The Defining Challenges and Opportunities of Our Generation

During my trip to the United Kingdom this week, I had the pleasure of visiting Oxford University and addressing members of the Oxford Union — one of the world’s most famous debating societies.

Speaking to these students brought back vivid memories of my time at Yale, where I served as the president of the Political Union. I was reminded of how much events that occur during these formative years in a person’s life have the potential to significantly shape their world view.

While there are literally dozens of issues that cross my desk every day, there are three worth noting that leap out as interrelated  --  but distinct --  generational challenges. All three demand urgent and unified action by the global community, because they cannot be solved by one country alone. All three will require not just years, but decades of international cooperation in order to resolve. And all three must matter to every single one of us, because they are the challenges that will shape the world that our children and grandchildren will inherit.

Countering and Overcoming Radical Extremism

The first of these challenges is the need to counter and overcome the forces that seek to impose a radical extremism on us all.

Not a single country endorses the kind of vicious and indiscriminate violence perpetrated by such groups as ISIL  -- or Daesh — -- or groups like al-Qaida, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and others, in West Africa, the Persian peninsula and the Arabian peninsula. In fact, opposition to these terrorists is bringing governments and people together in every region because their crimes go way beyond theft and destruction: They are smugglers, extorters, and destroyers of cultural treasures and history itself. They attack schools, butcher teachers and murder innocent journalists. They abduct young boys and turn them into killers and auction off terrified girls in modern-day slave markets with notarized sales contracts using the term “marriage” to describe what is actually sanctioned, even encouraged, systematic rape. They have built a bureaucracy out of brutality  --  systematically murdering Christians, Yezidis, Shias and others because of where they’re from and because of who they are, because of what they believe. Their reign of terror in my estimation amounts to genocide.

This is Daesh’s standard practice. Which is why together, we must defeat Daesh, its affiliates, and its imitators. All of the evidence indicates that we are on the path to doing just that. The international coalition to counter Daesh is now 66 members strong. Its members are drawn from every single corner of the globe, and all are taking on different aspects of this fight.


Overcoming Bad Governance

Now, we also know that some people are radicalized for reasons that have little to do with religion or politics. It isn’t complicated. When people  --  and particularly young people  --  have no hope for the future and no faith in legitimate authority  --  when there are no outlets for people to express their concerns  --  frustration festers. And no one knows that better than violent extremist groups, which regularly use indignity and marginalization and inequality and corruption as a super-easy recruitment tool.

Therefore, the second great challenge that we face together today is overcoming the virulent bad governance that persists in too many places. We need to do this because we need to build a strong, sustainable, global economy that unlocks opportunity, rather than stifling it.

Any government’s most basic duty is to meet the needs of its citizens. When governments are fragile and leaders are incompetent, or worse, dishonest; and when the gap between rich and poor grows and the space for basic freedoms shrinks; when corruption is not an aberration but an entrenched part of society, the needs of citizens cannot be met.

Weak or corrupt governance invariably leaves young people caught up in the race between hope and frustration. And it’s absolutely essential that hope wins that race.

The magnitude of corruption that exists today is not just disgraceful, it’s also dangerous. There’s nothing more demoralizing, more destructive, and more disempowering to any citizen than the belief that the system is rigged against them and that people in positions of power are crooks who are embezzling the futures of their own people.

Good, responsible governance is supposed to protect citizens’ future, not pillage it.

Addressing the Widespread Environmental Degradation Occurring Around the World

This responsibility to protect our citizens’ future is as true about the economy as it is about the environment. That’s why today’s third generational challenge is to finally step up and deal with widespread environmental degradation taking place around the world.

In just the past 40 years, we human beings have wiped out fully one-half of marine vertebrates. The vast majority of the world’s fish stocks are either fully exploited or overfished. We’re adding millions of tons of plastic trash into the ocean every year. At this point, our ocean is so polluted that hundreds of dead zones exist, where life simply cannot exist.

On land, we are destroying the equivalent of 16 or 17 football fields of forest every minute. And because of the obscene amount of pollution that we allowed into the air over the years, today 3.5 billion of the world’s population lives in communities that fall short of the air quality standards that are set by the World Health Organization.

And of course, on top of these troubling statistics, there’s the greatest threat that our planet has faced in modern history: climate change.

Thankfully, as we saw in Paris last December, most of the world understands the severity of this threat and is moving decisively towards collective action to fix it. The Paris climate change agreement that I had the privilege of signing with my granddaughter on my lap in New York a few days ago is important  -- not because the text, in and of itself, is going to guarantee that we keep the level of warming below two degrees centigrade point.

The Paris Agreement is important because of the clear signal it sends from nearly 200 nations to all sectors of the global economy: that the future will and must be fueled by cleaner energy sources.

Ultimately, our success is going to depend on whether we keep our eye on the ball and maintain the momentum that finally exists today.

If we don’t make the choices available to us today, then the problems of today are going to pale in comparison with what’s coming down the road. The bottom line is that we don’t have to wait for this to happen. If we accelerate the transition towards clean energy solutions  --  we have the technology, we have the knowledge  -- we can avert the destruction of our planet.

As President Kennedy reminded us in his inauguration address, “here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” The future is in our hands. This is true for each of these challenges. There is nothing inevitable about succumbing to the problems that we confront. Each is a product of human choice. And what we have the power to choose, we have the power to change. That is why I am confident that in our collective ability we can meet these challenges.

About the Author: the Author: John Kerry serves as the 68th Secretary of State of the United States. 

Editor's Note: The above was adapted from a speech delivered on May 11, 2016 hosted by the Oxford Union in the United Kingdom; it also appears on


U.S Secretary of State John Kerry stands in the Debating Chamber at the Oxford Union in Oxford, U.K., on May 11, 2016, as he delivers an address to the Union membership.
Posted by John Kerry
May 12, 2016


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