Published May 05. 2013 4:00AM
Among Secretary of State John Kerry's greatest fears, it appears, is that U.S. foreign policy will suffer not from a lack of international cooperation but from insufficient domestic support for the Foreign Service and appreciation for the role it performs.
This was the focus of Kerry's first major speech in February after winning Senate confirmation, delivered at the University of Virginia in Charlotte. He returned to that theme Monday at a meeting with about two dozen opinion writers from across the country at the State Department in Washington.
I had the good fortune of attending the day-long conference, sponsored annually by the Association of Opinion Journalists (of which I am a member), which in addition to Kerry featured seven high-level State Department officials speaking on a wide variety of global topics.
A veteran of 28 years in the U.S. Senate, Kerry sees this as a vulnerable time for the State Department, a period when the impulse toward isolationism that has waxed and waned throughout the nation's history could re-emerge. Weary after two long and costly wars, left with inaccurate perceptions that things are only getting worse on a global scale, Americans are again questioning the wisdom of spending on foreign diplomacy and aid.
And with sequestration and other fiscal pressures, Kerry recognizes there will be politicians ready to exploit such uncertainties among American citizens.
"Every time that a tough fiscal choice looms, the easiest place to point fingers - foreign aid," he told his University of Virginia audience.
But Kerry is quite right in observing that there could not be a worse time for America to pull back.
"Foreign policy is really not foreign at all. It's domestic policy connected to a global marketplace in a very connected world," he said.
The point Kerry sought to make is that markets are blooming in the underdeveloped world, the only question is whether they will be markets for American goods and innovation, creating American jobs, or whether the United States will relinquish those opportunities to others. Seven of the 10 fastest growing countries are on the African continent, Kerry told us, but China more heavily invests its resources there.
Many of these developing nations have disproportionately younger populations. Will the United States try to mold the principles of this emerging generation with our values of rule of law, tolerance of different beliefs, free speech and association, and entrepreneurship? Or will those with darker agendas win the support of young people looking for a purpose?
In the wake of the Arab Spring, which has toppled tyrants but created instability, the region is at a crossroad. In countries across North Africa and the Middle East the majority of people are under age of 30, roughly half younger than 21.
Kerry worries, he said, "about the tsunami of disenfranchised who are exploited and lured into something they might not otherwise do, but for the frustration of (living in) failed states … bad government, corruption, lack of opportunity. We need to engage. We need to help them make these transitions in the right way."
The investment in diplomacy and foreign aid is far less than most people think. A 2010 poll asked people what percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. The median estimate was 25 percent. Asked what America should spend, Democrats said about 10 percent of federal spending, Republicans 5 percent.
In fact, 1 percent of the budget goes to Foreign Service programs.
"It is perhaps the most significant return on investment that we can get," Kerry said. "It is much cheaper to invest in diplomats than it is to invest in troops," added the Vietnam veteran.
Since 2001 in Afghanistan the U.S. Agency for International Development has spent $14 billion in civilian assistance - the amount the military campaign there spends every few weeks.
"You cannot protect America from terrorism with SEAL teams, deployments and drones alone," Kerry told his audience of opinion journalists. "You just can't do it."
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.