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John Kerry speech: US must resist temptation to turn inward

Secretary of State John Kerry delivered his first major policy speech as the nation’s top diplomat, focusing on broad global challenges such as human rights and climate change.

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Instead, he focused on the broad global challenges that he said actually present “opportunities” for international cooperation and American leadership. Such challenges include “a dramatically changing climate,” demographic changes (defined most starkly by countries in North Africa and the Middle East, he said, where about half the population is under 20 years old), human rights, and global stability and security.

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Kerry received some of the longest applause of his speech when he included “gender equality” among the values the US must be promoting. “Countries are in fact more peaceful and prosperous when women and girls are afforded full rights and equal opportunity,” he noted.

His second major theme was the opportunity presented by an expanding and globalizing economy – and how the US risks missing that opportunity if it focuses too single-mindedly on domestic economic and budgetary challenges.

Citing the implementation of the Marshall Plan after World War II, Kerry said the US must have the same “foresight” today to assist those developing countries that have the same promise that Europe’s destroyed economies did then of becoming America’s partners down the road.

“After the war, we didn’t spike the football; we created a more level playing field,” he said, “and we’re stronger for it today.”

Kerry also warned that other major powers are not standing idly by as the US considers its domestic budgetary challenges, noting that China “is already investing more than we do” in Africa and its growing economies. “Developing economies are the epicenters of growth, and they are open for business,” Kerry said, “and the US needs to be at that table.”

Kerry closed his speech by telling how, as the 12-year-old son of a Foreign Service officer living in a divided Berlin, he ventured one day across to the communist part of the city “that hadn’t received any help from the United States and its courageous Marshall Plan.”

Even a “12-year-old’s eyes” could see the difference between the hope and freedom that people expressed in the “recovering western half of Europe” and the despair and oppression witnessed that day in Berlin’s eastern sector, he said. Back on the western side, Kerry said he remembers feeling proud of America’s role in rebuilding economies and offering people freedom.

Kerry had already told that story once in his new role, to a throng of employees the first day he arrived for work at the State Department. It seems likely he’ll tell it again next week – when he visits old stomping grounds in what today is a unified Berlin and when he sits down for a discussion with German youths.

Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, had her own story she recounted many times as she traveled widely and spoke about America’s role in the world. She told audiences in nascent democracies the story of how, once the political adversary of Barack Obama, she had put rivalries aside to serve him – and America – as his secretary of State. That, she said again and again, was the essence of democracy.

In a similar way, Kerry’s story seems likely to serve him repeatedly as he works to explain and advance America’s role in the world.

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