John Kerry’s Biggest Mission

He’s relentless, strategic, kind of annoying—and might just save the planet.

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the United Nations Climate Conference.
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the United Nations Climate Conference in Madrid on Dec. 10, 2019. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

On April 22, 1971—50 years ago to the day that U.S. President Joe Biden’s climate summit opened this week—a young Vietnam veteran named John Kerry first brought himself to national attention.

On April 22, 1971—50 years ago to the day that U.S. President Joe Biden’s climate summit opened this week—a young Vietnam veteran named John Kerry first brought himself to national attention.

The 27-year-old former Navy lieutenant, his Silver Star ribbon pinned to his green fatigues, declared in Senate testimony that the Vietnam War was “an absolute horror.” Holding nothing back, Kerry bluntly catalogued U.S. war crimes, insisted U.S. troops be brought home immediately and questioned, in words that would be widely quoted and later inspire a Bruce Springsteen song, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” 

Those words would come to define Kerry’s entire career and, ultimately, return to haunt him, costing him his fondest dream: being elected U.S. president. But Kerry’s testimony was also early evidence of a character trait his friends and admirers often point to: a hell-for-leather willingness—even eagerness—to confront the toughest issues, call them by their real name, and refuse to give up trying to solve them. Ever.

Now, at the age of 77, he is taking on the task of rolling back climate change at a time when U.S. global leadership is being questioned. And Kerry will need all those personal qualities and more. On Thursday, Biden sought to reclaim that leadership by setting a dramatic goal of cutting U.S. greenhouse emissions by about 50 percent by 2030, bringing the G-7 and European Union mostly on board and challenging China and other nations to do the same.

Kerry, in remarks to the media on Thursday, insisted he and his old Senate colleague, Biden, would make it happen. “We had to restore America’s credibility. We had to prove that we were serious. And I think today does that in many ways,” he said.

Kerry then harked back to his younger self and his famous 1971 testimony, taking note of its 50th anniversary. “That was a period of time when young people, our generation, stood up and made our voices heard,” Kerry said, recalling he also took part in the first Earth Day in 1970. Kerry said he now identified with the new generation—several of whom gave passionate speeches at the virtual White House summit—who are rebuking “the alleged adults who are not getting their act together.” 

John Kerry speaks about the Vietnam War in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971.

Kerry, then a 27-year-old former Navy lieutenant who headed the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, receives support from a gallery of peace demonstrators and tourists as he testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington, on April 22, 1971. Henry Griffin/AP

In the coming months it will be largely up to Kerry to make Biden’s seemingly quixotic promise a reality—restoring U.S. leadership on the issue, permanently “greening” the U.S. and world economy, and bringing recalcitrant nations like China and the private sector on board to achieve the hitherto seemingly impossible goal of restraining global warming to an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius. That is the level necessary to prevent catastrophe in the 21st century, according to the United Nations.

It’s exactly the kind of hard task Kerry relishes, his supporters say, recalling his efforts to gain consensus on issues going back to normalization with Vietnam and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which as then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Kerry had the largest hand in orchestrating.

“It was clear even then, in 1971, that he was so relentless and so focused,” said Chris Gregory, another Vietnam veteran who was Kerry’s comrade as part of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War movement. “He was absolutely unafraid. That’s his virtue. His flaws are really obvious; his virtues are not as obvious.” 

Among Kerry’s putative flaws, his critics have said, is a naked, restless ambition for greatness. After losing the presidency in 2004—thanks in large part to a powerful campaign by former Vietnam veterans who still resented his 1971 testimony—Kerry openly campaigned to be secretary of state. And when Obama finally appointed him, Kerry dispensed with the special envoys that dominated Obama’s first term so he could negotiate the big issues himself. Even his old ally in the 1990s effort to normalize relations with Vietnam, the late Sen. John McCain, called him a “wrecking ball” as Kerry sought to single-handedly resolve everything from Middle East peace to Iran’s nuclear threat. At one point in 2014, then-Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon mocked Kerry for being “obsessive and messianic” in his ambitions and quipped, “The only thing that can ‘save us’ is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.”

And yet Kerry’s defenders say if one looks at his record, the former Massachusetts senator is no vainglorious Don Quixote. He has always been more interested in pursuing the toughest issues than personal glory. They point out there are no Kerry parks, monuments, or highways in Massachusetts in contrast to many other U.S. senators and congressmen who have sought to secure a name for themselves in their home states with earmarked money. 

Instead Kerry has turned into one of the most tireless and effective U.S. diplomats in decades. “I believe he’s going to keep working till he drops. That’s how he lives and how he’s wired,” said David Wade, his former chief of staff when Kerry was secretary of state. “He’s relentless, but he’s also strategic. Look at what he did on Vietnam: The whole process of normalization involved 20 years of doing hard things. It takes a vision.”

Or as Tom Vallely, another former Vietnam comrade of Kerry’s, put it: “Kerry is a pain in the ass. He just doesn’t give up. And he likes danger.” 

Saving the planet has been a passion of Kerry’s since he served in 1992 with then-Sen. Al Gore on the U.S. delegation to the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where the framework for United Nations climate talks was created. In his remarks on Thursday, Kerry recalled how at the 2016 signing of the Paris Agreement, he decided at the last minute to carry his 2-year-old granddaughter with him to the podium. As he said then: “I thought not of the past, but I thought of the future. Her future. The world her children would one day inherit. … And when it was time for me to go up on that stage, I scooped her up, and I brought her out with me. I wanted to share that moment with her. And I’ll never forget it.”

The most important factor right now, perhaps, is Kerry has Biden’s ear—which is critical to Kerry’s senior interlocutors around the world. “You want a guy to have the president’s phone number,” Vallely said. “Kerry has the phone number.”

According to one senior Kerry associate, Kerry is already employing a tough negotiating stance with China as he did earlier with Iran during the nuclear talks, showing a willingness to walk away from the table if necessary. Beijing would rather focus on announcing confidence-building steps and dialogues, but Kerry is insisting on mutual actions given the Glasgow climate summit’s approach in November—especially since China is exporting more coal capacity abroad while other major nations have already reduced theirs. Kerry is especially concerned about China’s Belt and Road Initiative sending new coal supplies to other nations.

“What they’re doing is erasing abroad whatever they’re doing at home in pledging to reduce coal use,” said this former associate. “He wants a commitment on coal.”

And as he did on Iran, Kerry has mastered the details in ways his foreign interlocutors often have not. “Climate change is similar to what he did on Iran in that he goes unbelievably deep and has for a long time,” Wade said. “He has spent an incredible amount of time on the science and describing to his interlocutors the potential of clean energy.”

Some climate experts have become believers, even as they note the rising demand for coal worldwide. “I think Kerry is extraordinarily devoted to solving the climate crisis,” said Nigel Purvis, who directed U.S. environmental diplomacy under U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “He has attended almost every major climate diplomacy gathering. It is a passion, and it’s personal, a calling as opposed to a job. … I can’t think of anyone of his stature—a former secretary of state—who was willing to become a single-issue diplomat like this.”

Kerry said his biggest task will be to “clarify” how many of the 40 nations at the White House summit will adhere to their new commitments and nudge some of the laggard along before the Glasgow summit. “The next six months of diplomacy are going to be absolutely critical to the capacity to make Glasgow what it needs to be,” Kerry said Thursday, indicating he’d be flying around the world to secure concrete plans of action. ”It’s going to require an enormous lift to get where we need to get to.” 

Kerry faces a great deal of resistance, not least from China, which has mocked the United States’ abrupt return to the climate fight after four years when Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, denied it was a problem at all and became the only major leader to pull out of the Paris climate accords. Last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the U.S. return to the Paris Agreement “is by no means a glorious comeback but rather the student playing truant getting back to class.”

Kerry, then U.S. Secretary of State, visits the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta on Feb. 16, 2014. Kerry arrived in Indonesia on a visit to highlight concerns over climate change, after agreeing with China to boost joint efforts to fight global warming.

Kerry, then-U.S. secretary of state, visits the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta on Feb. 16, 2014. Kerry arrived in Indonesia on a visit to highlight concerns about climate change after agreeing with China to boost joint efforts to fight global warming. Evan Vucci/AFP via Getty Images

But now, in a bold leap, Biden has eclipsed the Paris pact. Under the Paris Agreement, countries delivered loose voluntary commitments to limit warming this century to less than 2 degrees Celsius. With his call for deeper commitments, known as nationally determined contributions, the new president may have put Beijing in a box. “Historically, I believe China has made the strategic decision that it will not allow itself to become the world’s climate villain,” Purvis said. “In the last two decades, whenever the U.S. has said it’s willing to do more, China has said it will match it.”

No doubt Kerry will soon be logging record amounts of travel as he did as secretary of state. Despite his age, Kerry also is known for his energy. Vallely recalls talking with a senior Vatican official when Kerry, an observant Catholic, was secretary of state and working to secure the Iran deal. Pope Francis, the official told Vallely, had taken a liking to Kerry by simply watching him scurry around the globe on TV. “He said, ‘The Holy Father sees Kerry running up and down the stairs of the plane to get to the next negotiations. Kerry really goes at this thing. That’s why the Holy Father likes him.’”

No one is more aware of Kerry’s relentlessness than his new boss, Biden. The two have long been close and like-minded: Had Kerry won the presidency in 2004, aides say Biden would have been his secretary of state. In the mid to late 2000s, while they were serving as senators together, it was Kerry who sought to make the U.S. presence in Afghanistan work at a time when then-Sen. Biden and Obama’s special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, had all but given up on then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai. After Karzai was accused of fixing the Afghan elections, it was Kerry, then-chairperson of the same Senate Foreign Relations Committee he testified to in 1971, who temporarily rescued the relationship, persuading the Afghan president to hold a second round of voting. Seeking to establish empathy, Kerry talked to Karzai about his own failed effort at the presidency in 2004. Holbrooke described Kerry’s role as “extraordinary.”

“He worked Karzai over the elections very effectively, talking to him very personally from the gut,” Holbrooke told me in an interview shortly before his death in 2010. “He talked about his own acceptance of the outcome in Ohio in 2004 in order to get Karzai to understand there was nothing wrong with getting a second round.”

Saving Afghanistan, as it turned out, was more like tilting at windmills. It didn’t work in the end, and Biden recently announced he was pulling out altogether. But Kerry kept trying while he could. “He reached for the biggest of the brass rings, the presidency, which he had spent by his whole life preparing for,” Holbrooke said. “Then he hoped to be Obama’s running mate. … He got nothing and emerged as one of the most effective chairmen of the Foreign Relations Committee ever in terms of his focus and his activism abroad.”

Because of his longevity in high office, Kerry also enjoys long-standing personal relationships with key players like Xie Zhenhua, Beijing’s long-time climate envoy who also helped Kerry broker the 2015 Iran deal. “He has the personal relationships necessary to elevate this sometimes technical issue to the level of leaders and foreign ministers,” Purvis said. “That is why other countries are coming forward today.”

Kerry says the combination of foreign governments’ new commitment under U.S. leadership and private sector participation means “we now have about 55 percent of the global GDP committed to levels of reductions that keep faith with holding the Earth’s temperature at 1.5 degrees [Celsius]. That is a big chunk of difference.” Republican critics like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have dismissed those commitments as voluntary, but today, Kerry said, the United States has the tools to ensure that nations comply—or face global shaming. That’s because of new satellite capacity that will “measure in real time what the footprint is of corporations or countries all around the world. So there’s no hiding anymore,” he said.

Asked about whether a future Trump might undo what he and the Biden team are implementing—as other governments fear—Kerry argued that was no longer possible. He pointed to the vast amount of money pledged to renewable energy by major corporations—including auto companies and other fossil fuel users—and the administration’s just-announced “Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero,” meaning no more carbon than in the past will be permitted in the atmosphere. Under that program, more than 40 banks around the world are expected to pledge more than $4 trillion over the next 10 years to green technologies. 

“No politician in the future can undo this because all over the world, trillions of dollars, trillions of yen, trillions of euros are going to be heading into this new marketplace,” Kerry said, indicating he’d be riding herd over the private sector as well as governments to ensure businesses meet their commitments.

In a career full of taking on nearly impossible challenges, saving the planet is Kerry’s biggest.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

More from Foreign Policy

An aerial display of J-10 fighter jets of China’s People’s Liberation.

The World Doesn’t Want Beijing’s Fighter Jets

Snazzy weapons mean a lot less if you don’t have friends.

German infantrymen folllow a tank toward Moscow in the snow in, 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. The image was published in. Signal, a magazine published by the German Third Reich. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

Panzers, Beans, and Bullets

This wargame explains how Russia really stopped Hitler.

19th-century Chinese rebel Hong Xiuquan and social media influencer Addison Rae.

America’s Collapsing Meritocracy Is a Recipe for Revolt

Chinese history shows what happens when an old system loses its force.

Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces.

‘It Will Not Be Just a Civil War’

Afghanistan’s foreign minister on what may await his country after the U.S. withdrawal.