Kerry makes case for robust foreign aid

America’s duties and ambitions overseas are too important to shortchange, even in a time of tight budgets, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Wednesday.

“In today’s global world, there is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy,” Kerry said in an unusual first address for a U.S. secretary of state.

Politicians too easily make a bogeyman of American foreign aid, said Kerry, who was a politician for more than three decades, while the payoffs of engagement abroad are badly misjudged by many ordinary Americans, he said.

“I can tell you that nothing gets a crowd clapping faster than to say, ‘I’m going to Washington to get them to stop spending all that money over there,’ ” he said.

In truth, the foreign aid budget, as well as the entire State Department budget, is a pittance, Kerry said, just about a penny on the total U.S. federal budget dollar.

On official business: a look at Secretary of State travel

The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development budget request for 2012 was $51.6 billion. Although Kerry did not make the direct comparison, the Pentagon spent an estimated $115 billion on the Afghanistan war in the same year.

“Deploying diplomats today is much cheaper than deploying troops tomorrow,” Kerry said to applause.

Suggesting that the United States wastes too much money on foreigners is a cheap applause line that does not make the country safer or more prosperous, he said.

In short, the State Department needs a better lobbyist, Kerry said in his speech at the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s first secretary of state.

“In this age, when a shrinking world clashes with calls for shrinking budgets, it’s our job to connect the dots for the American people between what we do over there and why it matters here at home,” he said.

Kerry will embark on his first foreign trip as secretary next week, a lengthy tour of European and Arab capitals that will largely focus on international proposals to end the grinding civil war in Syria. That war is remote and intangible for many Americans, just the sort of seemingly intractable tragedy that Kerry suggested too many Americans mistakenly assume is not their concern.

The costs of pulling back from the world would be huge, Kerry said, while “the vacuum we would leave by retreating within ourselves will quickly be filled by those whose interests differ dramatically from our own.”

Kerry’s trip will take him to European nations gripped by the euro-zone fiscal crisis, whose ripple effects still pose a threat to the fragile U.S. economic recovery. He likened the unpopular belt-tightening underway in many nations to the budget impasse in the United States.

He also put in a plug for heading off automatic March 1 budget cuts that would force furloughs at the State Department and other federal agencies.

“My credibility as a diplomat working to help other countries create order is strongest when America at last puts its own fiscal house in order,” Kerry said.

“Let’s reach a responsible agreement that prevents these senseless cuts,” he said. “Let’s not lose this opportunity to politics.”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Anne Gearan is a national politics correspondent for The Washington Post.

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