Kerry in Cabell: Secretary of State’s first speech delivered at UVA

John Kerry speaks in Old Cabell Hall on Wednesday, February 20, 2013. Photo by Graelyn Brashear. John Kerry speaks in Old Cabell Hall on Wednesday, February 20, 2013. Photo by Graelyn Brashear.

The choice of the University of Virginia as the venue for John Kerry’s first major policy speech as Secretary of State surely had something to do with the lingering presence of Thomas Jefferson on Grounds. UVA’s founder was, after all, the first person to hold the title Kerry recently acquired, and his name was invoked at least ten times during longtime senator and former presidential hopeful’s midday address at a packed Old Cabell Hall yesterday (poor James Monroe, that other local founder and Secretary, only got three mentions).

But Kerry used his setting to drive home what was a main focus of his agenda-setting speech: More than ever, what happens over there matters over here.

“Why is it that I am at the foot of the Blue Ridge instead of the shore of the Black Sea?” he asked. “Why am I in Old Cabell Hall and not Kabul, Afghanistan? The reason is very simple. I came here purposely to underscore that in today’s global world, there is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy.”

Kerry’s speech laid out the challenges America’s foreign policy is tasked with tackling, from AIDS and gender inequality to conflict and climate change—he was particularly forceful on that last point, getting loud applause when he called safeguarding the planet against the disasters brought on by the shifting climate “the most sacred trust we keep for our children and grandchildren.”

But if there was one takeaway word from the speech, it was “investment.” The new Secretary repeatedly underscored the need to protect American business interests abroad, while also using targeted aid to turn poor countries into future trade partners. He said people in the U.S. need to remember that despite its relatively tiny budget—just a little over 1 percent of the government’s total spending—the State Department can have a huge impact on the future of American prosperity.

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

All the trade talk wasn’t lost on other watchers. National news reports noted the absence of a mention of any number of major conflicts and other foreign policy challenges in Kerry’s speech—most notably Syria, currently embroiled in a bloody civil war (though he did give a nod to the need for a nuclear-free Iran).

When he did talk war, it was to drive home his point that Americans must not turn inward.

“Today’s first years here at UVA were starting second grade when a small cabal of terrorists halfway around the world shattered our sense of security,” he said. And then he talked directly to those who made up a big portion of the crowd: The students, including the undergrads in Navy dress blues sitting next to me as I tweeted my way through the hourlong speech. “I know that you certainly have always understood that bad things happening over there threatens us over here.”

But, he asked, how do we convince people everywhere that the opposite is true? That looking outward with clear heads and thoughtful aid can make all the difference in the world? That’s his job now, Kerry said—and the job of the country.

“When tragedy and terror visit our neighbors abroad, whether by the hand of man or the hand of God, many nations give of themselves to help, but only one is expected to,” he said as he wrapped up his speech. “We will continue to lead as the indispensible nation, not because we seek this role, but because the world needs us to fill it. Not as a challenge, but as a charge. Not because we view it as a burden, but because we know it to be a privilege.”