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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.

Steve Helber/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry gestures as he delivers his first foreign policy speech, Wednesday, Feb. 20, in Old Cabel Hall at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

The United States risks losing the business and job opportunities of an expanding global economy, as well as the security that flows from promoting American values abroad, if America’s role in the world falls prey to the budget battle now gripping Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday.

In his first major policy speech as the nation’s top diplomat, Secretary Kerry said the US must resist the same urge to turn inward that tempted it after World War II. Instead, he said, it should lead in the global causes of the 21st century, ranging from economic prosperity and expansion of democracy to the addressing of climate change.

Speaking at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Kerry said he wanted to open a conversation with the American people about the essential role of US diplomacy in the world before setting off next week on his first overseas trip in his new post.

He started his remarks by cautioning that “our engagement with the rest of the world begins by making some important choices, together, about our national budget.” It is “imperative,” he said, that the US not cut back on what he characterized as an already minimal investment in diplomacy.

Kerry cited a recent poll that found most Americans assume the US spends about a quarter of the federal budget on international affairs – while they thought the right level of spending would be about 10 percent of the budget.

“Would that that were true! I’d take 10 percent in a heartbeat,” Kerry said, “because 10 percent is exactly 10 times greater than what we invest.”

Kerry said he chose the University of Virginia as the venue for this speech because it was founded by Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s first secretary of State and a leader who understood the role that education would play in securing a young nation’s place in the world.

“Let’s remember that the principles of Jefferson’s time – in a nation that was just getting used to its independence – still echo in our own time, in a world that’s still getting used to our interdependence,” he said. “America’s national interest in leading strongly still endures in this world.”

Kerry did not use his speech to offer a laundry list of the pressing crises he plans to address. He made no mention of Syria’s civil war, the Middle East peace process, or the challenge of a rising China, although he did speak of the importance of “making sure Iran never obtains a [nuclear] weapon that would endanger our allies and our interests.”

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.

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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