Kerry shares world view with editorialists

“Our credibility in one place affects our credibility in another,” Secretary of State John Kerry told about 20 members of the Association of Opinion Journalists in a briefing Monday at the State Department.

Syria’s use of sarin gas “is a red line for the President,” but we’re “not talking about boots on the ground.” We must work with others whose interests align with ours. So, too, with North Korea. China, which provides North Korea food, fuel and banking services, is the key to confronting Kim Jong-un’s saber rattling. (It’s a more nuanced response, not the reflexive muscle urged by Senators McCain and Graham, and it’s what appears to be happening with Iran.)

State Dept. photo

State Dept. photo

In a 25-minute presentation, Kerry laid out an integrated view of American foreign policy, premised on the idea that “We can’t protect America with seal teams, drones and deployment alone.  We need to offer a more kinetic component of combating terrorism.” Besides, he later noted, “it is much cheaper to invest in diplomats than in troops.”

Building new democracy is difficult, but, to avoid extremism, a “minor” level of investment is essential.The budget of the State Department is a scant one percent of the federal budget, for all initiatives, foreign aid, embassies, everything they do. Yet, Kerry contends, it yields a significant return on investment.

Stimulating American international trade is part of this mix.  Every $200,000 in product that we export represents a job created in the United States, Kerry said.  Eleven of our 15 largest trading partners  in the world used to receive foreign aid from us.  Now Japan and Europe are giving aid to others.  Seen that way, “foreign policy really isn’t foreign policy at all but domestic policy carried into a connected world.”

How connected? The varied events of the Arab Spring, he said, were set off by a Tunisian fruit vendor seeking fair placement of his fruit cart without being hassled by local police. Initially, the events had nothing to do with Islamism or ideology.  Tunisia was just the first of several eruptions against governments failing to meet citizens’ needs, eruptions magnified by tensions between modernity and the status quo.

So, too, with Egypt, a generational revolution, fueled by tweets and text messages.  When an election occurred, the oldest organization -the Muslim Brotherhood – stepped in,  appealing to young people without jobs, seeing no future.   Leaders around the world rightly worry about the “tsunami of the disenfranchised.”

If we don’t want extremists exporting violence to various part of the world, we need to work with our allies to help transformation occur. If we don’t offer a better vision, he warns, extremism will move faster than democracy.

Despite many serious worldwide challenges, Kerry is largely optimisitic.  “With winding down in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, we are less at risk with our forces than we’ve been in many years, ” he said.   The scores of  agencies working with our embassies have blunted plots from abroad that the American people never did see.

“Our nation is the indispensible country. We are looked to for leadership everywhere,”  he said. The challenge, as always, is to get Congress and the American people to be willing to pay up front for foreign initiatives and to see them as related to our long-term domestic well-being.

I come away thinking Kerry’s  views are  not original. He’s  well versed in the issues, knows the Obama priorities and is an able advocate. But his task is daunting.  In the old days, even in the face of public hostility and indifference,  there were leaders in  the Congress capable of shaping bipartisan foreign policies. But most  of them are gone, and those remaining are unwilling to spend their capital educating voters. We’re a nation not known for taking the long view. Failure to do so today has higher costs than ever.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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