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Opinion: Kerry's foreign aid positions appropriate for new job

By Kristi Allen
On February 28, 2013

Last Thursday, John Kerry gave his first speech as Secretary of State at the University of Virginia. He touched on a number of divisive issues, from global warming to congressional gridlock to AIDS research, but most of the criticism for his speech centered on its main focus: foreign aid. Kerry's position, as Secretary of State, was that foreign aid is an essential piece of U.S. foreign policy and it shouldn't be marginalized by ill-informed views about its effectiveness and poorly directed budget cuts. He said that foreign aid is already not being used to its full potential, and it's about to suffer even more in the sequester cuts that will take effect on Friday.
The biggest issue most people had with Kerry's speech was that he did not address some of the current foreign policy issues he'll be dealing with as Secretary of State. He did not outline positions on Iran, Syria, China or any of the other problems he will have to tackle. Instead, Kerry talked about why his ability to deal with these problems is directly related to how the country treats foreign aid.
Right now, the US puts about 1 percent of its total federal spending towards foreign aid. That number is often hugely overestimated by both the public and politicians, and it gives the false impression that foreign aid is ineffectual and wasteful. For the tiny sliver of the pie that we send overseas, diplomatic missions and all forms of aid help stabilize volatile areas and secure our interests in a peaceful, mutually beneficial way. Critics say that the countries we give assistance to are still suffering, and many of them are. Foreign aid may not always bring about the kind of change we think we should see from a few billion dollars, but why should we expect it to if we can't keep the Taliban out of Afghanistan for a trillion dollars? An arduous, expensive fix is better than a long and costly war, both ethically and financially.
Another common criticism is that we shouldn't be spending our money on other countries when we're slashing budgets at home. That's a sound argument, but the reality of foreign aid spending negates it. A 1 percent increase in the federal budget is not going to close the deficit and pay for all the things we're struggling to account for in the U.S. In his speech Kerry said, "Nothing gets a crowd clapping faster in a lot of places than saying, 'I'm going to Washington to get them to stop spending all that money over there.'" That sentiment pervades politics, but the money we spend means almost nothing to us and it makes a real difference to the people who receive it, and it helps in the long run. To put it in perspective, the Pentagon's budget is about 20 percent of federal spending. If defense spending is safe from cuts, shouldn't the department involved in preventing war and conflict enjoy the same treatment?
The phrase "investing in our future" gets thrown around quite a bit in Washington, but it's truly appropriate when it comes to foreign aid. Kerry stressed the idea of foreign assistance as a way to open up new markets as well as promote social and cultural freedoms abroad. There are certainly flaws with some of our current practices. A large portion of foreign aid is military aid to developed countries like Egypt and Israel and there are a lot of problems with making sure money is used as intended, but it's still a formula that's been proven to work. Eleven of the top 15 U.S. trade partners were recipients of foreign assistance. The countries we're trying to lift out of poverty and discord will hopefully be our trading partners and allies instead of the Syrias and Sudans of the future.
It's true that there are many specific foreign policy issues Kerry could have focused on, but he made an important point by showing the domestic side of his department's work. "In today's global world, there is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy," he said. The crux of Kerry's argument is that we have to use foreign aid as a real tool for growth, not just treat it as an obligation. If it's an empty gesture we make to the rest of the world, it's probably not going to do a lot of good. Our policies need to evolve for our global world.  

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