Washington — Secretary of State John Kerry says that at a time of fiscal constraint the United States must not shrink from global engagement.
"The price of abandoning our global efforts would be exorbitant," Kerry said in Charlottesville, Virginia, in his first major speech since becoming secretary of state. "The vacuum we would leave by retreating within ourselves will quickly be filled by those whose interests differ dramatically from ours."
He said failed states threaten not only the United States but also the world at large. By spending slightly more than 1 percent of its national budget on foreign assistance, far less than generally believed among most Americans, the United States receives a big return on its investment, he said.
"Eleven of our top 15 trading partners used to be the beneficiaries of U.S. foreign assistance," Kerry said. "Our goal is to use assistance and development to help nations realize their own potential, develop their own ability to govern and become our economic partners."
But foreign policy, Kerry said, is more than trade and business figures. "It's also measured in our deepest values," he said, naming security, stability, human rights and democracy as some of them. He said employees of the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and diplomatic security work in some of the most dangerous places on earth.
"They fight corruption in Nigeria. They support the rule of law in Burma. They support democratic institutions in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia," he said. "All of those efforts, all of that danger and risk that they take, makes us more secure."
The secretary stated emphatically that foreign assistance is not a giveaway but an investment that lifts others up and reinforces their willingness to join with the United States in common endeavors. He identified climate change as one challenge that will require a worldwide effort because of the universal impact of rising temperatures and rising sea levels.
"If we waste this opportunity, it may be the only thing our generation - generations - are remembered for. We need to find the courage to leave a far different legacy," he said.
Another unprecedented change taking place on Earth is the population explosion in the Middle East and North Africa, where 60 percent of the people are under 30 years old.
"We have an interest in helping these young people to develop the skills that they need to defeat the mass unemployment that is overwhelming their societies," he said.
Kerry said the United States must put its own fiscal house in order if it intends to exercise global leadership, referring to the U.S. political battles over the federal budget.
"Think about it. It's hard to tell the leadership of any number of countries that they have to resolve their economic issues if we don't resolve our own," he said.
The secretary said the diplomatic challenges facing the United States will not get easier with time. "There is no pause button on the future. We cannot choose when we would like to stop and restart our global responsibility," Kerry said. "But responding is the only American thing to do."