Politics & Policy

Kerry’s Budget Hyperbole

He seems to believe that our gravest foreign-policy threat is the sequester.

John Kerry’s first major speech as secretary of state failed to impress. Clocking in at over 50 minutes and more than 6,500 words, the speech still somehow managed to avoid addressing any of America’s major foreign-policy concerns.

#ad#Here’s a tally of what we heard about three nations of primary interest:

  • China was mentioned twice, but only in the contexts of its being our second-largest trading partner and of its investment in Africa. Not mentioned: Chinese cyber attacks on U.S. public-and private-sector computers; China’s support of North Korea, which recently conducted its third nuclear test and threatened to destroy South Korea; Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, which have raised tensions with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines; and Taiwan.


  • Russia merited one mention — for losing to a U.S. company in the bidding to “build Thailand’s newest broadcast satellite.” As for the administration’s “Russian reset” or Moscow’s increasingly belligerent foreign policy — silence.


  • Iran rated but one stock phrase: that Washington would work with “partners around the world” to ensure that Tehran “never obtains a weapon that would endanger our allies and our interests.” But Kerry breathed nary a word about what our working with those partners might entail or how he would change our policy to make U.S. efforts more effective than in the past four years, which have seen Iran make tremendous advances in its continuing quest for nuclear weapons.

Kerry’s speech was remarkable only in that it failed almost entirely to recognize the burning problems his department must handle. Instead, he focused mostly on trade and economic relations — a curious choice, to put it mildly. The Obama administration pointedly disregarded trade throughout its first term. It failed to negotiate a single new trade agreement; it slow-walked congressional approval of pending trade pacts negotiated by the Bush administration; and it failed to renew the “fast-track authority” previous administrations have found to be so useful in advancing trade negotiations.

It would be tempting to say that Kerry’s speech foretells a welcome change of heart in the administration, but the record of the past four years gives plenty of reason for skepticism. Tellingly, Kerry focused not on how America benefits from free trade and free markets, but on how government intervention and support can help “encourage” and “close more investment deals.”

Ostensibly, the goal of Kerry’s speech was to “underscore that in today’s global world, there is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy.” But the real purpose emerged in the summation, when he said:

My credibility as a diplomat working to help other countries create order is strongest when America, at last, puts its own fiscal house in order, and that has to be now.

Think about it. It’s hard to tell the leadership of any number of countries that they have to resolve their economic issues if we don’t resolve our own. Let’s reach a responsible agreement that prevents these senseless cuts. Let’s not lose this opportunity because of politics. [Emphasis added.]

Kerry appears oblivious to the fact that increasing taxes will not resolve the fundamental long-term budget problem. Unless our rapidly increasing entitlement spending is brought to heel, funding for defense and foreign policy will come under increasing pressure.

Nevertheless, Kerry clearly believes that the most immediate threat to America is not anything one of the troublesome countries mentioned above might do, but rather the likelihood that his budget will be trimmed under the sequester.

Let’s take a look at the actual impact. According to the Historical Tables (pp. 71 and 74) in the White House’s FY 2013 budget, annual outlays for International Affairs more than doubled from 2002 to 2011, when they reached $45.7 billion. Adjusted for inflation, they increased by over 60 percent. The Tables estimate that those outlays have climbed even further since 2011, to $56.3 billion in 2012 and $59.6 billion in 2013.

The Congressional Budget Office says the sequester will result in a 5.3 percent reduction for non-defense discretionary spending. Nearly the entire International Affairs budget falls into this category. Thus, the sequester would reduce the International Affairs budget by $3.2 billion, based on the estimated 2013 budget of $59.6 billion.

That sounds like a lot. Secretary Kerry might even say, “Mon Dieu!” But let’s keep it in perspective. A $3.2 billion reduction would slash the International Affairs budget to levels not seen since . . . 2012.

Granted, the budget data for 2012 and 2013 are estimates and may be adjusted in the president’s new budget for 2014. But the president has violated, for the third year in a row, the legal deadline for submitting his budget to Congress, so it is difficult to verify this.

Regardless, the post-sequester budget for 2013 will almost certainly be above the 2011 budget outlay of $45.7 billion for International Affairs — hardly a dark, austere period for the State Department.

No one likes budget cuts applied in an indiscriminate manner, but there is no avoiding the fact that federal spending — even entitlement spending — needs to be curtailed. The International Affairs budget, like the rest of the federal budget, has grown significantly over the last decade and should not be immune. Secretary Kerry’s suggestion that a return to 2011 or 2012 budget levels represents a grave foreign-policy threat is ludicrous.

― Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

Brett D. SchaeferBrett D. Schaefer is The Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs.

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