John Kerry
'I'm ready for this fight'

On the 1st of February, 2013, John Forbes Kerry was sworn in as 68th Secretary of State of the United States. Having replaced Hillary Clinton, he assumed one of the most powerful positions in politics on earth.

Holding that seat for four years, Kerry carried out responsibilities of an almost exclusive foreign importance. While there racking up a record 1.4 million air miles and always carrying with him an ethos of a tough and patient diplomacy.

But after several years out of office, the many unique achievements that he helped craft with his illustrious administration including the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal are now being used as fodder by the Republican Party for anti-democratic posturing.

Now as a new decade dawns, battle lines have been drawn, and many of the nation’s constituents are being forced to choose a side. Whether, on issues of the environment, foreign policy or immigration. Apathy is no longer on the ballot card.

Kerry, a war hero, an author (his latest book, a memoir from 2018), a senator of 28 years, a secretary of state and at one point an almost president, is ready to use all of that experience in 2020 to carry out a broad offensive to support an issue closest to his heart, the environment. Through his new celebrity themed, grassroots inspired initiative World War Zero John Kerry, is angrier than ever, and we don’t blame him. Years of inactivity on the environmental frontline has led to one of the gravest situations our civilisation has ever faced.

However, if there was anything that impeded the world’s progress towards acting on this, it is he who shall not be named, to which John Kerry reserves his greatest scorn.

His anger, contagious, to the point of exhilarating. This is John Kerry at 76, without spin or a filter and he wastes no time drawing his bow, excoriating the incumbent Potus for his lack of leadership and blatant lies. This interview is a call to arms if there ever was one. John Kerry might be calling his campaign World War Zero but don’t be fooled, this is a war aimed at anyone ok resting on the wrong side of history.

‘I’m as militant now as the next person.’ – Responding to the current political climate 

There was an address you made at the beginning of 2016 at the World Economic Forum. You described the many achievements that your administration had accomplished from the Paris climate accord to the Iran nuclear deal.  It felt rose-tinted compared to the world we live in now. When you look back on those speeches, is there a sense of discomfort at the level of optimism you presented? 

No, I’m still optimistic. But optimism requires leadership; it requires cutting edge ideas; it requires taking risks in the right direction. I was speaking at a time when I expected a follow-up administration that would pick up where we left off. I don’t think there was anything in my comments that suggested we thought we had finished the job or created a nirvana.

The bottom line is that we can solve problems, we don’t have the leadership right now that is putting viable choices in front of people. But a whole bunch of entities, are trying to provide those options themselves and I admire that.

No one anticipated an election that produced a guy like Donald Trump, who doesn’t think about these things, doesn’t care about these things.  Let me be very specific. Certain things happened that changed politics. In Europe you had Recep Tayyip Erdoğan playing with the refugee figure, turning the dial when he wanted and turning the dial down when he received $3 billion. You had Angela Merkel who made the decision, which I think was admirable, but not politically palatable in Germany, to bring a million people in and believe that assimilation was going to be very easy. 

I was there when it happened. 

So you know what I’m talking about then. Things had unfolded that were not anticipated; you had a failure of governance on a global basis that is now contributing to a deep malaise, high anxiety, from of an unfairness that was being built into the economic structure globally.
In my country, inequity has never been worse. I’ve spoken to that for years now. T
he difference between that speech I gave in 2016 and now is that back then there was a sense of optimism and that we were going to tackle some of these things. What’s happened in the last four years? None of them has been tackled. I’m as militant now as the next person. 

‘You say you’re the best negotiator in the world. Negotiate it.’  – on Donald Trump’s political acumen

You, Barack, and Samantha Power, who I’ve chatted with as well, all worked on closing some monumental deals, the Paris climate deal, the Iran nuclear deal, even the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership Deal) which Donald Trump has found room to leave. Now Nato and the EU feel like projects that are being called into question. Do you ever speak to Barack about the way Trump has gone about repealing your work? 

Before I get to that, let me say one thing to you. I don’t think I’m prone to hyperbole but, I do believe that in the Obama administration we managed to posit a constructive effect, we attempted to manage, more crises simultaneously than any other administration at any point in American history. By that I mean, we had the post effect of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. We had the economic crisis that Obama started to deal with before he was sworn in as President. Against anyone’s advice, he passed a bailout, a stimulus package that got people back to work. He did extraordinary things to keep the economy and world held together. 

We also dealt with growing extremism. We had China flexing its muscles over the South China Sea. We had the increasing challenge of nuclear weaponry. We had the challenge of Iran, where we were on the verge of war.  I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of it, let alone climate change.

What I’m saying to you is,  we were engaged. I’m describing a level of multilateral commitment and leadership that brought nation-states together. You don’t ever see Russia or China rushing to the security council with a major effort to stop something. They don’t do that, America does that.

Ever since Trump came in, he’s been reacting, partly out of spite,  because anything Obama achieved, he opposes. It may or may not go back to that white house correspondent’s dinner where he was the butt of many jokes. He could renegotiate TTP. Well, go ahead and renegotiate it. You say you’re the best negotiator in the world. Negotiate it. But he doesn’t. He pulls out.  So we’re living in a twilight zone right now of leadership, and it’s pulling things apart.

The personal insults towards Angela Merkel, towards Trudeau, and other leaders, then all of a sudden he gets to London for a meeting and everybody is laughing at him and mocking him. So much so that he picks up his marbles and orders his aeroplane to take him home early because he can’t take the heat. He’s a coward.

I saw that.

We’re living in a very strange moment. 

If America is not that captain of the ship, then who else will step forward? Out of Trump’s lack of leadership could a more multilateral involvement step forward? 

I’d be happy if that happens, but I have to tell you something. I just came from a place that’s living proof that it’s not, and that’s Madrid COP25. I just spent several days in Madrid, and we do not have the kind of forceful next step being taken even though we’re facing one of the world’s most significant challenges ever.

I’m always very cautious talking about America’s leadership. I want to put a caveat into this interview, which is, I’m sensitive to the idea of America beating its chest about what happens.
I would like to deal multilaterally, but the fact is we are still the world’s largest economy. We are still the wealthiest nation on the planet. We are still the most powerful military in the world. I still think the values that we have fought to organise ourselves around since World War II are worth everything as much today. I think it’s essential for us to behave differently in the world.

“There are tipping points in an ecosystem, from which you don’t come back, and we’re already reaching some.”  – John Kerry on the environment

Next years election feels like it’s going to get very ugly. We’ve already seen the first blows carried out by Trump. His insinuation of Biden’s son being corrupt. How bad or pugilistic do you think it will get? 

It’s going to be a tough race, but we’re ready for the fight. I was with Joe Biden these last days, campaigning with him. We’re going to beat Trump. 

You think so?

 I believe we’re going to beat Trump because I think Trump is the most corrupt, incompetent president we’ve ever had in the United States. I think ultimately people will understand that.  I don’t think he’s doing things some people believe he’s doing. He gave a tax cut to the wealthiest one per cent of America. He’s made the rich richer. He’s enjoying the economy that Obama and Biden led the creation of.  Trump’s just riding his wave.

I’m ready for this fight. I like it. Let’s go out and restore America’s values and leadership on an international basis, and it begins with our fight at home.

Do you think that Donald J Trump will be impeached and removed from office?

Well, of course, he’s going to be impeached, but he’s not going to be found guilty because the senate is cooked. The Republican Party has decided to ignore a genuine crime. The language of the statute says it is against the law to solicit foreign assistance in a federal campaign in America. Trump solicited it directly and has confessed in the very document he released, he says, I want you to do me a favour.
Everybody knows the favour he wanted him to do was open an investigation to find dirt on Biden. He didn’t care about the outcome; he just wanted the opening of an investigation so he could smear Biden. Is that unimportant?

I served in the Senate for 28 years, and I’m astounded to read that they’re all going to vote together as a block.  Maybe something will change. But they’re putting their party, their power, their president ahead of the constitution of the United States. And I’m very sad to see that.

Would you run today for president in such a hostile climate? 

Well, I’m not running, I’m supporting Joe Biden, so it’s a moot question. But if Joe wasn’t running? Sure, but I’m supporting Joe Biden, and I want him to win. 

‘ I believe we’re going to beat Trump because I think Trump is the most corrupt, incompetent president we’ve ever had in the United States.’ – John Kerry discusses Donald Trump

Senator Michael Bennett was interviewed on the Council of Foreign Relations recently, and he said Donald Trump wouldn’t even pass as an intern at this organisation. How does someone like that slip through the system? 

Because we are now living in a new age of communication that has no referee, if you read the book How Democracies Die, one of the things that demagogues do is take away the referees. Look how many of his staff have left. All those people that were willing to be referees, and stand up, and say, “Hey, you can’t do that,” are gone. 

We’ve gotten to where we are because the other guys are scared. They’re behaving like cowards because they’re afraid of repercussions from social media. Senators now fear primaries more than they fear general elections it seems. So we’re living in a very difficult moment.
We have a president of the United States who has been judged by the Washington Post and the New York Times to have lied directly to the American people in the thousands of times. It used to be remarkable if you had a president who lied ten times, five times. It’s in the thousands, and there’s no accountability for it. The notion that he said he could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and nobody would care, that’s why we’re where we are.  

But what do you say to some people, some demographics in America who say they appreciate the rawness, the candour, the honesty, the familiarity. 

There’s no honesty. There’s no honesty! Come on. What do you mean they appreciate the honesty? There’s no honesty. They appreciate the entertainment. That would be a better way to say it. They’re fixated on the entertainment. They never know what he’s going to say next. It’s a reality show. That’s what it’s become. 

Let’s talk about the environment. Your initiative World War Zero which supports the broad goal of achieving net carbon zero in the US by 2050. 

Or sooner. We put a lot of emphasis on the ‘sooner.’ The feedback loops are coming back faster and bigger. There are tipping points in an ecosystem, from which you don’t come back, and we’re already reaching some, a lot of people are afraid that we could be out of control in an outward spiral toward extinction.
So I’m for doing it as fast as we can. That’s why it’s World War Zero. We believe we have to treat this like a war.

The fact is that unfortunately powerful monied interests from people like the Koch brothers, to people like the fossil fuel industry have been declaring war on science. There are memos of these companies, Exxon and others, talking about how they had to move to fight back against climate science. And they’ve done it by putting fake science in front of people to create doubt. You can read Naomi Oreskes’ book Merchants of Doubt which talks very specifically about certain people who are the purveyors of this. They’ve created doubt in the minds of people who don’t want to chew off something as big as this.  

World War Zero is going to organise both grasstops and grassroots. What we think we can do is bring together people who can change the conversation. We’ll join the climate strikes. We will join together to get people excited by the possibility of what they can do if they engage with our democracy. 

Emma Watson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Arnold Schwarzenegger and many more have all enlisted their support for World War Zero.

Yes, the youth is interested in it, but there seems to be a paralysis in the public domain. People who find it hard to involve themselves in the conversation because there’s too much shouting, and they want to get to the end of the month.  

We agree. 

So how do you reach them?

We’re going to change the conversation. But there are three approaches we have. We’re going to point out to people who are struggling that they will be able to pay their bills, but that there will be better jobs waiting for them as well.
There are 4-5 billion users of energy today, and we have to make it cleaner. Do you know what the fastest-growing jobs in the world today are? Solar power technicians and wind power technicians. 

Number two is health. We’re talking about pollution in which seven million people die every year. The fact is, a whole bunch of people get cancer because of the toxins that are going out into the atmosphere. We’re supposed to only have 300 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the air. But now we’re already at 401.6. That was from a vile of air given to me at the South Pole when I was in Antarctica. It’s the cleanest air in the world, and it’s already 51 per cent above where it’s supposed to be.
The most significant cause of children being hospitalised in the United States every year is environmentally induced asthma. We spend $55 million a year on it. Two years ago, we spent $265 million cleaning up after three storms. And now
storms happen not once every 500 years. They’re happening every year. 

These are important priorities.

Yes, the final thing we’re going to talk to people about is security.  You’re not sending young people to fight and die in some part of the world just because you’re dependent on their energy. I think we can break through.  The things that are happening now don’t seem so far away. I give young people enormous credit. I used to be one of those young people when I helped work on Earth Day in 1970 when I came back from Vietnam, and then I demonstrated against the war in Vietnam.  I know the impact of young people talking to their parents and moving their families.

We’re poised to have another youth movement wave that could have a profound impact. This is an inclusive process, not an exclusive one. We need everybody at the table, so whether it’s Greta in Sweden or Penelope Lea in Norway or Alicia O’Sullivan in Ireland, they’re all realising the reality here. What World War Zero is predicated on is the notion that in 2016 when Trump got elected only 19 per cent of people in America between 18 and 25 bothered to vote.  I believe we can mobilise a considerable percentage more than that. And believe me, they’re not going to vote for Trump. 

Sign up to World War Zero here

All images by Phil Sharp