Remarks before the Daily Press Briefing
Secretary of State
SECRETARY KERRY: Happy New Year.
QUESTION: Happy New Year.
SECRETARY KERRY: How are you all doing? Nice to see you all. Thank you very much.
So I really just – I wanted to drop by this afternoon not to steal any of John’s thunder, if that’s even possible, by taking questions. There will be plenty of time for that, believe me, over the course of the next few weeks and beyond that. But I wanted to share with you a couple of points that I think are important.
Obviously, this is a moment of intense diplomatic engagement, and in just the second half of this year – of the last year, we achieved several very important breakthroughs: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which we are days away from implementation if all goes well; the Paris climate change agreement, 186 nations coming together for the first time, all of them laying out plans to address climate change but most importantly with legally binding structure by which it will be measured and revisited over the course of five years, and then adjusted accordingly; the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which represents 40 percent of the GDP of the planet but a very significant alliance of nations that want to do business by high standards from all of the Asia Pacific; the reopening of our embassy in Havana; and the developing of a plan which offers the opportunity, if people want to take it, signed on to by Saudi Arabia and Iran and other countries and organizations, for ending the Syrian civil war.
We also saw major gains on the ground against Daesh in Syria and Iraq, capped off by an impressive victory by Iraqi forces with coalition support in Ramadi. Just this afternoon – or earlier this morning, excuse me – I did a video conference with our commanders, as well as Secretary Ash Carter, our ambassadors from Turkey and from Iraq, and we discussed the road ahead in securing Ramadi and moving forward in the rest of the campaign, for which we have a clear plan and clear expectations.
I should also point out that last year was also a good year for democracy in such countries as Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and Burma. And there were significant elections as well in Venezuela, Argentina, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere.
Now, all of this is not an end unto itself. It’s a means by which we move to achieve our goals and to secure the values and the interests of the United States, to make us more secure and to offer us greater economic opportunity. And all of this sets the stage for what will surely be a challenging, extremely busy, but I am convinced, very promising 2016.
On the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, I talked this morning with Foreign Minister Zarif, not only on the subject of the implementation, but also on the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the region and Iran. But the foreign minister made it clear to me they intend to complete their obligations with respect to implementation day as rapidly as possible, and we are currently engaged ourselves in making certain that we’re prepared to move on that day. And I think it could come, without being specific, sooner rather than later.
On the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, may I point out we have already seen very significant results. Iran has shipped overseas most of its stockpile of enriched uranium, and with that – it shipped out of Iran in one fell swoop, one shipment on a ship, a Russian ship that will take those materials and eradicate them, transition them, transform them from the potential of any kind of bomb manufacturing. With that, Iran literally shipped out its capacity currently to build a nuclear weapon.
We went from two months of potential breakout time, two to three months, to nine months overnight. And in the next days with the completion of their tasks, we will meet our target at being more than a year of breakout time.
Now, as implementation day approaches, obviously it’s our task to continue to ensure that Iran lives up to its commitments while building on our own commitment at the same time to address the questions of Iran’s activities, whether it’s missile activities or other activities in the region. And we will continue to do that, I can assure you, as well as continue to press for the return of Americans who have been unjustly detained.
On Syria, we remain extremely focused on our diplomatic effort to de-escalate the conflict, to achieve a political transition, to marginalize the terrorists, and to enable the safe return of refugees. And negotiations between the government and opposition are still scheduled to begin on January 25th in Geneva, and all indications are, in both my conversation with Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir of Saudi Arabia and my conversation with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, they both assured us and others that the differences between them at this moment expressed very publicly will not interfere with their willingness to work cooperatively in an effort to resolve Syria. And that is important. Support for the Syria peace process remains strong.
Concerning Asia, I have been consulting in recent days with allies regarding developments in the South China Sea and particularly the developments in the North Korea nuclear test. Today I talked with Foreign Minister Wang Yi at some length. We discussed various options and ways in which we should proceed forward. We agreed that there cannot be business as usual, and we agreed that we will work very closely together to determine the steps that we can take in order to address our increasing concerns about that nuclear test.
That test simply underscores America’s firm and continued commitment to regional security and global nonproliferation, and we remain committed to that, beginning with our dialogue next week with the Philippines. 2016 is going to be an extremely active year for us throughout the Asia Pacific, and Deputy Secretary Tony Blinken will be leaving in a few days for a trip over there to the region. I’ll be leaving in a couple of weeks to go to begin to work on the ASEAN Summit that we will have in Sunnylands and also possibly to have meetings regarding the North Korean situation.
So let me make it clear. The United States is today more deeply engaged in more parts of the world on more consequential issues than ever before in history all at one time. And the reason is that our interests demand it and our friends and our allies welcome it and want it. We therefore anticipate additional opportunities and challenges in the months to come in such places as Ukraine, Afghanistan, Central America, Colombia, Cyprus, Libya, South Sudan, Burundi, and the list goes on. We have no illusion about the difficulties, but believe me we are confident, I am personally confident, that because the values we bring to the table are what they are and reflect those of the American people, I believe we have earned strong international support and I believe we will keep it over the course of these challenges.
Now, as we prepare for this year, let me make it clear, my friends. It is vital that we undertake all of these efforts with the fullest possible strength for our country. Patriotism demands it. Commitment to our country demands it. Our interests demand it. And that is the primary reason why I wanted to drop by here this afternoon. As someone who served for more than a quarter of a century – almost 29 years – in the United States Senate, I deeply respect the foreign policy prerogatives of the Congress and of the United States Senate, and as a former chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, I am particularly sensitive to them. I also respect enormously the responsibility to advise and consent on nominations that are put forward by the President.
But at the same time, I think most Americans would agree that, in managing world affairs, the United States of America should always strive to put our most capable team on the field. And it just doesn’t make sense – it hurts our country to do what the Senate has allowed to happen over the course of these last couple of years. And that is to leave open for sometimes more than a year vacant, important positions for our nation. Fritz Mondale, former Vice President Mondale, wrote a terrific op-ed over the break regarding the importance of having ambassadors in place at this day, in this moment of American history, where they can do any number of things vital to our security and advancing our economic prosperity.
But right now, the under secretary of state for political affairs, one of the most pivotal positions in this department, the very hub of our day-to-day diplomacy with every region, is vacant. We have in Ambassador Tom Shannon an outstanding nominee for under secretary, a veteran Foreign Service officer whose nomination was approved unanimously by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And yet for months one person has been holding up his nomination – no vote on the Senate floor.
Anyone familiar with U.S. foreign policy knows that legal issues are connected to every single thing we do. If we’re negotiating the arms control treaty, if we’re negotiating a economic agreement – I mean, whatever it is, if somebody has a consular problem in a country, legal opinion is critical to the policy judgments that we are able to make. If we’re going to use force in a particular nation, legal judgments are absolutely essential to our rights to be able to use that force. For almost the full three years that I have been Secretary of State, I have never had the benefit of the permanent legal adviser to the State Department. We’ve had extraordinary, capable acting leadership, and I’m very grateful to Mary McLeod for her extraordinary leadership over this period of time.
But that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. We’ve now exhausted her amount of time that she is legally allowed to serve as an acting legal adviser. So we undermine our own ability as a nation to work on legal questions with other nations and with other agencies of our own government. And it hampers our capacity to respond to requests for information from Congress, the FOIAs that we get – all of these are legal exercises, and we need to have the full legal team on board. By not having a permanent, selected, Senate-confirmed, presidentially nominated legal adviser in place, we are deprived of the full weight of the legal authority and leadership necessary to do the best job on behalf of the American people. Now, here again, we have a superbly qualified nominee in Brian Egan, who more than six months ago was approved unanimously by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And his nomination too has been blocked on the Senate floor.
One of our most significant bilateral relationships is with Mexico, and this is true economically, environmentally, socially, on border security – which you hear presidential candidates chomping about – law enforcement cooperation, and immigration. It is a relationship that thrives on mutual respect. And that is why the President chose a professional, a civil servant, Roberta Jacobson, one of our country’s top diplomats and a career civil servant, to be our ambassador to Mexico City. And it is disparaging to that country that we don’t have the respect to send the ambassador that that country needs and deserves. Roberta’s nomination was approved by the committee. It has been endorsed by six previous ambassadors to Mexico from Republican and Democrat administrations alike, and yet the vote on her nomination has yet to be scheduled.
In the coming year, we have a huge agenda of issues with Europe, from countering Daesh – we’ve seen what happened in Belgium, we’ve what happened in Paris. We see the need of any number of nations there to join with us. They’re all members of our coalition against Daesh. They make up part of the 65 who have joined the fight to destroy Daesh, and yet we have not reciprocated with the respect to put the ambassadors in place who can work at the highest levels of national security in order to help organize that effort and promote America’s commercial interests and ensure the security and the effectiveness of congressionally mandated changes in the Visa Waiver Program.
All of these are issues with direct impact on the safety and the prosperity of the American people. So this is not the time to have vacancies in our diplomatic posts and certainly not the time to have a vacancy because 99 other senators or 90 other senators or 80, even, are being refused the opportunity to be able to have a vote. The Senate can fix this very quickly by voting soon on these ambassadorial nominations. Already approved by the committee – eight already approved by the committee on the Senate floor waiting for a vote; nine in the committee waiting to be passed out.
So in making these requests, I just want to make it clear: I fully respect the Senate’s right to deliberate carefully, and indeed, the advice and consent process was meant to provide that kind of deliberation. But there is a point where the equities involved in these relationships and in our national security interests and our economic interests mandate that on behalf of the American people we should have a vote. So let somebody who opposes the nomination come to the floor and state their reasons for opposition, and let senators make up their minds and pay the respect to the rest of the Senate that they deserve to be able to cast their votes and make up their minds. But end this notion that one United States senator or two can stop the entire process and put the United States not just in an embarrassing situation, but in a negative situation that actually hurts our security, hurts our interests, sets back our ability to carry our values at the highest level, and most importantly, sets back our ability to organize fully our effort to defeat Daesh and protect the people of the United States of America.
I ask that when the men and women that we send up are clearly qualified and supported by enough senators for confirmation, then the process should go forward at a reasonable pace. That is fair and it is the good democratic way to do business. We face many challenges in the world today. We should not be making our own jobs harder by failing to put ourselves in the best position possible. So I appeal to the United States Senate, please act without further delay on these and other nominations before you, and in so doing, you will strengthen both America and the institution in which you serve. Thank you.
John will answer --
QUESTION: May I --
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, can we – Mr. Secretary, can we just – a couple of questions about your agenda.
SECRETARY KERRY: John’s going to answer.
QUESTION: As these – as these confirmations are held up, do you think that you have a major problem now in North Korea and that too much time may have been paid to Iran and other challenges while North Korea was left without getting enough attention?
SECRETARY KERRY: I’ll take one question. Let me just make it clear: North Korea has never been left unattended to, not for one day. We have had meetings, we have had constant consultations. On the first trip that I made to China, when I raised the issue of the climate negotiation that resulted in China joining with us, I spent most of that trip and most of that time on North Korea. Now, China had a particular approach that it wanted to make, and we agreed and respected to give them space to be able to implement that. But today in my conversation with the Chinese, I made it very clear: That has not worked and we cannot continue business as usual. But there had been any number of trips, any number of conversations, and I’m happy to have John Kirby lay out the entire tick-tock, if you will, that will show you how that premise is absolutely inaccurate. It’s without foundation.
QUESTION: So it’s time for China to crack down and get tough with North Korea?
SECRETARY KERRY: It’s – John will address it. It’s time for everybody to make sure that this does not continue as business as usual. Thanks, everybody.