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Secretary Of State John Kerry: The Underrated Value of U.S. Foreign Assistance


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the University of Virginia for his first public policy speech, February 20, 2013 Image:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the University of Virginia for his first public policy speech, February 20, 2013 Image:

Prior to his departure to Europe and the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry went to the University of Virginia to deliver his first public policy speech, which focused predominantly on explaining to his audience that U.S. foreign policy and assistance has a direct impact upon domestic policy and vice versa. Secretary Kerry explained to his audience that “Some might ask why I’m standing here at the University of Virginia, why am I starting here? A Secretary of State making his first speech in the United States? … The reason is very simple. I came here purposefully to underscore that in today’s global world, there is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy.” He went on to explain that in an era of globalization the United States cannot, and will not, shy away from its global leadership responsibilities.

Secretary Kerry drew attention to the fact that the U.S. foreign policy budget is slightly over one percent of the national budget (about $32 billion), and not, as many citizens responded in a 2010 World Public Opinion poll, 25 percent of the national budget. He highlighted that U.S. foreign assistance contributes to the alleviation of suffering—HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, disaster assistance,—and other benefits including education and the empowerment of women. He further outlined how the United States, as part of its foreign policy, has to continue to provide foreign assistance to other states as “the price of abandoning our global efforts would be exorbitant, and why the vacuum we would leave by retreating within ourselves will quickly be filled by those whose interests differ dramatically from ours.”

He continued the narrative to draw a direct link to how stable states in the international system create global markets for U.S. exports providing jobs for U.S. workers. Indeed, according to Secretary Kerry “Eleven of our top 15 trading partners used to be beneficiaries of U.S. foreign assistance.” He cited the example of Indonesia, which in late 2011 placed an order with Boeing, the largest in that company’s history, and which I have previously written as part of my work on the Asia Matters for America initiative. Secretary Kerry also highlighted Vietnam, a country that along with Senator John McCain, Mr. Kerry was instrumental in normalizing relations with back in 1995. In Secretary Kerry own words: “One of America’s most incredible realities continues to be that we are a country without any permanent enemies.” According to the secretary, over the past decade U.S. exports to Vietnam have increased by 700 percent, partially as a result of the work by USAID in that country. (For the academic year 2011-12 over 15,500 Vietnamese students studied in the United States, and according to NAFSA—Association of International Educators—each international student, along with dependents, contributes an average of $28,000 to the U.S. economy in terms of tuition and living expenses.) Again this theme of return on U.S. foreign assistance was repeatedly referred to throughout the speech: “If we want a new list of assistance graduates, countries that used to take our aid but now buy our exports, we can’t afford to pull back.” And on the issue of national security: “We value security and stability in other parts of the world, knowing that failed states are among our greatest security threats, and new partners are our greatest assets.”

Clearly Secretary Kerry was addressing a domestic audience in this his first public policy speech since taking office. His point was that the United States cannot afford to withdraw from its international assistance work with other states. Listening to Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year old Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban last year in Pakistan, discuss the value of education for her and other girls in Pakistan speaks for itself. Empowering other states to create safer and more secure environments for their citizens through supporting education, democratic institutions of governance and rule of law, is not only of benefit to the citizens of the nation in question, but is also good for the international system.

Secretary Kerry summarized his argument thus: “Our relatively small investment in these programs – programs which advance peace, security, and stability around the world, which help American companies compete abroad, which create jobs here at home by opening new markets to American goods, which support American citizens abroad, help them when they need it the most, which foster stable societies and save lives by fighting disease and hunger, which defend the universal rights of all people and advance freedom and dignity and development around the world, which bring people together and nations together, and forge partnerships to address problems that transcend the separation of oceans and borders on land, which protect our planet for our children and their children, and which give hope to a new generation of interconnected world citizens – our investment in all of those things cost us, as I just mentioned, about one penny of every dollar we invest. America, you will not find a better deal anywhere.”

Damien Tomkins is Project Assistant at the East-West Center office in Washington, D.C. where he contributes research and content to the Asia Matters for America initiative and coordinates the Asia Pacific Bulletin publication series. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and not of any organization with which he is affiliated.



Damien Tomkins

Damien Tomkins works at the East-West Center office in Washington, D.C. on matters pertaining to the Asia-Pacific region. After traveling overland from Cape Town to Cairo in the 1990s he received a BA First Class Honours from the University of Wales in Anthropology and Religious Studies. He then lived and worked in China for two years teaching English with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO). He subsequently received his MA degree in Asian international affairs from the School of International Service, American University. He enjoys working and learning about Asia and would like to further develop his career within the field of promoting a closer US-China relationship supported by mutual understanding and respect. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and not of any organization with which he is affiliated. Follow on Twitter: @tomkinsd