Remarks to a Foreign Policy Classroom

John Kerry
Secretary of State
George C. Marshall Auditorium
Washington, DC
February 7, 2013

Date: 02/07/2013 Description: Secretary Kerry drops-by a Foreign Policy Classroom, a Bureau of Public Affairs outreach program which brings college students from around the country to the Department to hear from subject-matter experts on foreign policy topics, at the Department of State.  - State Dept ImageThank you very much. How are you? How’s everybody doing? Welcome. I gather we’ve got folks from a bunch of colleges and universities around here, right? At least a few? We’ve got some Hoyas here, some Colonials and Bisons, Patriots? Who’s a Patriot here? I’m partial to the Patriots, for obvious reasons, but we didn’t do so well this year.

I wanted to drop by for a few minutes. I apologize that I can only make it a few minutes, because to be truthful, I love this kind of give-and-take and I wish I could stay. And Marc, you’re in great hands with Marc Norman, who’s going to talk to you about terrorism and counterterrorism today. But for me, one of the best parts of this kind of job is being able to talk to folks and answer questions, have a good dialogue, and talk about what is happening in the world and why we make some of the choices that we make and why maybe we ought to make some choices we haven’t made. And you all can be informative with respect to all of that.

But this is a complicated time in the world, and I’m glad you are taking part in this Foreign Policy Classroom which the State Department engages in, in an effort to really get you involved and to try to impress on you the realities of some of the choices that we make so you can become ambassadors, if you will, in your own communities, in your schools, in your homes, and explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

One of the most interesting things about American foreign policy are some of the unknowns, some of the things that people don’t connect automatically. I’ll give you an example. If I were to ask somebody here, “How many of you think that the percentage of the budget of the foreign affairs and State Department of our budget of the United States is something like 15 or 20 percent?” Anybody here believe it’s at that level? Five percent, four percent? You’re too educated. (Laughter.)

The truth is, in America, huge numbers of people think we somehow spend something like 50 percent of our budget, or 30 and 40 percent of our budget, of what we do to reach out to the rest of the world. As I think you know, judging by your response as we just went along, 1 percent about. If you take U.S. aid and the aid part of the package, not the running of the State Department and so forth, it’s about 1 percent. It gets to be a little more when you factor in the other components.

But I’ll tell you, the return we get on the investment – I do not call it spending. It’s an investment. It’s absolutely an investment. And there’s a return on investment, and it’s very hard to quantify that return completely. But I can tell you that you could quantify it in troops that you don’t have to send somewhere, lives that are not lost because you managed to create a relationship with a country that resolves its problems peacefully and that don’t spill over into another nation, whether it’s a Mali or the problems we’re seeing in Egypt now or Syria. The ability to be able to help people to make peaceful transitions and to move their economies to open, accountable economies that engage with the rest of the world makes a world of difference to the lives of people in that country and everybody around them.

So you look at the problems we’re having with North Korea right now, questions of the imminency perhaps of another test, more missiles being fired, perhaps a nuclear test. To what end? I mean, all that will happen is greater potential of conflict. And the people of North Korea are starving. They desperately need to become more open and connected to the world instead of harboring some of the worst gulags in the world where people are tortured, and forced labor.

So we have an impact by what we choose to do with respect to those kinds of things. PEPFAR, the program that we engage in to try to prevent the spread of AIDS, has saved maybe 5 million lives of children, and equally importantly has helped us build the healthcare infrastructure across Africa and in other parts of the world where we’re now able to foresee a generation of children who will not have any transmission of AIDS from their mothers. It’s amazing gains. Or the things we’ve done to help people to be educated somewhere so they can aspire, like you do, to be able to live in a democracy, understand what it means to be free, and be able to make a difference in the lives of other people.

I tell you, it’s an extraordinary thing. One of the things I’ve learned – I’m chauvinistic about it but I’m not arrogant about it – and that’s the virtue of the system that we have in our country that allows us to make these kinds of choices, to have unparalleled freedom, and to take our values out and be proud of them, and let other people decide whether they want to embrace them and live by them and be empowered by them, or whether they want to reject them and go a different direction.

No country on this planet in the history of humankind has ever seen their military be able to conquer territory and push back against evil and terrorism and so forth, and yet turn around and give that country, that land, that territory, back to its rightful owners, the people who live there, and turn around and say you’ve got a democracy, you’ve got your country, you’ve got your freedom. You see Iraq today still struggling, but they’ve got that choice. And that’s the choice we’re trying to give in Afghanistan. And when people say, “Well, why? Why us? Why should we be the ones who have to engage in that,” the answer is very simple. Because America, throughout the 20th century and now moving into this century, has proven again and again that there is an indispensable capacity to help bring about peace, find a way for people’s rights, their individual human rights to be able to be protected and to be able to live better lives.

And there are countless countries that we can point to in the world where we’ve, I think, helped to make that kind of difference. Look at Kosovo, Bosnia, Serbia, that part of the world, where there was huge turmoil, and President Clinton made a courageous decision and we made a difference. The Dayton Peace Accords. And you can go back all through history and see that.

Now, we’re not perfect. We make mistakes. There are plenty of examples where we haven’t done it quite as well as we might have or should have. But the fundamental of the choice that we make is not one to subjugate people, not one to deny people their rights; it’s to try to help people to be able to move in the right direction.

Now, we’re in a more complicated world. The world of World War II was a world where it was polarized and the United States had this enormous power, the old phrase of awakening a sleeping giant. And they awoke a sleeping giant and we flexed our muscles, and in the end the Allies – and Russia a part of that – Russia suffered enormous losses in that war, and sometimes people forget that. But we came out of that with a strong economy and a strong spirit, sufficient that we decided under Harry Truman to help Germany and Japan rebuild. Best decision we ever made. Do you know that most of the American people were opposed to that, for obvious reasons?

That’s what foreign policy is about, making tough decisions like that and seeing the future and trying to prepare for that future. And so throughout the Cold War, we were able to win, in a sense, economically certainly, because we’re the strongest economy and a lot of other people were coming up from a very different place, either the destruction of the war or from poverty, and a different place altogether economically.

Now, folks, the world, you’re going to have to figure out. The reason this classroom is so important, and your thinking about this is so important, is you have to figure out how we do this for the 21st century where it’s not so simple in terms of bipolar, East-West, communism versus the West, and so forth. It is more different entities, more sectarian energy pushing out from under the yoke of the totalitarianism that kept it down for so long – a Qadhafi in Libya, for instance. That’s not yet a finished history.

And so all of this work of democracy takes time. In a world of multiple technologies, multiple religions, huge religious extremism, in a world of terrorists, extremism linked to, in many cases, exploited religion, we face a challenge unlike any that we have faced in our history. And so think about it. I’m sure you will; that’s what you’re here to do. And you’re going to get a great discussion here with Marc about the terrorism component of it.

My own belief is that there has to be more to our efforts. And this is where we’re going to have to do a heck of a job persuading Congress, because we’re looking at sequestration, we’re looking at budget deficits, at the very time that the world is asking us to be able to be more engaged and help them make more of a difference in their lives.

If you look in Egypt or Jordan or Syria or any of those countries, they’ve got – I’d say probably about 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30, and 50 percent of the population is under the age of 21, and 40 percent is under the age of 18. And if they become 18 or 21 and they don’t have jobs, and they don’t have an education, and they don’t see much of a future, and the governance of their country is suppressing their aspirations in a world where they can tweet and Facebook and connect to everybody else, you’re going to get what you got in Tahrir Square, and you’re going to see more energy released that way.

And I believe it’s a time for us, with our values and with what we know about how you develop, to help these folks be able to find the kind of opportunity that you have and that a lot of other people strive for in different parts of the world. Our challenge is not to retreat and go inwards and say, “Oh, let them fight it out, it doesn’t make a difference.” It does make all the difference in the world, as we saw in Afghanistan, where if you leave people to their own devices, a lot of extremists will just organize themselves and make life miserable for people somewhere.

So that is our challenge. I’m delighted that you’re here today. Thank you for being part of this classroom. I want you to join into this debate. It needs to be robust across our country, and hopefully we’ll together make the right decisions. Thank you very, very much. (Applause.)

PRN: 2013/0135