More than half a century after he graduated from Jonathan Edwards College, former Secretary of State John Kerry ’66 has made an energetic return to Yale’s campus, leading a regular seminar and advising the inaugural class of Kerry Fellows on global affairs research projects.
“I’m bowled over by the experience which these students are all bringing to the table,” Kerry said in an interview with the News on Wednesday. “There’s just a tremendous experience level, so the questions are really sharp, and the intellectual capacity is as high as it gets.”
Kerry returned to Yale this fall as part of the new Kerry Initiative, an interdisciplinary program designed to address global challenges like climate change and terrorism through teaching and research. This semester, Kerry is leading a seminar — “American Power in the 21st Century” — on Wednesdays and Thursdays on Hillhouse Avenue.
Additionally, the Kerry Initiative has selected 12 graduate students and five undergraduates to work as Kerry Fellows, collaborating with the former secretary of state on research that will be published in high-profile journals. The graduate students represent many of Yale’s professional schools, including the Divinity School, the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the Law School and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, which is part of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Over the coming months, Kerry plans to make guest appearances in the many of those schools as well as in undergraduate courses.
“You know, someone already invited me to Toad’s on Wednesday,” he said.
Several Kerry fellows told the News that even just two weeks into the program, they have already eaten meals with Kerry and begun to brainstorm their own projects. Some fellows are also helping Kerry prepare for the upcoming Yale Climate Conference on Sept. 18 and 19.
Zack Devlin-Foltz GRD ’18, a Kerry fellow, said the most exciting part of the experience so far has been meeting the other fellows in his cohort, which he called an impressive group. The same is true of Kerry, he said, but he “knew that going in.”
“I think the beauty of the fellowship is that it brings together so many people from different backgrounds,” said Riddhima Yadav ’18, an undergraduate fellow. “It’s really a very eclectic group of people and we bring our different perspectives.”
The specific projects that individual Kerry fellows will undertake are still being developed, but will focus on areas of interest to the students and Kerry himself. Yume Hoshijima FES ’19 said that Kerry has laid out a vision for the first months of the initiative, and the fellows are just beginning to develop their own projects.
Students also said they were impressed by Kerry’s enthusiasm and engagement with the fellows. Kerry has held a series of weekly lunches with the students and has also met with smaller subgroups of fellows several times.
“Secretary Kerry clearly has high expectations for us,” Hoshijima said. “In our conversations, he has demonstrated a knack for asking hard questions that force the fellows to grapple with problems that most people would dismiss as intractable.”
Razieh Armin GRD ’18 said the fellowship is mutually beneficial, because fellows learn how to define and implement projects in a real-world context, while Kerry and his team gain exposure to student perspectives.
“He has proved that diplomacy works and is the best and most important available option on the table, even in the most complicated international issues such as the environment and the Iran nuclear deal,” Armin said.
During his time at Yale in the 1960s, Kerry was president of the Yale Political Union and went on to serve as a U.S. senator and to win the Democratic nomination in the 2004 presidential election. Most recently, he served as secretary of state in the Obama administration from 2013 until the inauguration in January.
Kerry — who spends about five days a month on campus — has brought a series of guests to Yale to help teach his seminar, including Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as secretary of state and former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power ’92.
“His ability to bring others and create dialogue represents unique experiences that only he can catalyze,” University President Peter Salovey said. “Imagine calling home and saying to a family member, ‘Guess who I sat around the table with this week? John Kerry, Madeline Albright, Samantha Power.’”
In the Wednesday night interview, Kerry and Power shared some of the insights on foreign affairs to which Kerry’s students have already been exposed. They weighed in on the international debate over North Korea’s recent nuclear tests, urging President Donald Trump to tone down his heated rhetoric and pursue a diplomatic solution to the dispute.
Last Sunday, North Korea successfully completed its sixth nuclear detonation test, leading Defense Secretary James Mattis to threaten “a massive military response” and Trump to accuse South Korea, an American ally, of “appeasement.”
“While there have been diplomatic initiatives taking place, we have never tried fully what we did with Iran, which is to increase sanctions in a way that they are felt on other countries and affect their behavior too,” Kerry said. “President Obama left strong advice to the incoming administration that this was the major challenge and that you needed to increase the pressure in order to have an impact.”
Asked to comment on Trump’s threat last month to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea, Power said the United States should steer clear of such heated rhetoric.
“Fear is a bad advisor,” she said, invoking the words of the Brazilian diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello. “Stirring fears or making policies on the basis of fear is sometimes tempting, but almost never good.”
Alternatively, she said, the United States should be working more closely with allies like South Korea to respond to the nuclear tests.
“Getting on the same a page is something you can do behind closed doors, but it takes an investment,” Power said. “It takes having diplomats, it takes having an ambassador in Seoul, it takes having your assistant secretary and others on your bench investing in that, and it takes having your secretary of state prioritizing diplomacy.”
Kerry said the Trump administration is pursuing a North Korea strategy that is “essentially the next steps of what we put in place,” including increasing China’s engagement on the issue.
“Beijing has enormous capacity to have an impact here, and the Trump administration is right to be focused on China increasing its efforts,” he said.
Kerry represented Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate from 1985 to 2013.
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