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Kerry: Foreign aid is in America's self-interest

NBC's Mark Murray and Domenico Montanaro note there is no movement toward a compromise to avert the sequester's deep domestic and defense cuts. Right now, it's all about the blame game.

In his first major address since taking office three weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry told an audience at the University of Virginia Wednesday that Americans must invest more in foreign aid and diplomacy in order to protect U.S. security and to cultivate American prosperity.

“Deploying diplomats today is much cheaper than deploying troops tomorrow,” he told an audience of students and others. He noted that he was speaking at a university founded by the very first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, who also served as American ambassador to France.

“Foreign assistance is not a giveaway. It’s not charity.  It is an investment in a strong America and free world,” Kerry said.

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The former Massachusetts senator, who was the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, noted that “our whole foreign policy budget is just over one percent of our national budget. Think about it a bit: over one percent, a little bit more,  funds all of our civilian and foreign affairs efforts -- every embassy, every program that saves a child form dirty drinking water or from AIDS, (or) that reaches out to build a village and bring America’s value.” 

Steve Helber / AP

Secretary of State John Kerry gestures as he delivers his first foreign policy speech, Wednesday, Feb. 20, in Old Cabel Hall at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.

Kerry said that not spending U.S. taxpayer dollars on foreign aid and diplomacy would leave a vacuum that would “quickly be filled by those whose interests differ dramatically from ours. 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.”

Kerry argued that foreign aid need not mean poorer nations being permanent dependents of the U.S. taxpayer. “Eleven of our top 15 trading partners used to be the beneficiaries of U.S. foreign assistance,” he said. “That's because our goal isn't to keep a nation dependent on us forever. It’s precisely to create these markets, to open these opportunities, to establish rule of law. Our goal is to use assistance and development to help nations realize their own potential … and become our economic partners.”

Secretary of State John Kerry delivers his first major address since taking over for Hillary Clinton.

Kerry emphasized the role of the State Department and American embassies in drumming up business for U.S. corporations, citing, for example, the American embassy in Jakarta for helping secure “an order for commercial aircraft – the largest order Boeing has ever been asked to fill.  Meanwhile, the Indonesian state railroad is buying its locomotives from GE.”

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He also argued that the United States must join with other nations to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons and “build partnerships” so that “we don't have to fight these battles alone. 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 did not mention in his speech the continuing civil war and refugee crisis in Syria. Kerry and President Barack Obama are under pressure from a bipartisan group of senators to do more, including establishing an no-fly zone over Syria, in order to protect rebels from the armed forces of President Bashar al-Assad.