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Kerry UVANewly confirmed as US Secretary of State, John Kerry delivered his first policy speech last week, making the case for a renewed and proactive American diplomacy. Directing his remarks to the US Congress[1] – and to Beijing’s leaders – more than to his actual audience at the University of Virginia, his message was urgent: “This is a time to continue to engage for the sake of the safety and the economic health of our country. This is not optional. It is a necessity.” Given the looming March 1 deadline for across-the-board sequestration which would reduce State Department operations by $850 million and foreign assistance by $1.7 billion, the US’ chief diplomat used his speech to defend the foreign policy budget against spending cuts, portraying foreign affairs as the guarantor of American economic prosperity.

As a longtime supporter of foreign assistance,[2] Kerry’s speech jibes with his past arguments, while at the same time reflecting new, immediate concerns about State Department funding after the sequestration cuts.[3]   His speech offered less a summation of the potential strategic direction of the State Department under his tenure, than the plea of a Capitol Hill veteran, dismayed by Washington’s budgetary partisanship and brinkmanship over the recent “fiscal cliff” and imminent government-wide sequester.

Without providing an explicit blueprint for the Obama administration’s second term foreign policy agenda, Kerry situated State Department activities within the present strategic context and hewed to the current war fatigue of US politicians. Appealing, for example, to those Senators who, while eager to withdraw from Afghanistan and avoid future such “entanglements,” nonetheless remain anxious about the future of American leadership and economic competitiveness, Kerry argued that “deploying diplomats today [to protect the national interest] is much cheaper than deploying troops tomorrow.”

Kerry spoke not of a world of humanitarianism predicated on “charity” but, rather, one of “rivals determined to create jobs and opportunities for their own people.” Amid these new competitors, US foreign assistance, he maintained, must avoid being a “giveaway.” Instead, it can and must be wielded as a long term investment in the US’s economic success.  By creating reliable trade partners for American businesses through development initiatives in governance, water, health, education, agriculture and democracy promotion, the US can avoid being “complacent” and instead become more “competitive.” As he noted, eleven of the US’ top fifteen current trade partners are former beneficiaries of U.S. foreign assistance.  The recently brokered “exciting … trade negotiation” between the US and EU, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), was just one reiteration of the core message of Kerry’s confirmation hearing earlier in January: “more than ever, foreign policy is economic policy” – or can be, if orchestrated strategically.

Kerry’s argument is a familiar one. Much in his speech parallels the current US National Security Strategy, which predicates the pursuit of the national interest on the renewal of the US economy, the “wellspring of American power.” His remarks contain echoes of President Obama’s rhetorical touchstones of shared security and shared humanity, the US’ interdependence with other nations, and its sense of morality and values. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made “economic statecraft” a hallmark of her tenure, consciously molding State Department activities to parallel the US’ “Asia Pivot” by leveraging diplomacy to secure economic objectives and vice versa. Meanwhile Kerry himself refers in his speech to inspiration in the Marshall Plan.

Still, Kerry’s speech is distinct. It is at once a genuine description of the perils America currently faces with the world’s shifting economic poles of gravity (and influence) and a fervent defense of US foreign assistance in reaction to Washington’s sequester impasse. In rejecting the impulse to turn inwards, disengage globally, and reduce spending through cuts to foreign assistance,[4] Kerry admonished, “we have lost the luxury of just looking inward […] we look out and we see a new field of competitors.”  The reactive and proactive strategy he describes is not aimed at rebuilding and stabilizing a postwar European economy or fending off the specter of Soviet Communism. With the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)[5] negotiations facilitating the US’ economic counterbalancing of China amongst its regional trade partners, Kerry’s retooled Marshall Plan lays the guidance for the US to now confront China’s presence outside of Asia in many lucrative, resource-rich countries with poor governance and rule of law deficits. Through targeted foreign assistance across Africa, for example, Kerry argued, the US can promote more reliable investment conditions “to help plant the seeds [of emerging market growth],” rather than “cede that power to others.”  This is a particular vision of American power and leadership in the 21st century: no longer the “indispensable nation” tout simple as global policeman or responsible stakeholder, the US now seeks to become indispensable as trade partner, much as China is today.

Amalia Feld is reading for an MPhil in International Relations at Oxford. You can also follow her on Twitter @AmaliaFeld.


[1] According to Kerry, “in many ways, the greatest challenge to America’s foreign policy today is in the hands not of diplomats, but of policymakers in Congress.”

[2] For example, in his prior capacities as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (2009-2013) and US Senator from Massachusetts (1985-2013). See his argument for the strategic value of foreign assistance, along with recommended reforms here.


[3] See also Kerry’s February 11, 2013 letter to Barbara Mikulski, Chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in which he describes in devastating detail the full scale of the impact of sequestration on state department activities.

[4] Kerry, long time Washington veteran noted in his speech that “every time that a tough fiscal choice looms, the easiest place to point fingers [is] foreign aid.”

[5] China is not a participant in the TPP.



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