Dawn KIm

With a lineup of speakers that included Hillary Clinton LAW ’73, Stacey Abrams LAW ’99 and Bob Woodward ’65, the Kerry Initiative held its second conference on Wednesday and Thursday.

The conference — titled “Challenges to Democracy at Home and Abroad” — consisted of five sessions which focused on different facets of democracy and featured panelists from a variety of fields. The event drew hundreds of people — during a Thursday panel, which featured Hillary Clinton as a surprise guest speaker, most of the seats on the first floor of Woolsey Hall were filled.

“We live in an age where we are left wondering about who is in charge and democracies are being challenged at home and abroad,” said John Kerry ’66 in his opening remarks during the first session on Wednesday. “There is nothing preordained about our democracy — democracy doesn’t work that way. Unless we want to see our democracy fail, we need to continue to work hard to maintain it and ask questions about what we can do to make it stronger.”

The opening session on Wednesday was titled “The Importance of American Leadership in Defending Democracy: Military Perspective.” The panel, which took place at the School of Management, featured Kerry and three former secretaries of defense — William Cohen, Chuck Hagel and Leon Panetta. It took place at the School of Management’s Zhang Auditorium in front of an audience of about 250.

During the discussion, the panelists voiced concern about the current U.S. leadership’s apparent lack of morality and its harmful repercussions on American security. They discussed how the world depends on the U.S. to maintain a liberal world order which, although imperfect, allows for economic progress and the advancement of democracy.

“It’s one thing to have the strongest military power in the world, but our real strength lies in our moral leadership throughout the world,”said Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine who served as secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton between 1997 and 2001. “Unfortunately, we currently have an amoral leadership in the White House and we are losing our allies to other countries.”

The second session on Wednesday was titled “Defending Democracy at Home” and featured Abrams, who was met with a standing ovation as she approached the stage in Woolsey Hall. The session focused on the various ways in which American voters, especially racial minorities, were being marginalized through tactics such as gerrymandering and voter suppression.

Kerry was critical of the current and past Republican administrations’ “brazen” attempts to thwart the democratic electoral system. Kerry and Abrams discussed voter suppression, citing the lack of voting opportunities in underprivileged communities and the manipulation of algorithms in voting machines to alter electoral results.

“The fragility of our democracy is not in the ideal of democracy itself. It is in the execution,” Abrams said. “Our communities are being squeezed from being able to participate in our democracies. What worries me is how this results in the erosion of trust in our democracy because the architects of suppression cause people to stop trying to vote in the first place.”

The third session, called “The Importance of American Leadership in Defending Democracy: Diplomatic Perspectives” featured former Secretaries of State Clinton, Madeline Albright and Condoleezza Rice.

In front of a packed audience in Woolsey Hall, the four former secretaries of state discussed the international threat to democratic governments and institutions around the world as well as the U.S.’s role in promoting values including democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

“Currently, we face unusual challenges to the vitality of our democracy and we have created a vacuum for others to step in and mold the circumstances to their own advantage,” Clinton said. “We mustn’t fail to stand up to our American values like human rights and individual freedom. This can’t just be a conversation.”

The panelists discussed the rise of nondemocratic states such as Russia and China and how these powers are exploiting the U.S.’s current lack of leadership in the world.

Albright criticized the current absence of the U.S. government in global issues and stressed how important it is for the U.S. to be present in international diplomacy instead of resorting to isolationism. She added that she wished more people would run for office and called on Yalies and those from younger generations to engage in active discourse.

On the other hand, Rice expressed skepticism about the potential emergence of a completely new world order under China and agreed with Clinton on the necessity for nuanced policies that do not “oversimplify” the complex reality. She also emphasized the need for inclusivity in politics and said that everyone should feel as “a part of the system” to prevent the further polarization of politics.

The fourth session on Thursday consisted of a panel of leading journalists — Woodward, David Ignatius, Elise Jordan ’04 and Jason Rezaian — who discussed the critical role of the press in defending democracy and the threats posed by attacks on journalists, the press and fact-based reporting. The last session, titled “Historical Perspectives,” featured historians — Robert Kagan, Douglas Brinkley, Michael Beschloss and Yale’s Beverly Gage — who, together with Kerry, discussed the historical context of the threats to democracy.

Attendees interviewed by the News praised the conference.

Andrew Song ’22, who attended the third session, described witnessing the four former Secretaries sitting next to each other as “inspiring.” He said that he appreciated the thematic focus of the forum — how the current Washington administration has diverted from its model of being a “beacon of democratic principles.”

“It’s humbling to watch four individuals and especially the three charismatic women discuss about how they recognize that democracy needs to be upheld by our generation,” he said. “It was an amazing spectacle for us to watch, especially for students like me who want to enter public service.”

Tiana Lopez ’22, who also attended the third session, told the News that the panel taught her about the importance of America’s role in maintaining diplomatic relations and upholding democracy. She added that the opportunity to hear insights from four former secretaries of state is one she will “never forget.”

The Kerry Initiative was founded in 2017 as an interdisciplinary program based in the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs.

Ayumi Sudo | ayumi.sudo@yale.edu