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Trade, not Syria, dominates John Kerry’s first speech as secretary of state

Published: Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 9:54 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — WASHINGTON — In his first major speech as secretary of state, John Kerry on Wednesday didn’t mention Syria even once or delve deeply into other urgent world crises. Instead, he focused on defending his department’s budget and encouraging international trade, especially with Asia.

“We can be complacent, or we can be competitive. As new markets bloom in every corner of the globe — and they will, with or without us — we can be there to help plant the seeds, or we can cede that power to others,” Kerry said, speaking to local politicians, students and faculty at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Kerry’s appearance comes just days before he embarks on his first trip abroad as secretary. While his remarks on campus were rooted in trade opportunities and American soft power — agricultural help for troubled South Sudan and increased educational opportunities for Afghan girls, for example — the destinations on his trip point to the national security priorities that are more likely to consume at least his early months in office.

Beginning next week, Kerry is scheduled to discuss the U.S.-backed French intervention in Mali on a stop in Paris, hear the frustrations of Syrian opposition leaders in Italy, meet with Egyptian officials and civil society members in a volatile and sharply divided Cairo, and discuss the Syrian civil war and its worsening humanitarian crisis with Turkey and Arab Gulf allies.

Aside from passing mentions of Mali, Pakistan and Afghanistan, however, Kerry avoided discussion of conflict zones.

His pitch, instead, recounted success stories from the State Department’s efforts to promote the wares of American companies. He told of U.S. officers in Canada persuading a local automotive firm to invest tens of millions of dollars in Michigan’s recovering car industry, and of a major South African energy company that plans to build a multibillion-dollar plant in Louisiana.

He said the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta got Indonesia’s largest privately run airline to place the largest order ever for Boeing aircraft. He noted that the Indonesian state railroad buys its trains from General Electric. The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, he said, helped to broker a deal for Virginia’s Orbital Sciences Corp. and California’s Space Exploration Technologies to make satellite equipment for Thailand.

“The deal that our embassy helped secure, valued at $160 million, goes right back into American communities from coast to coast,” Kerry said. “That’s the difference that our embassies abroad actually can make back here at home.”

Kerry warned, however, that the United States needed to redouble such efforts to compete with China, which is also the second-largest U.S. trading partner. He noted that seven of the 10 fastest-growing countries are on the African continent, where China “is already investing more than we do there.”

As dire budget cuts loom with sequestration — a projected $2.6 billion in cuts for the State Department, including $850 million from daily operations — Kerry defended his agency’s spending, stressing that the entire U.S. foreign policy budget is only slightly more than 1 percent of the national budget.

“It sounds expensive, but, my friends, it’s not,” Kerry said. “The State Department’s conflict stabilization budget is around $60 million a year. That’s how much the movie ‘The Avengers’ took in on a single Sunday last May. The difference is, the folks we have on the ground are actual superheroes.”

Kerry was particularly protective of foreign aid, which is often among the first items on the chopping block in tough times. The State Department projects roughly $1.7 billion in cuts to foreign aid under the mandatory budget cuts. Kerry lauded the fact that 11 of the top 15 U.S. trade partners were former recipients of U.S. assistance and said the money must continue to flow, as an investment, in order to grow a new crop of beneficiaries-turned-economic allies.

“My credibility as a diplomat working to help other countries create order is strongest when America at last puts its own fiscal house in order, and that has to be now,” Kerry said to applause.

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