In his first major foreign policy speech as Secretary of State, John Kerry's message was clear: America cannot afford to treat foreign policy as foreign. He stressed throughout the one hour speech that even in these economically challenging times, foreign aid is an investment in America's national security and economic prosperity.
The former senator, who called himself a "recovering politician," said that he understands why foreign aid makes an easy political target for members of Congress, whose constituents expect them to focus on domestic policies that benefit the everyday lives of Americans. But Kerry said foreign policy has to rise above partisan politics.
"We need to say no to the politics of the lowest common denominator and simple slogans, and start making real choices that protect the interests of our country," said Kerry to applause. "Unfortunately, the State Department doesn't have our own Grover Norquist pushing a pledge to protect it. We don't have millions of A.A.R.P. seniors who send in their dues and rally to protect America's investments overseas," he said.
Kerry said that the idea that America cannot afford to continue giving foreign assistance is not only morally wrong, but factually inaccurate.
"Deploying diplomats today is much cheaper than deploying troops tomorrow," he told the crowd of mostly students at the University of Virginia.
He gave examples of how America benefits from the money spent on foreign aid and diplomacy, which makes up just over 1 percent of the federal budget. "Think about it: a little over 1 percent funds all of our civilian foreign affairs efforts - every embassy, every consulate, every program, every person," said Kerry. "We're not talking about pennies on the dollar - we're talking about one penny of a single dollar."
The secretary then spoke about what that money has done for America and its place in the world. He highlighted programs combating AIDS in Africa, particularly PEPFAR, that the U.S. funded and supported, which saved 5 million lives. But Kerry stressed that those lives are now turning into productive members of their societies and providing investment opportunities for Americans. He said that Africa now has seven out of the ten fastest growing economies in the world and the United States needs to "be at the table." Kerry pointed out that Indonesia just placed the largest single order of airplanes from Boeing and that South African energy company is getting ready to open up a plant in Louisiana that will employ Americans
Though his new role as America's top diplomat is traditionally apolitical, Kerry implored Congress to get a budget deal passed "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," he said. "In these days of a looming budget sequester that everyone wants to avoid, we can't be strong in the world unless we are strong at home," said Kerry drawing loud applause. Repeating a similar refrain as his predecessor Hillary Clinton, Kerry stressed that now is not the time for America to retreat from the world, but to become even more engaged. "Foreign assistance is not a giveaway. It is not charity. It is an investment in a strong America and in a free world," he said.