WASHINGTON – US Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday boldly staked out a vision of American engagement in the world and defended the importance of international aid as part of that engagement, in his first major address since assuming office.

“America’s national interest in leading strongly still endures in this world,” Kerry declared in an address at the University of Virginia, in which he sought to push back against critics who have argued that the Obama administration wants to step back from its international leadership position.



“This is a time to continue to engage,” Kerry said, arguing that America’s fiscal health would be greatly strengthened by the improved opportunities for trade and cooperation that a strong international position fosters.

Much of Kerry’s address was devoted to making the economic case for robust foreign involvement. One of his biggest applause lines came when he told the audience: “Deploying diplomats today is much cheaper than deploying troops tomorrow.”

His remarks come as the US government faces massive deficits and steep mandatory budget cuts that are set to take place should Congress not make a deal by the end of the month to avert them. He noted that popular support for foreign aid – which he warned could be affected by the impending cuts, including to military assistance to Israel – is not strong, and seemed to be appealing to voters as well as congressmen in making his pitch.

Kerry spoke of the benefits of aid, including in stronger global alliances.

“This includes working with our partners around the world in making sure Iran never obtains a weapon that would endanger our allies and our interests,” he said.

In a more pointed comment, however, he suggested America’s biggest obstacles could come from within.

“In many ways, the greatest challenge to America’s foreign policy today is in the hands not of diplomats, but of policymakers in Congress,” he said, referring to the gridlock that could make the drastic cuts a reality.

That Kerry would choose to devote his first major address to defending the State Department’s budget and its role in the promoting America’s interest gives an indication of the rough road ahead for the nation’s top diplomat.

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