John Kerry’s doctrine: More intervention
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
May 18, 2014 04:58 PM EDT
John Kerry then had a different worry about America’s role in the world than the secretary of state does now.
“What was an excess of isolationism has become an excess of interventionism,” Kerry told Yale graduates in his Class Day speech. “There’s a “serious danger of assuming the roles of policeman, prosecutor, judge, and jury, all at one time, and then, rationalizing our way deeper and deeper into a hold of commitment which other nations neither understand nor support.”
That was so 48 years ago.
Kerry delivered those lines in 1966, as a graduating senior. Sunday, he returned to the campus in New Haven as secretary of state for another Class Day speech he saw as a bookend to rail against the governments in Washington and elsewhere for not assuming enough of a role in the world.
These days, rarely a week goes by when he’s not flying to another country, managing American involvement in Ukraine, the much-discussed but still nascent “pivot to Asia,” negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, the Syrian civil war, a full collection of African conflicts and his own failed attempts to make any movement toward an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.
It worries him that he doesn’t feel he has enough support for these efforts back home.
The 1966 anxiety about interventionism stuck out to him when he re-read the speech as he was preparing this year’s, Kerry said Sunday. With Vietnam, 30 years in the Senate, a presidential run and 15 months handling America’s insertion all over the world as President Barack Obama’s top diplomat now behind him, Kerry told this year’s graduating seniors that the biggest danger now is an America that isn’t getting involved enough.
“We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade,” Kerry said Sunday. “I can tell you for certain, most of the rest of the world doesn’t lie awake at night worrying about America’s presence — they worry about what would happen in our absence.”
Particularly in international affairs — but also on climate change, on the influx of immigrants, on energy policy and on infrastructure — Kerry said the world is changing more quickly today than when he first spoke at Yale, making even more embarrassing the failure of governments in Washington and beyond to keep up.
“The problem is today’s institutions are simply not keeping up or even catching up to the felt needs of our time. Right before our eyes, difficult decisions are deferred or avoided altogether,” Kerry said. “And the sum total of this inaction is stealing the future from all of us.”
And the people who instead win the future, he said, are radical extremists who take advantage of the “slow suffocation of conventional wisdom” that stops governments in Washington and abroad from taking more of a role.
Sunday’s speech was the first of two back-to-back speeches to his alma maters. Monday, he’ll be at Boston College, where he attended law school, for another dive into his thinking that, given the Jesuit roots of the school, will explore the role of faith in guiding America’s responsibilities around the world.
Kerry will invoke Boston College theologian Father David Hollenbach, “who brought the challenge of human dignity to the forefront of Catholic social teaching.”
“What do I mean by dignity? When men and women have access to clean water and clear power, they can live in dignity. When men and women have the freedom to choose their government on Election Day, and the freedom to engage their fellow citizens every day, they can live in dignity,” Kerry will say, according to a draft of the remarks as prepared for delivery. “When citizens can make their full contribution, no matter their ethnicity, no matter who they love or what name they give to God, they can live in dignity.”
The twin speeches hadn’t been Kerry’s plan. But after being invited to Yale from one of the Class Day co-chairs who’d interned in his speechwriting shop at the State Department, and then receiving the invitation from Boston College, he decided to use them as a chance to express himself on a foreign policy where little has been going right of late for the administration — and which, depending on how the midterms go in November, may be the only avenue for Obama to pursue legacy achievements post-November.
The 1966 speech had started as a much more traditional, cliché-heavy sendoff to graduates. But with Vietnam very much on his and everyone else’s minds, Kerry scrapped that version, and on a pre-graduation Skull & Bones retreat instead wrote what became his first major speech on public policy.
By contrast, drafts of the speeches for this year had been bouncing around for weeks. Kerry finally got down to writing them in earnest in his Air Force jet flying to and from London last week, wearing his usual jeans and a hooded sweatshirt flying wear, stocked with a bottle of water and a sleeve of Oreos.
Looking out on an assemblage of sombreros, jester’s caps, pharaoh’s crowns, helmets, glued-on stuffed animals and other silly hats that are the tradition at Yale for Class Day — Kerry himself went bare-headed, but joked that “this might be only event Pharrell could crash and go unnoticed” — the secretary warned the seniors about the consequences of official inaction: “the result is an obvious deepening frustration if not exasperation with institutional governance.”
He urged them to pay more attention to the worries he expressed as secretary than the ones he expressed as a senior years before.
“I’m forewarned that no one remembers who delivers their graduation speech,” Kerry joked. “All I really remember about our speaker in 1966 is that he was eloquent, insightful, really good looking.”