Feb. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State John Kerry urged Americans to see foreign policy as an integral part of U.S. economic health, offering an extended defense of his agency’s funding as the federal government faces budget cuts.
Kerry, in his first major address as secretary of state, said that an internationally engaged U.S. fills a vacuum that would otherwise be occupied by “those whose interests differ dramatically from our own” and gives U.S. businesses a leg up in global competition.
“Every time a tough fiscal choice looms, the easiest place to point fingers is at foreign aid,” Kerry said today at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
With the U.S. budget facing $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts effective March 1 for the current fiscal year, Kerry said that all foreign policy spending amounts to a little more than 1 percent of the federal budget.
The forced budget cuts, known as sequestration, would reduce State Department operations by $850 million and foreign assistance by $1.7 billion, according to a letter Kerry sent Congress on Feb. 11. Before those cuts, Obama requested a total of $51.6 billion for fiscal 2013 for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“There is nothing in this current budget fight that requires us to make bad decisions that would force us to retrench or retreat,” Kerry said. “This is a time to continue to engage, for the sake of the safety and economic health of our country. This is not optional. It’s a necessity.”
Even as he argued for robust engagement, Kerry tacitly acknowledged the more restrained role President Barack Obama has chosen to take overseas in comparison to the administration of President George W. Bush.
“We’ll continue to help countries provide for their own security, use diplomacy where possible, and support those allies who take the fight to the terrorists,” he said.
In a hat tip to one of the State Department’s fiercest critics, Kerry quoted a former colleague, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, as he argued that “deploying diplomats today is much cheaper than deploying troops tomorrow.”
“It’s national security insurance that we’re buying,” Kerry quoted Graham as saying.
While the speech emphasized the domestic arguments for international engagement, Kerry also stressed the importance of exporting U.S. values. The State Department promotes human rights, democracy, health and nutrition, education and gender equality, he told the audience of students and politicians.
Kerry said his agency bolsters U.S. security by investing in the economic and democratic development of other countries.
He pointed to the “deserts of Mali, the mountains of Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan,” all impoverished areas where Islamic militants have flourished. And he flagged the challenge of creating jobs to offer an alternative to frustration and radicalism in the Middle East and North Africa, where “about half” the population is under the age of 20.
Kerry delivered the remarks on the eve of his first trip overseas as secretary, with stops planned in the U.K., Germany, Italy, France, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
The work he will do on such trips yields benefits for businesses and workers at home, Kerry said. In Virginia, he said, international trade supports one in five jobs.
He cited Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corporation, which recently beat out French and Russian rivals to win a contract to build Thailand’s newest broadcast satellite. The U.S. embassy in Thailand helped secure the $160 million deal for Orbital Sciences and a partner, Space Exploration Technologies of Hawthorne, California, Kerry said.
The investment “goes right back into American communities from coast to coast,” Kerry said. Every billion dollars of goods and services exported create more than 5,000 jobs at home, he said.
Continued engagement means the creation of new markets for the U.S., Kerry said. He pointed to the return on the massive investment the U.S. made around the world after World War II, including support for former enemies Japan and Germany.
“If you told someone that Japan and Germany would today be our fourth- and fifth-largest trading partners, they’d have thought you were crazy,” Kerry said.
His decision to make his first major remarks at home -- and at a university founded by Thomas Jefferson, the first secretary of state -- was a deliberate choice, said Kerry, the 68th person to hold the position. A conversation about global engagement has to begin with a conversation about the national budget, he said.
“I’m particularly aware that in many ways the greatest challenge to America’s foreign policy today is in the hands not of diplomats, but of policy makers in Congress,” Kerry said.
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