John Kerry comes to the Oxford Union

News University News

On Wednesday, 11 May, American diplomat and Secretary of State John Kerry appeared at the Oxford Union to speak to students in an unprecedented event.

The Secretary’s visit, which had gone unannounced in this spring’s Union termcard, was announced to members via email on 5 May. Following the announcement, the event garnered enormous popularity, resulting in Union officials implementing the new event ticketing system first proposed in Hilary term. After queuing for hours Tuesday to guarantee a place at the event, two hundred ticket-holders joined fellow Union members in the speaking chamber early Wednesday afternoon in eager anticipation of Secretary Kerry’s talk. News outlets in attendance included Sky News Arabia; the Associated Press; the Press Association; Reuters; AFP, and the Wall Street Journal.

Prior to his appointment as the 68th Secretary of State in February 2013, Kerry served 28 years in the United States Senate, the last four as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and was the 2004 Democratic nominee for President of the United States. As Secretary, Kerry oversaw the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in 2013-14, helped to achieve nuclear accord with Iran earlier this year, and is currently working to secure a truce in the Syrian Civil War.

Beginning the afternoon lightheartedly, Kerry opened his speech by expressing his gratitude and pleasure at speaking at the Union, drawing laughter from the crowd.

“Robert Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, the woman who plays Crazy Eyes on the Netflix show… Now that’s great company to be in,” Kerry said, referencing actress Uzo Aduba’s visit to the Union last term.

“I know that some of you have also been waging an energetic campaign, a creative campaign, to bring another tall, thin American to this hall,” he told the crowd. “So, I apologize to anybody who’s disappointed that I am not, in fact, Taylor Swift.”

As the laughter faded, Kerry shortly turned to foreign policy, focusing his speech heavily on the issue of Islamic extremism—whose perpetrators he called “thugs” and “the living definition of evil.”

“Not a single country endorses the kind of vicious and indiscriminate violence perpetrated by such groups as ISIL and Daesh, or groups like al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and others,” Kerry said. He emphasized that rather than drawing nations apart, extremist groups are contributing to international unity as governments work together to defeat them.

“The crimes of these people go way beyond theft and destruction. They’re smugglers, extorters. They destroy cultural treasures, they attack history itself,” said Kerry.

Fortunately, according to the Secretary, extremist groups are losing ground. “They’re losing leaders, losing cash… And you know what, they’re losing confidence as well,” he said.

Kerry stated that a combination of international forces have already pushed Daesh out of roughly one-third of the territory that it once controlled in Iraq and Syria, and are continuing to push hard to ensure the group’s eradication. He emphasized that alongside that process, nations should also seek to address the root causes of violent extremism—often, a lack of identity, purpose, and power among young people who then seek it elsewhere. Kerry’s overall message regarding the state of Middle Eastern affairs, however, was encouraging.

“Secretary Kerry was refreshingly optimistic in emphasizing the solvability of what he believes to be the most critical generational issues,” said Evangeline Clapp of Mansfield College.

That optimism was less so, however, in Kerry’s discussion of climate change, which he also referenced frequently in his address. The Secretary emphasized the ongoing crisis of global warming and environmental destruction, underscoring such figures as 17 football fields—the area of forest that humans destroy each minute;  40 years—the time it’s taken humans to wipe out 50% of marine vertebrates; and 3.5 billion—the number of people who live in communities that fall short of the air quality standards set by the World Health Organization.

The Paris Climate Change Agreement in 2015, Secretary Kerry said, was an important, even crucial step in ensuring the world’s future. That year, 2015, was the hottest year in recorded history.

Nevertheless, Kerry remained confident in the world’s ability to overcome even those issues that seem insurmountable. “There is nothing inevitable about succumbing to the problems that we confront. Nothing,” he said. “Each is a product of human choice or lack of choice. And what we have the power to choose, we have the power to change.”

Joe Inwood, a historian at Mansfield, commented, “I was impressed by [Kerry’s] emphasis on climate change, and how he rated that among the top issues for him as Secretary of State. It was interesting that the Paris climate agreement was his proudest achievement. Overall it was his optimism that struck me. He set out some really serious challenges that we face, but then told us there has never been a better time to be born on Earth. A bold claim that actually resonated for me.”

Though Kerry declined to comment on questions requiring what he called “hypothetical retroactive judgments”—including inquiries about Donald Trump—he provided the audience with “clear and engaging” insight as to the state of current world affairs, said visiting sociologist Hildie Hoeschen.

“I especially appreciated [Secretary Kerry’s] acknowledgement of the underlying factors contributing to the growth of extremist groups and other global issues,” said Hoeschen. “The root of the problem, especially in this case, is just as important as the more visible, immediate problems.”

At the conclusion of Kerry’s talk, Oxford Union President Robert Harris presented the Secretary with a framed photograph of the debate chamber and an honorary Union membership—an honour in which he joins just 14 others. 

Image: Roger Askew