By Kevin McElligott, Public Diplomacy student, Syracuse University
As John Kerry embarks on his first overseas trip as Secretary of State, a nine-nation endeavor that will see him call on our western European allies and multiple states in the Middle East, he’ll be confronted with a variety of challenges.
In his first public remarks last week, he extolled the domestic benefits of foreign aid. Over the next 11 days, he’ll put that in practice as he addresses the politics of a more active U.S. role in arming Syrian rebels, how best to persuade Iran to curtail its nuclear program and whether any new ideas could serve as a catalyst for restarting direct Israel-Palestine talks, the last of which broke down in 2010. Both Kerry and President Obama will visit Israel next month. Moreover, he’ll lay the groundwork for global solutions to climate change, equal opportunity and assisting in the growth of pivotal developing economies.
But a vital obstacle impeding a substantive American role in these conflicts and on the world stage will be convincing the public and Congress that the U.S. must not adopt an inward posture as it deals with ongoing budgetary crises. Bemoaning our already “minimal” investment in diplomacy and foreign aid (it comprises about 1 percent of the federal budget), Kerry noted that “deploying diplomats today is much cheaper than deploying troops tomorrow.” Still, any hopes of an all-encompassing, Marshall Plan-esque global solution is premature in this age of inexorable divisiveness, and a more pragmatic, incremental approach is warranted.
Kerry’s stewardship could advance these aims in several ways. Advocating for increased trade reach through the restoration of the presidential authority to fast track such deals is essential, particularly as negotiations with the European Union are set to begin later this year. Developing a coalition of innovation with China and backing away (at least slightly) from the Asia-Pacific pivot, as Kerry indicated during his confirmation that he might explore, could open a further dialogue on combating China’s widely acknowledged corporate espionage operations and normalizing what have become increasingly strained relations. And streamlining the State Department’s push for U.S. businesses in foreign bids to normalize competition and cultivate a new generation of willing partners would advance American interests and could even play a role in continuing Secretary Clinton’s gender equality campaign.
All of these require boots on the ground and a sustained investment in diplomacy personnel, a woefully underserved aspect of our foreign policy that can efficiently push aid to where it’s most needed. More importantly, it would contribute to modern, multilateral security initiatives that recognize the changing power balance…at a fraction of the expense. Losing our economic hegemony needn’t mean security sacrifices and diplomatic isolation; in fact, we already have the tools to do more with less, and do it better. There’s nothing more American than that.