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Kerry Challenges Wisdom Of Sequestration

His First Major Policy Speech

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Updated February 23, 2013

John Kerry made his first major address as United Sates secretary of state on February 20, 2013, not in some foreign location, but on the campus of the University of Virginia. Kerry stressed the importance of continuing U.S. foreign aid efforts -- headed by the USAID arm of the State Department -- even as Congress dallied with impending, across-the-board budgets cuts. Known as sequestration, those cuts were set to begin March 1, 2013, unless Congressional action stopped them.

Kerry At UVA

Kerry chose the University of Virginia as the site of his first speech for a simple reason. Thomas Jefferson, the country's first secretary of state, was also the founder of the university.

Jefferson was a true product and practitioner of Enlightenment thinking; he put much stock in the abilities of the human mind. Kerry said, "Jefferson believed we couldn't be a strong country without investing in the kind of education that empowers us to be good citizens."

He continued, "Just as Jefferson understood that we need to invest in education in order to produce good citizens, I join President Obama today in asserting with urgency that our citizenry deserves a strong foreign policy to protect our interests in the world."

Sequestration and the State Department

Which brings us to the sequestration and the State Department. Sequestration calls for cuts to all federal program budgets, except "mandatory" programs such as Medicaid and Social Security. The cuts will come without analysis; regardless of a program's worth or validity, it will suffer.

By the way, Sequestration was the result of the August 2011 "debt-ceiling" bill that kept the federal government moving. Sequestration was supposed to get the so-called budgetary "Super Committee" moving on true budget reforms. In the absence of any reform, sequestration was supposed to begin on January 1, 2013. (Remember the fiscal cliff? An end-of-year deal in 2012 pushed the deadline back to March 1, but as of late February 2013, Congress and the president had made no headway on a deal.)

The State Department faces cuts in 2013 of $650 million to diplomatic functions, and $291 million to USAID programs.

Kerry said that many Americans mistakenly believe the State Department and foreign aid consume 25% of the federal budget. Rather, he said, the entire State Department budget is just over one percent of the federal budget. "Over one percent, a little bit more, funds all of our civilian and foreign affairs efforts - every embassy, every program that saves a child from dirty drinking water, or from AIDS, or reaches out to build a village," Kerry said.

Funding And Helping Vs. Cutting and Ignoring

Kerry listed the multitude of projects the State Department and USAID sponsor, from clean water initiatives and fighting sex trafficking to health and trade programs. "We can't afford the kind of delay and disruption that stands on the horizon in Washington," Kerry said.

Kerry noted that the more "assistance graduates" the U.S. helps create, the better the U.S. economy. Assistance graduates, Kerry explained, are countries that once took U.S. foreign aid but now engage in vital trade with the U.S. and global economies.

Kerry said, "I agree with President Obama that there is nothing in this current budget fight that requires us to make bad decisions, that forces us to retrench or to retreat. 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."

Noticing a soldier "with ribbons on his chest" seated before him as he spoke, Kerry said "deploying diplomats today is much cheaper than deploying troops tomorrow." Kerry borrowed from former Senate colleague Lindsey Graham who said diplomacy and USAID are "national security insurance that we're buying."

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