New U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday castigated Congress for political inertia, saying impending across-the-board budget cuts threaten foreign policy.
Kerry told a University of Virginia audience that American foreign aid is a vital part of the nation’s diplomatic effort, saying it fosters international cooperation, bolsters growing economies, opens new markets for domestic companies, provides greater world and national security and creates jobs at home.
“I’m particularly aware that, in many ways, the challenge to American foreign policy today is in the hands not of diplomats, but of policy makers in Congress,” Kerry said in Old Cabell Hall. “In these days of a looming budget sequester that everyone actually wants to avoid – or most [want to avoid] – we cannot be strong in the world unless we are strong at home.”
Kerry said the nation’s diplomatic efforts would carry more credibility if Congress would put the country’s fiscal situation in order.
“Think about it: It’s hard to tell the leadership of any number of countries that they have to resolve their economic issues if we don’t resolve our own,” he said. “Let’s reach a responsible agreement that prevents these senseless cuts. Let’s not lose this opportunity to politics.”
Kerry’s address was his first since President Barack Obama appointed him secretary of state. Kerry replaced Hillary Clinton, who resigned Feb. 1.
A former U.S. senator from Massachusetts, Kerry was greeted with loud and enthusiastic applause when he entered the auditorium with UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan, U.S. Rep. Robert Hurt, R-Chatham, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Timothy M. Kaine.
Sullivan introduced Hurt, who introduced Kaine, who introduced Kerry. In her remarks, Sullivan noted that Thomas Jefferson served as the first secretary of state under President George Washington.
Hurt said Jefferson recognized that the U.S. would have to work with other countries to survive and thrive.
“We recognized that we would not be the only people on that stage. We also knew that, at that time, if we wanted to be successful, we would have to build relationships across the world,” Hurt said. “I know our newest secretary of state understands that role as much as did our first secretary of state.”
Kerry’s approximately 45-minute speech touched on topics from international AIDS research and global climate change to how international diplomacy and foreign aid affects those issues.
He often came back to how lack of action on a budget, and the ensuing cuts required by federal law, would negatively impact diplomacy.
“Kerry is eager to make a difference in his four years as secretary of state, and to do that, he needs to build support at home for the administration's foreign policy,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the UVa Center for Politics. “Kerry's background in domestic politics will come in very handy here. He knows that the State Department and foreign aid are always vulnerable targets when budget cuts are needed.”
Sabato said Kerry correctly cited surveys indicating Americans believe a huge chunk of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. Kerry estimated that slightly more than one penny per tax dollar goes into foreign aid and diplomatic programs.
“As a longtime, successful politician, Kerry can use his experience and name recognition to get the truth across,” Sabato said. “Kerry can also convince people that, in a global economy that becomes more internationalized every year, American engagement with the world is essential to producing jobs and investments at home.”
Sabato said Kerry made some good arguments in his speech.
“The trick is in getting people to listen, and in a time of budget scarcity, to make the public policy choices he prefers,” Sabato said. “Clearly, he hopes if he convinces the electorate, they will convince members of Congress. We’ll see.”
Kerry said cuts to foreign aid are a campaign circuit staple.
“As a recovering politician, I can tell you that nothing gets a crowd clapping faster in a lot of places than saying, ‘I’m going to Washington to get them to stop spending all that money over there,'” he said. “It’s about as guaranteed of an applause line as you’re going to get.”
He also admitted that foreign aid and diplomacy lacks a strong domestic lobby.
“Unfortunately, [the State Department does] not have millions of AARP seniors who send in their dues and rally to protect America’s investments overseas,” he told the audience. “Their strongest lobbyists are the rare, committed Americans who stand up for them and the resources that we need to help them.”
Kerry warned that the challenges facing the international community and the U.S. will not ease if they go ignored due to budget constraints.
“There is no pause button on the future,” he said, exhorting the audience to back his and Obama’s policy plans for the next four years. “What happens over there matters over here. And it matters that we get this thing right.”
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke on foreign aid and the effect of sequestration in his first major speech in his new role Wednesday at the University of Virginia.
He spoke at Old Cabell Hall where he said funding foreign aid is a route to putting more Americans to work.
“The more businesses sell abroad, the more they can build at home,” Kerry said.
Kerry cited the adage that "we can't be strong in the world unless we are strong at home."
Money spent on foreign aid is about a penny on the tax dollar, Kerry said.
"America you are not going to find a better deal than that,” he said.
He called the budget impasse a threat.
The State Department has said automatic spending cuts would jeopardize $2.6 billion in aid, security assistance and other international programs.
Kerry said legislators need to avoid "senseless cuts."
"Think about it: It's hard to tell the leadership of any number of countries that they must resolve their economic issues if we don't resolve our own,” he said.
Otherwise, he said his credibility as a diplomat might be damaged.