Al Qaeda and its affiliates are running all over North Africa and the Middle East while remaining a serious threat to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Approximately 70,000 Syrians are dead in a civil war exploited by Iran, Russia and Islamist jihadists. Egypt is an economic basket case, ruled by an increasingly unpopular authoritarian Islamist regime. Iran is getting ever closer to achieving its nuclear arms ambitions. North Korea has just exploded its third and most powerful nuclear bomb and is also developing inter-continental missile technology, which its military has said is “targeted” for the United States. China is engaging in cyber attacks on U.S. companies and government agencies. The “reset” of relations with Russia is reset in reverse.
In short, Secretary of State John Kerry assumes his office facing some of the most challenging foreign policy issues in a generation. One might think that his first major foreign policy address would deal with the clear and present dangers facing the United States and the free world today, such as the proliferation of nuclear arms into the wrong hands, the Arab Spring-Turned-Winter or global terrorism, which cost Ambassador John Christopher Stevens and three other Americans their lives last September 11th.
But that would be too much to ask. Instead, Kerry decided to use his speech on February 20th at the University of Virginia to indulge in clichéd generalities about the importance of State Department foreign “investments” (i.e., foreign aid), promotion of American values abroad, and the need to tackle climate change. He also threw in for good measure a warning about budget cuts and the looming sequester.
“Some might ask why I’m standing here – why I’m starting here – a Secretary of State making his first speech in the United States,” Kerry said. “They might ask, ‘Doesn’t diplomacy happen over there, overseas, far beyond the boundaries of our own backyard?’”
A good question, but John Kerry gave an answer that is more fitting for a high school social studies teacher:
The reason is very simple: I came here to underscore that in today’s global world, there is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy. More than ever before, the decisions we make from the safety of our shores don’t just ripple outward – they also create a current right here in America….
In this age, when a shrinking world clashes with calls for shrinking budgets, it’s our job to connect the dots for the American people between what we do over there and why it matters here at home – why 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 our own.
Kerry said that before he embarks on his first trip abroad this weekend it was important to speak at home about the importance of our “investment” in foreign aid. Never mind the many billions of dollars wasted on corrupt regimes, failed assistance programs, a bloated United Nations, etc. More tax dollars for foreign aid is an investment essential to helping our businesses compete abroad, he argued.
“Eleven of our top 15 trading partners used to be beneficiaries of U.S. foreign assistance,” Kerry said. Whether he was including in this total aid from the Marshall Plan to re-build Europe after World War II was not clear, although he mentioned the Marshall Plan towards the end of his speech. But one thing is for sure. The aid we are squandering today in the underdeveloped world is going to do little more than create more dependency.
Kerry also singled out a number of countries where he claimed the State Department was instrumental in obtaining foreign purchases and investments that helped American companies. For example, he heralded the “success in Canada, where State Department officers there got a local automotive firm to invest tens of millions of dollars in Michigan, where the American auto industry is making a remarkable comeback.”
Ironically, Kerry’s State Department could return the favor to Canada very quickly by giving final approval to the long-stalled Keystone pipeline to transport oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Canada is the United States’s most important trading partner. Kerry has a long-standing interest in the pipeline and will be personally leading the State Department’s review of the project. The first foreign leader Kerry met with as Secretary of State was with Canada’s foreign minister, John Baird, in early February, with whom he reportedly discussed the Keystone pipeline project. However, Kerry gave no indication which way he was leaning on the recommendation he will eventually make to President Obama.
Recall that Kerry told his University of Virginia audience how important it is for the State Department “to connect the dots for the American people.”
Let’s help him connect some dots of his own regarding the Keystone pipeline. The pipeline project would connect to thousands of more jobs for Americans. It would increase our connection with our neighbor to the north, rather than alienate them, and connect our supply of oil to a friendly, reliable source. It would help disconnect us from dependence on the volatile Middle East for oil. Less dependence on OPEC will enhance our national security.
What is preventing Secretary of State Kerry from connecting these dots? His hyper-focus on climate change, which he said “may be the only thing our generations are remembered for” if we don’t rise to the challenge.
Kerry has been on the forefront of the climate-change-is-a-national-security-threat theme for years. In July 2009, for example, then-Senator Kerry convened a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to focus on how climate change was supposedly linked to national defense. At the hearing, Kerry called climate change “a grave and growing threat to … America’s national security.” The committee heard testimony on the specter of “climate conflicts,” and Kerry himself compared the threat to 9/11. In his first major speech as Secretary of State at the University of Virginia, he linked climate change to “standing up for American jobs and businesses and standing up for our American values.”
Endangering an already fragile economy with immediate drastic measures to deal with a complicated, multi-faceted long-term problem does little to help our national defense or to create more American jobs. Holding up a favorable recommendation on the Keystone pipeline because of its possible impact on climate change is counter-productive, since Canada will only turn to environmentally unfriendly China to purchase its oil.
Finally, Kerry couldn’t resist using the phrase “world citizens” in his University of Virginia speech. It is reminiscent of his declaration during the 2004 presidential campaign that America’s decision to go to war must pass “the global test” – whatever that means.
Let’s hope that Kerry’s debut speech as Secretary of State is not indicative of how he will perform on the global stage. But with the radical Obama administration behind him, the outlook is pessimistic.
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