought-after peace process to end the civil war.
Instead, he cited America’s defense and economic alliances with countries like Japan and South Korea as a sign of a growing diplomatic agenda that spans across many issues, including weapons non-proliferation and the prevention of the scourge of human trafficking, which he likened to “modern day slavery.”
Kerry said many times the United States was the only country able and willing to stand up for people who would otherwise be forgotten.
“You tell me what other nation has every arm of its government sitting around the same table on the same day wrestling with a global international issue and offering leadership as we have been on the issue of trafficking,” he asked rhetorically.
Kerry recalled sitting down with representatives of Asian nations last September who said they welcomed U.S. presence in the region and were eager to maintain that presence.
“They don’t go to bed at night wondering about when we’re going to leave; they worry that we might leave. They don’t want any one country to try and dictate to others what they can and cannot do. And they see the United States of America as a balancing and stabilizing force,” said Kerry.
Kerry’s speech steered clear of the widening diplomatic gap between the U.S. and one of its most important allies in the region, the Philippines. Last month, that country’s president demanded all American special forces leave, a move which threatens to upset a long-standing security alliance between the two nations.
On the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) which has received significant pushback from critics of the administration, Kerry said it would be “a litmus test of our country’s capacity to lead” and failure to pass the trade agreement “would be a gigantic self-inflicted wound on our nation – a setback to our own interests in the region, where our credibility as a country on any agreement we’re trying to negotiate would be in doubt.”
The TPP has been a centerpiece of Obama’s trade policies and would need congressional approval to pass. The prospects for such approval appear to be growing dimmer and the deal, which would encompass as much as 40 percent of the global economy, has met stiff headwinds from both political parties.
Kerry’s stance on the TPP received a smattering of boos and heckling from a section of the audience.
As the United States continues on its so-called Pivot to Asia strategy which is meant to shift most of its attention from the Middle East to East Asia, the threat of violent extremism and sectarianism continues to dog the administration and will likely be an issue well after the next president is sworn in.
Since 2014, Kerry said, the fight against the so-called Islamic State (which he referred to as Daesh) had been ramped up and the U.S. was on the forefront of trying to defeat the group. He said the rescue of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq was the beginning of a concerted effort to rid IS from areas under its control.
He pointed out that the Obama administration had previously warned the demise of the group should not be expected to happen overnight. The group, which is currently under attack by Iraqi and Peshmerga forces for control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, has in the last few months lost significant territory and is now believed to be using human shields to ward off coalition assaults.
As he did earlier this year, Kerry accused ISIS of carrying out genocide against groups under its control, including Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. The group, he said, was also engaged in crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. The use of such strong language is particularly important because it compels the U.S., as a signatory of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, to take action to prevent these atrocities.
Kerry said the situation in the region was made more complicated by the multiple and simultaneous conflicts taking place.
“Kurd on Kurd, Kurd on Turkey, Iran versus Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia versus Iran; Iran and Hezbollah versus Israel versus us and those who have labeled Hezbollah a terrorist organization; a lot of people against Assad; the whole world against Daesh; Daesh against Assad and civilization and everybody else; Shia versus Sunni; Persian Shia versus Arab Sunni.”
Unlike most major foreign policy speeches, this was the only instance the secretary mentioned Israel, a traditional American ally whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been at loggerheads with the administration in recent years.
The influx of refugees into Europe, and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union was a course for concern, Kerry said, although he expressed hope in the future of the European project and what he characterized as a common purpose between Europe and the US. He praised the EU for being instrumental in the passage of the deal that halted Iran’s nuclear program.
“That support was critical because before negotiations began, Iran had developed the ability to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb in just two months. In fact, they had enough nuclear material for 12 bombs,” said Kerry to applause from an audience that seemed largely receptive to his remarks.
The Iranian nuclear deal has been roundly savaged by opponents of the administration. Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump last year called it “stupid” and a “lopsided disgrace” and has promised to renegotiate it. Israel’s Netanyahu said the deal was a “mistake of historic proportions” with other officials in his government saying the deal gave Tehran a “license to kill.”
Kerry said it wasn’t a miscalculation.
“It has made the whole world safer, and it shows the value of diplomatic engagement even – and perhaps especially – when the governments involved disagree with one another on as many issues as we did,” he said.
Kerry did not mention growing tensions with Russia which recently conducted massive civil defense drills meant to ensure the country was ready for a chemical, nuclear and biological attacks from the West. Earlier this month, the Russian Defense Ministry announced it had moved Iskander-M missiles into an area bordering Poland and Lithuania in a move that is seen by NATO as being highly provocative. The missiles are capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
On climate change, Kerry touted the Paris Agreement which was signed by the U.S. and China –two of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases – and is meant to halt global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Kerry said that while diplomacy was the most preferable way of solving problems, it was not without its faults.
“The peaceful breakthroughs that it can provide are well worth the attempt. Nothing has ever been accomplished by an unwillingness to try. And I’ve always said I’d rather be caught trying.”
Dan Olson, who was in the audience and identified himself as an environmentalist, said he wasn’t satisfied with Kerry’s remarks on TPP. He said he saw the agreement as an infringement on national sovereignty.
“He did not mention the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISD),” which he said, “sets up corporate courts which will supersede any national courts rights, and all decisions for those corporations will be made by this court.”
All TPP will do, he insisted, would be to lead the world into a corporate-controlled world.
Jim Henry, who said he is a retired judge from Chicago, praised the speech calling it a “summary of all the wonderful things the USA has done for the world. Kerry is one of the greatest statesmen of the generation. He made me proud.”