John Kerry isn’t usually like this.
During his half-century in public life, the Massachusetts Democrat has served as a model of a dignified American statesman, projecting stoicism, resolve, and a well-coifed New England nicety that rarely ruffles. He kept his cool while being “swiftboated” as a presidential nominee in 2004, during hard-fought negotiations with Iran as secretary of State, and for decades before that as a U.S. senator. But as we speak over the phone the day after the first presidential debate, Kerry is so riled up over Trump’s incompetence that he can barely articulate himself.
“He is a totally insensitive, unaware, unhinged, brawling nincompoop who has no governor for his brain, and who lies and lies and lies because he creates his own reality,” Kerry says. He paused for a good 12 seconds before arriving at “brawling nincompoop.”
Kerry is a firm believer in America’s role as the leader of the free world, which includes a responsibility to put forth a dependable image to the international community. He’s been watching President Trump trample over that image for nearly four years now — trashing allies, hobnobbing with autocrats, and callously discarding key multilateral agreements. He’s had enough. Trump is an “ignorant boor who doesn’t do his homework,” Kerry continues, now in a groove. “He is narcissistic to the point of distraction, easily manipulatable, and completely untrustworthy.” A few minutes later, his attention turns to the climate crisis, where Trump is “a one-man lying wrecking crew, walking around destroying relationships, years of effort, and people’s belief in science and in American values.”
“You put all that together and you’ve got a doozy of a presidency to present to the world,” Kerry says with equal parts dismay and disgust.
America’s image to the rest of the world hasn’t always been so flattering, especially this century. The 2003 invasion of Iraq precipitated a prolonged series of failures throughout the Middle East, leading to a decline in international favorability. According to the Pew Research Center, confidence in America’s president to do the right thing plummeted from 2003 to 2008. But it skyrocketed throughout President Obama’s time in office, as did a commitment to multilateralism which Trump promptly abandoned. Confidence once again plummeted before all-but-bottoming out in response to America’s failure to control the coronavirus. A Pew study released in September found that among 13 of America’s key allies, trust in Trump was only at 16 percent, while favorability toward the U.S. was less than half of what it was four years ago.
The damage Trump has done to America’s international standing is something Kerry understands intimately, considering the work he did to restore it as Obama’s Secretary of State. His signature accomplishment may have been brokering the landmark agreement between Iran, the U.S., and several other world powers that capped the Middle Eastern nation’s ability to produce nuclear material. Trump tore up the deal out of spite in 2018. Tension between the two nations has vacillated between boiling and boiling over ever since, and, a few weeks before Kerry and I spoke, the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran now has 10 times the amount of enriched uranium than the deal allowed. “We’re the ones who led the fight to put the Iran nuclear agreement together, and now other countries are trying to carry the ball and hold it together,” Kerry laments.
Junking the Iran deal is just one example of Trump’s ignorance that has twisted Kerry in knots, and every point he makes during our conversation seems to funnel down to a molten core of resentment toward the nincompoop-in-chief. But on the flip side of Kerry’s frustration is a sincere belief that Joe Biden will be able to return the United States to its rightful place as the chief influencer of the global order. “I remain really upset at what Donald Trump has offered the world as an image of the United States, and of our leadership,” Kerry says. “It is such an aberration and so contrary to the United States that I’ve passionately worked for, and to what Republicans and Democrats alike share in common as far as our set of values about who we are as a nation. Donald Trump doesn’t share that. It’s unique.”
“Unique” is probably the most diplomatic way he could have put it.
Nothing has hurt our reputation internationally like the pandemic response. We recently published an essay about how Covid is signaling the end of the “American empire,” as the author puts it. What do you make of this idea that the era of America as a global leader as it’s been for the past 75 years could be coming to an end?
I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it. I think it’s been a grotesque and unfortunate hiatus. But I think that’s what this election is about. I think the American people are going to vote against chaos, I think they’re going to vote against this nihilism, and I think they’re going to vote for America restoring itself to a more rightful place. I think they got suckered and felt in 2016 that somehow Trump was a “successful” businessman. They gave him a chance to be the guy who drains the swamp, but not only did he not drain it, he plugged every possible drain and filled it. I think the tax story that came out was just the exclamation point on all that. He owes $421 million. It underscores what a fraud he is. He’s not who he pretends to be, and he never has been. His hair is a description for his entire being.
The $70,000 hair…
The $70,000 in hair and the $750 in taxes. I mean, you would have thought that as a sitting president he might have said, ‘You know what, I ought to pay a million so it looks like I’m paying my share.’ But no, he cares so much about only paying $750 and he thinks he’s smart for doing it — which makes every other law-abiding citizen in America not smart. You are called not smart by Donald Trump because you didn’t pay $750 dollars and screw your country. Are you kidding me?
He’s done real damage to us, because people wonder what’s happened to America. People ask me all the time, ‘What’s gotten into you guys?’ Now, I think we can come back. One of the reasons I supported Joe Biden very early on was that I really believed his narrative is the narrative we need right now. I think he’s able to beat Donald Trump. I believe he will win, and he will win because he presents as somebody with experience, somebody who can quiet things down, somebody who has worked with Republicans and Democrats, somebody who can bring the country together, somebody who doesn’t create fear, and somebody for whom obviously the socialism label is not going to stick. I think Joe has the potential to be one of the most important presidents we’ve had.
One of the first things Biden will have to remedy is also one of the first things Trump did to hurt us internationally, which is hollowing out the State Department, gutting its budget, and filling political positions with people who weren’t qualified. As the former secretary of State, can you explain the impact this has had on our ability to exert influence around the world?
Before he even brought about this mass exodus of qualified people, he just didn’t fill existing positions. You have Assistant Secretary of State slots that were never filled. You have ambassadorships that we never filled. It’s disgraceful, not even putting your army on the field, so to speak, to do the things we need to do for America. People-to-people diplomacy is critical in knowing a country and understanding a problem and seeing the problem before it becomes a bigger problem. The day-to-day diplomacy done by professionals in the foreign services is really amazing, and critical to America’s safety and security. He basically handicapped that from the get-go, and then put people in who weren’t qualified or knowledgeable. So morale and the experience factor really took a major, major hit. I’ve had people say to me that we don’t even know who to call over there. We don’t know how to get anything done or weigh in.
I think the restoration of America’s diplomatic capacity is one of the top priorities, because it’s critical to America’s security. Our security is defined not just by the military, but by our economic interests in today’s world. I’ve always said that foreign policy is economic policy and economic policy is foreign policy. They go hand-in-hand nowadays. You look at the problems we have with China with respect to market access and technology and other things. We have to work at these things. It takes people to build relationships and trust that makes that happen — not edicts tweeted out, or unprepared summits that don’t produce any results.
So there’s been great damage to the hard work of diplomacy, but I think that could be fairly rapidly restored by asking many of the talented people who changed their lives because of what was happening to consider coming back and helping to rebuild the future.
So if Biden wins and does all the right things as far as rebuilding the State Department and reaffirming our commitments to NATO and the U.N. and the Paris Agreement, you think that we can get back on the same course we strayed from when Trump was elected? As far as our international standing and ability to exert influence, do you think there’s anything that has been lost over the last four years that can’t be regained?
I think that we can restore a great deal and create some momentum. But I do think that people will be looking over their shoulder. It may even take an election or two beyond this before we’re fully back, and we have to see what happens in the interim. But can you get back to a place where you’re able to exert America’s influence and leadership at the U.N. and at the G20 and with NATO? Yes. People are transactional. Now is now and there are always “now” interests that are very critical. But there will be a lingering question mark about whether our country is capable of making the mistake again, so people need to cover their you-know-whats a little bit as they go along. But on the big things, it’s going to matter what we do. On climate change, we’re going to have to step up. We’re going to have to do things. If you can lead you have to lead by example. We’re going to have to help the world move at a much faster pace. The Iran nuclear agreement has to not only be put back together, we have to go further. We have to do more than just what was there. It’s not enough to have a status quo ante on a number of these things. Some things have to be done bigger, better, stronger. That’s one of the lessons of the last few years.
Do you think part of what may need to factor into this process of regaining our standing is stepping back a little from the idea of the United States as this exceptional, indispensable nation?
I think you always have to have humility. In my speech at [this year’s] Democratic National Convention, I emphasized strength and humility, because I think Barack Obama and Joe Biden and those of us on the team believe that you have to act with a measure of humility in today’s world. This is not the world of immediately after World War II where you walk into the room and you tell everybody, “Here’s Pax Americana and this is what we’re going to do.” We’re living in a different world because many people have achieved exactly what we wanted them to achieve. We wanted them to develop, to grow the middle class in their societies, to become partners in various endeavors around the world. We should not be surprised that having done that, and some of them having established an even better standard of living, that they’re going to demand a seat at the table. So you cannot approach these things with arrogance. You have to approach them with thoughtfulness and strategically and sensitively.
America is not exceptional because we beat our chests and say we’re exceptional. We’re exceptional because we do exceptional things. I use the example at Normandy where soldiers gave up their lives for freedom, to beat fascism, and to build a new world. That’s exceptional. That is what we do. We go to the moon. We create the internet. We cure diseases. That is America. I think Joe Biden has spoken very eloquently about his desire to be that country again, to do these things. I think the country is thirsty to do these things again.
Foreign policy hasn’t exactly been a focal point of the 2020 campaign. What do you feel is responsible for the decline in public interest in international relations? What needs to be done to reignite this interest?
The first thing we have to do is elect a president who believes in the power of multilateral relationships to be able to serve America’s interests. We don’t do foreign policy just for the fun of it. We do it because we have interests around the world that we need to protect. We have citizens who travel around the world. We have trans-boundary challenges. Covid is a classic example. There’s also nuclear weapons, cyber, extremism, the climate crisis, and the migration of populations due to several of the things I just mentioned. All of these things are front and center in life in America.
If you want to secure life in America, you have to be strong in the world and strong abroad. Donald Trump has faked that completely. He has allowed Kim Jong-un to build more nuclear weapons. He got nothing out of it. He didn’t get a declaration of weapons. He didn’t get an inspection. That matters to Americans. It matters that we don’t have to send young Americans off to put their lives on the line somewhere in the world because we didn’t pay attention to something early on, because we didn’t have a strategy. The Iran nuclear agreement is shredded. Pulling out of [the Paris Agreement] has slowed the momentum of our efforts [to combat the climate crisis] and put us in danger. What’s happening in California? Predictable. What’s happening with floods in the Midwest? Predictable. What’s happening with migration? Predictable. What’s happening with the intensity of storms? Predictable. There is a long list of things scientists have been telling us are going to happen and they’re all happening. It’s costing us trillions of dollars right now. We spent $265 billion to clean up after three storms — Harvey, Irma, and Maria — instead of getting ahead of them.
It makes me so angry, and Donald Trump doesn’t even understand it.
One thing Trump has tried to hang his hat on is the recent deal normalizing relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. You were trending in right-wing circles recently for having said peace in the Middle East wasn’t possible without Palestine. What do you think of this deal in the context of those comments?
I’m all for it. I praise it. I think it’s a good step. But it’s not peace in the Middle East. Nobody should pretend that. It has nothing to do with the Palestinians. There are countries that have not joined up to that, and there is massive pushback among the various lefty entities in the region. So it’s a recognition of a reality that I think has been in existence for about 10 years. A lot of people don’t write about this, but we got a resolution passed in Paris in which the Arab world recognized Israel as a Jewish state. We also talked about a larger regional security arrangement. So this has been in the making for a number of years now. I talked many times about reducing the sort of crazy hangover of lack of socialization between these countries. I even gave speeches in which I talked about how the Middle East was the single least-integrated social, political, economic, and security region in the world.
What we needed to do was exactly what has happened here. So I embrace it. I think it’s terrific. I welcome the UAE. Mohammad bin Zayed is the guy who really moved to embrace this and took the courageous step to do it. Bahrain followed and others may follow. I hope they do. But it still leaves extant the reality that the majority of the population between the Jordan River Valley and the Mediterranean is non-Jewish, and they’re not represented and they don’t have those rights. That’s not going to go away. There’s never going to be real peace in the Middle East until you get all these forces together.
Vladimir Putin was quoted last year as saying that liberalism is obsolete. Do you feel like the ideals of liberalism and democracy that have shaped the modern world can survive without the U.S. carrying the torch the way it has for the past 75 years?
I believe any country can seek to carry the ball, and any country can stick by the virtues of democracy, because they are virtuous and because they believe in them and they love them and they want to protect them. Any country can stand up and do that. Will they be able to do it with the force and effect of the United States? Probably not, because we are the world’s largest economy, the most powerful military, and we have traditionally been looked to as the leader of the free world. The sad reality of Donald Trump is there is at this moment no leader of the free world. Joe Biden can restore that. He can come back and be that leader. I think the world feels like they need that leadership, because people in many parts of the world are not going to bed at night worried about why the United States is there; they’re worried about what happens if the United States isn’t there. There are lots of places like that in the world. I think that’s why humility is so critical. We have to talk to our friends. We have to bring them into the process. They have to be shared partners in doing these kinds of things.
At the end of World War I, there were about 15 democracies in the world. They started to climb until the failure of the 1929 crash, at which point communism and fascism and socialism grew in a number of countries. Then we had World War II. After World War II, in the aftermath of that, we built — with the U.N. and with the alliances — we went up to something like 88 democracies and growing. Then about 40 or so partially free countries and a similar number of not-free countries. That’s quite remarkable. I believe most people in the world want to be free; I think they honor America’s role in helping to carry that standard. I think people would welcome America being America again.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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