Kerry: Budget Cuts Threaten Foreign Policy Agenda

Secretary of State John Kerry gave his first major foreign policy speech Wednesday at the University of Virginia. His comments come days before he leaves on his first trip as America's top diplomat. He's traveling to Europe and the Middle East.

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The State Department is also facing that threat of major budget cuts. Today, Secretary of State John Kerry laid out an ambitious foreign policy agenda to fight climate change, open economic markets and keep countries from becoming terrorist safe havens. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on how financial woes could complicate those priorities.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The longtime senator from Massachusetts says he knows there's no domestic constituency for foreign assistance, and the budget battles in Washington and the threat of sequestration loom large for the new Secretary of State John Kerry.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: There is nothing in this current budget fight that requires us to make bad decisions, that forces us to retrench or to retreat. This is a time to continue to engage for the sake of the safety and the economic health of our country. This is not optional. It is a necessity.

KELEMEN: Kerry made his case to students at the University of Virginia, saying it would be costly to retreat in this world full of dangers.

KERRY: We learned that lesson in the deserts of Mali recently, in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2001 and in the tribal areas of Pakistan even today.

KELEMEN: Kerry says failed states are among America's greatest security threat, yet he says the budget for the office at the State Department that deals with failing states is about $60 million a year.

KERRY: That's how much the movie "The Avengers" took in on a single Sunday last May.

(LAUGHTER)

KERRY: The difference is the folks that we have on the ground doing this job are actually real superheroes.

KELEMEN: The secretary of state didn't take any questions from the students at the university founded by Thomas Jefferson. Instead, he gave a bit of a history lesson on how U.S. aid has worked over the years to open new markets and stabilize countries. Kerry says 11 of America's top trading partners are former aid recipients. He offered many slogans without much detail on what he sees as his main priorities.

KERRY: Deploying diplomats today is much cheaper than deploying troops tomorrow. We need to remember that.

(APPLAUSE)

KELEMEN: His upcoming travel offers some insights into what Kerry is hoping to achieve diplomatically. Kerry leaves this weekend on a trip that will take him to nine countries in Europe and the Middle East. And Kerry says he'll be listening closely to see what the U.S. can do to help end the conflict in Syria. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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