from Renewing America

John Kerry's Maiden Speech: Economics Trumps Everything

John Kerry delivers his first speech as U.S. Secretary of State at the University of Virginia on February 20, 2013 (U.S. Department of State/Flickr).

February 21, 2013

John Kerry delivers his first speech as U.S. Secretary of State at the University of Virginia on February 20, 2013 (U.S. Department of State/Flickr).
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If there was any question about whether Secretary of State John Kerry would continue Hillary Clinton’s signature “economic statecraft” initiative, it was put to rest in his very first speech. Speaking to students and faculty at Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia, Kerry spent the bulk of the speech talking about U.S. economic opportunities in the world, and surprisingly little about the traditional foreign policy challenges.

Syria was not mentioned once, nor was Israel, while Iran and Pakistan received only glancing acknowledgement. But Kerry had plenty of time to expand on how the State Department had helped Orbital Sciences Corporation beat its French and Russian competitors to build a broadcast satellite in Thailand. In Indonesia, he noted, the State Department helped seal the largest ever aircraft order there for Boeing, and a locomotive deal for General Electric. South African energy company Sasol is coming to Louisiana to build the world’s second largest plant for converting cheap natural gas to liquid fuels “that will put more Americans to work,” he said. U.S. exports are booming, he noted, to Vietnam and India and Brazil. He even managed to squeeze in how the State Department had helped win a $20 million investment in Michigan by the Canadian auto parts company AGS Automotive, creating 100 jobs. Who says you can’t make foreign policy play in Peoria?

While Secretaries of State have certainly thought about economics before, Secretary Clinton changed the approach in a fundamental way. Traditionally, the State Department has viewed economics as a tool of diplomacy, but under Clinton the department began to view diplomacy as a tool of economics. In place of the department’s traditional focus on foreign aid, or on trade agreements and U.S. investment overseas as tools for cementing alliances, Clinton began to use State Department assets to strengthen the U.S. economy. That meant deploying embassy staff to promote exports from U.S. companies and to attract foreign investment to the United States. It meant helping U.S. companies navigate bureaucratic red tape in overseas markets, or protect themselves against intellectual property theft. It meant streamlining visa procedures to encourage tourists to come to the United States.

In a 2011 New York speech laying out the idea, Secretary Clinton justified her new focus on economics by saying that “America’s economic strength and our global leadership are a package deal. A strong economy has been a pillar of American power in the world. It gives us the leverage we need to exert influence and advance our interests.”

Kerry sounds like he will be, if anything, an even more enthusiastic ambassador for U.S. economic interests. “In today’s global world, there is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy,” he said. “How we conduct our foreign policy matters more than ever to our everyday lives, to the opportunities of all those students I met standing outside. It’s important not just in terms of the threats that we face, but the products that we buy, the goods that we sell, and the opportunity that we provide for economic growth and vitality. It's not just about whether we'll be compelled to send our troops to another battle, but whether we’ll be able to send our graduates into a thriving workforce."

Kerry’s speech was divided roughly into two parts, “how we stand up for American jobs and business,” and “how we stand up for American values.” The two got roughly equal emphasis, which is remarkable.

Kerry is continuing what has been a gradual evolution for some time. As recently as a decade ago, when American economic primacy was still largely unchallenged, it was easy to see the pursuit of exports, investments, and job creation as something peripheral to the nation’s core foreign policy challenges. As the new secretary of state made clear in his first speech, that is no longer the case.

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