U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry used his first major speech since taking office to argue that the State Department and its activities serve U.S. communities here at home, an effort to defend the budgets for diplomacy and development against an axe-wielding Congress.
Kerry chose the University of Virginia, the school founded by Thomas Jefferson, America's first secretary of state, as the site of his first address.
"So why is it that I'm at the foot of the Blue Ridge instead of on the shores of the Black Sea? Why am I in Old Cabell Hall and not Kabul, Afghanistan?" Kerry said. "The reason is very simple: I came here to underscore that in today's global world, there is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy. More than ever before, the decisions we make from the safety of our shores don't just ripple outward - they also create a current right here in America."
He described the work of the State Department as not just security-related, but also crucial to promoting the U.S. economy and creating jobs.
"It's not just about whether we'll be compelled to send our troops into another battle, but whether we'll be able to send our graduates into a thriving workforce," he said. "That's why I'm here."
Kerry's emphasis marks a shift away from the focus of his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, who worked in her first two years to emphasize that the State Department and USAID budgets were part of the national security function of government. Later in her tenure, after Republicans took control of Congress and began rolling back the budget increases at State and USAID, Clinton expanded the State Department's emphasis on "economic statecraft."
This year, the State Department faces not only a tough budget environment, but also the threat of so-called sequestration, which Kerry warned this week could force the State Department to stop humanitarian aid to millions of people, cut foreign assistance to Israel, and delay efforts to ramp up diplomatic security abroad after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
Kerry said Wednesday that the total State Department and foreign aid budget amounts to just over 1 percent of the federal budget, although critics often inflate that number. He also said that battling for foreign policy funding is made more difficult due to the fact that those funds have almost no domestic constituency or high-profile political advocates.
"Unfortunately, the State Department doesn't have our own Grover Norquist pushing a pledge to protect it," Kerry said. "We don't have millions of AARP seniors who send in their dues and rally to protect America's investments overseas... We need to change that. I reject the excuse that Americans just aren't interested in what's happening outside their immediate field of vision."
Kerry emphasized that lifting people in foreign countries out of poverty is not just a reinforcement of American values but can also create markets for American goods and therefore help the U.S. economy.
"Let me be very clear: Foreign assistance is not a giveaway. It is not charity. It is an investment in a strong America and free world," he said.
He also called on Congress to avoid the sequester, lest it hurt America's credibility abroad.
"Think about it: It is 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. "Let's reach a responsible agreement that prevents these senseless cuts. Let's not lose this opportunity to politics."
Read the whole speech here: