Secretary of State John F. Kerry made an aggressive plea on Wednesday for Americans to stand up against spending cuts to the nation’s foreign policy budget, calling Washington’s continued and deep engagement in world affairs a “necessity” for the “sake of the safety and economic health of our country.”
“There is nothing in this current budget fight that requires us to make bad decisions that would force us to retrench or retreat,” Mr. Kerry told an audience at the University of Virginia in his first major public address since being confirmed as the Obama administration’s top diplomat last month.
In remarks that seemed almost tailored to counter the momentum of foreign policy ideas being pushed recently by such libertarian Republicans as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mr. Kerry criticized U.S. lawmakers and deficit hawks who put the pledge against new taxes above the importance of foreign policy spending.
“Unfortunately, the State Department doesn’t have our own Grover Norquist pushing a pledge to protect it,” Mr. Kerry said, in a reference to the anti-tax activist whose pledge to oppose any tax increases has been signed by nearly every Republican member of Congress.
The result, Mr. Kerry said, is that “every time a tough fiscal choice looms, the easiest place to point fingers is at foreign aid.”
He then quoted Ronald Reagan, noting that the former Republican president and renowned Cold Warrior had said that “foreign aid suffers from a lack of domestic constituency.”
“That’s part of the reason everyone thinks it costs more than it does,” said Mr. Kerry, who claimed that recent polling showed that most Americans thought the nation’s international affairs budget represents roughly “25 percent of our national budget — and they thought it ought to be pared way back — down to 10 percent.”
But, in reality, “our whole foreign policy budget is just over 1 percent of our national budget,” Mr. Kerry said. “Think about it: a little over 1 percent funds all of our civilian foreign affairs efforts — every embassy, every consulate, every program, every person.”
“We’re not talking about pennies on the dollar,” he said “We’re talking about a single penny of a single dollar.”
Mr. Kerry stressed that from the recent rise of al Qaeda-linked militancy in North Africa to continuing terrorist activity in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, the “price of abandoning our global efforts would be exorbitant.”
“The vacuum we would leave by retreating within ourselves will quickly be filled by those whose interests differ dramatically from our own,” he said.
While Mr. Kerry is slated to embark on his first solo trip as America’s top diplomat next week, a whirlwind tour of nine Mideast and European nations in 11 days, he and President Obama are expected to travel for the first time together to Israel during March.
It also remains to be seen how Mr. Kerry’s remarks will be perceived by conservatives, some of whom have appeared increasingly eager recently to expose the divisions in the Republican Party between pro-engagement neoconservatives and more isolationist libertarians.
Drawing a distinction between himself and Republicans whom he tied to a “war caucus,” Mr. Paul called for a “saner, more balanced” approach to foreign policy that strikes a balance between neoconservative and isolationist thinking.
The Kentucky Republican also seemed to caution against aggressive calls for increased U.S. defense spending and engagement overseas.
“What the United States needs” Mr. Paul said, is “a policy that is not rash or reckless; a foreign policy that is reluctant, restrained by constitutional checks and balances but does not appease; a foreign policy that recognizes the danger of radical Islam but also the inherent weaknesses of radical Islam; a foreign policy that recognizes the danger of bombing countries on the pretext of what they might someday do.”