John Kerry’s First Address as Secretary of State Transcript
Thank you. Thank you very, very much. Thank you. Good morning. Thank you for an extraordinarily warm welcome, Charlotte. I am really honored to be here.
Senator Tim Kaine, thank you very, very much for your generous words of introduction. Tim, as he mentioned, has only been on the Foreign Relations Committee, I guess now for a total of a few weeks, but I can, based on his testimony a moment ago, positively commend him on his voting record. (Laughter and applause.) He’s really – he’s found himself new job security too, because here in Virginia you have a single-term governor for four years, so he has traded one single four-year term for a six-year term with potential extension. (Laughter.) So given the fact that I traded the several extensions for a four-year term and then I’m finished, maybe he knows something and I ought to be listening to him. (Laughter.) I could learn a thing or two from him.
We didn’t overlap for long, but I want to tell everybody here that we know each other pretty well from service as a Lieutenant Governor and when he was Governor of the state. I was Lieutenant Governor of my state, so we have that in common before being senators.
I’ll tell you a quick story. And I don’t know what you do in Virginia as Lieutenant Governor, but in Massachusetts, once upon a time Calvin Coolidge was Lieutenant Governor. And he was at a dinner party, and his dinner partner turned to him and said, “What do you do?” And he said, “Well, I’m Calvin Coolidge. I’m Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts.” And she said, “Oh wow, that must be really interesting. Tell me all about the job.” And he said, “I just did.” (Laughter.) So I trust, because they embraced you and me, we made something more out of it.
But I have huge admiration for the path that Tim Kaine has followed. I know his sense of what America means to the world was forged in the early days that Congressman Hurt referred to about his missionary work, the Catholic missionary working in Honduras, just helping other people to live healthier lives. And I know, because two weeks after the election, Tim called me and he asked if he could serve on the Foreign Relations Committee. Well, in the Senate, I will tell you, you don’t always get those calls. People who step forward and volunteer in that way on a committee that doesn’t have the opportunity to bring bacon back home and perhaps deliver it as easy a reelection. So I know that in Tim Kaine, Virginia has a senator who’s going to make his mark on that committee, and he’s going to make the mark for your commonwealth and our country, and we’re grateful for your service, Tim. Thank you very, very much. (Applause.)
I also am particularly grateful for Congressman Robert Hurt being here today. I have left partisan politics and it’s wonderful for me to be able to welcome people in the complete spirit of nonpartisanship, not just bipartisan, but nonpartisanship. And I’m particularly grateful to him for his service in the state legislature, in both houses, now in the House, and I’m confident from the words you expressed and the conversation we had, you’re going to make your contribution too. And I thank you for your presence here today. (Applause.)
President Sullivan, thank you so much for welcoming me here to this historic, remarkable campus. I just feasted on the view as I walked across the lawn with President Sullivan, and I have to say you all are very lucky to go to school here. (Laughter.) It is an honor to join you here on Grounds – (laughter and applause) – this very, very beautiful monument to the potential of the human mind. And I have to tell you, to stand here beneath the gaze of the sages of Athens, those thinkers who gave us the idea of democracy, which we obviously still continue to perfect, not only in our own nation but around the world, we are grateful for that.
I will tell you also, I was here a long time ago as an undergraduate. I played lacrosse down on that field over there against you guys, and my first act of diplomacy is literally to forget who won. I have no idea. I don’t know. (Laughter.)
I want to thank the folks in uniform. I want to thank the ROTC and all those of you who have served and will continue to serve in some way for our nation. There is no greater declaration of citizenship than that, and I happen to believe the word “citizen” is one of the most important in the American lexicon.
Some might ask why I’m standing here at the University of Virginia, why am I starting here? A Secretary of State making his first speech in the United States? You might ask, “Doesn’t diplomacy happen over there, overseas, far beyond the boundaries of our own backyards?”
So why is it that I am at the foot of the Blue Ridge instead of on the shores of the Black Sea? Why am I in Old Cabell Hall and not Kabul, Afghanistan? (Laughter.)
The reason is very simple. I came here purposefully to underscore that in today’s global world, there is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy. More than ever before, the decisions that we make from the safety of our shores don’t just ripple outward; they also create a current right here in America. How we conduct our foreign policy matters more than ever before to our everyday lives, to the opportunities of all those students I met standing outside, whatever year they are here, thinking about the future. 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. That’s why I’m here today.
I’m here because our lives as Americans are more intertwined than ever before with the lives of people in parts of the world that we may have never visited. In the global challenges of diplomacy, development, economic security, environmental security, you will feel our success or failure just as strongly as those people in those other countries that you’ll never meet. For all that we have gained in the 21st century, we have lost the luxury of just looking inward. Instead, we look out and we see a new field of competitors. I think it gives us much reason to hope. But it also gives us many more rivals determined to create jobs and opportunities for their own people, a voracious marketplace that sometimes forgets morality and values.
I know that some of you and many across the country wish that globalization would just go away, or you wistfully remember easier times. But, my friends, no politician, no matter how powerful, can put this genie back in the bottle. So our challenge is to tame the worst impulses of globalization even as we harness its ability to spread information and possibility, to offer even the most remote place on Earth the same choices that have made us strong and free.
So before I leave this weekend to listen to our allies and partners next week throughout Europe and the Middle East, and in the coming months across Asia, Africa, and the Americas, I wanted to first talk with you about the challenge that we face here at home, because our engagement with the rest of the world begins by making some important choices together, and particularly about our nation’s budget. Our sense of shared responsibility, that we care about something bigger than ourselves, is absolutely central to the spirit of this school. It’s also central to the spirit of our nation.
As you well know, and Dr. Sullivan reminded you a moment ago, our first Secretary of State founded this great university. Students of his day, when he did, could basically only study law or medicine or religion. That was about it. But Thomas Jefferson had a vision, and he believed that the American people needed a public place to learn a diversity of disciplines – studies of science and space, of flora, fauna, and philosophy. He built this university in the image of what he called “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”
Today, those of you who study here and who teach here, along with the taxpayers, contributors, and parents who believe in your potential, you are all investing in Mr. Jefferson’s vision. Now think for a moment about what that means. Why do you spend the many days and the borrowed dollars it takes to earn an education here, or anywhere? Why did Jefferson want this institution to remain public and accessible, not just to Virginians but as a destination from everywhere? I know that he wasn’t thinking just about your getting a degree and a job. It was about something more. Jefferson believed we couldn’t be a strong country without investing in the kind of education that empowers us to be good citizens. That’s why founding this university is among the few accomplishments that Jefferson listed on his epitaph that he wrote for himself. To him, this place and its goal was a bigger part of his legacy than serving as Secretary of State or even as President, neither of which made the cut.
Just as Jefferson understood that we need to invest in education in order to produce good citizens, I join President Obama today in asserting with urgency that our citizenry deserves a strong foreign policy to protect our interests in the world. A wise investment in foreign policy can yield for a nation the same return that education does for a student. And no investment that we make that is as small as this investment puts forward such a sizeable benefit for ourselves and for our fellow citizens of the world. That’s why I wanted to have this conversation with you today, which I hope is a conversation that extends well beyond the borders of Charlottesville, well beyond this university, to all Americans.
When I talk about a small investment in foreign policy in the United States, I mean it. Not so long ago, someone polled the American people and asked, “How big is our international affairs budget?” Most pegged it at 25 percent of our national budget, and they thought it ought to be pared way back to ten percent of our national budget. Let me tell you, would that that were true. I’d take ten percent in a heartbeat, folks – (laughter) – because ten percent is exactly ten times greater than what we do invest in our efforts to protect America around the world.
In fact, our whole foreign policy budget is just over one percent of our national budget. Think about it a little bit. Over one percent, a little bit more, funds all of our civilian and foreign affairs efforts – every embassy, every program that saves a child from dirty drinking water, or from AIDS, or reaches out to build a village, and bring America’s values, every person. We’re not talking about pennies on the dollar; we’re talking about one penny plus a bit, on a single dollar.
So where you think this idea comes from, that we spend 25 percent of our budget? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s pretty simple. As a recovering politician – (laughter) – I can tell you that nothing gets a crowd clapping faster in a lot of places than saying, “I’m going to Washington to get them to stop spending all that money over there.” And sometimes they get a lot more specific.
If you’re looking for an applause line, that’s about as guaranteed an applause line as you can get. But guess what? It does nothing to guarantee our security. It doesn’t guarantee a stronger country. It doesn’t guarantee a sounder economy or a more stable job market. It doesn’t guarantee that the best interests of our nation are being served. It doesn’t guarantee that another young American man or woman won’t go and lose their life because we weren’t willing to make the right investments here in the first place.
We need to say no to the politics of the lowest common denominator and of simplistic slogans, and start making real choices that protect the interests of our country. That’s imperative. (Applause.)
Unfortunately, the State Department doesn’t have our own Grover Norquist pushing a pledge to protect it. We don’t have millions of AARP seniors who send in their dues and rally to protect America’s investments overseas. The kids whose lives we’re helping save from AIDS, the women we’re helping to free from the horrors of sex trafficking, the students who, for the first time, can choose to walk into a school instead of into a short life of terrorism – their strongest lobbyists are the rare, committed Americans who stand up for them and for the resources that we need to help them. And I hope that includes all of you here and many listening.
You understand why. Every time that a tough fiscal choice looms, the easiest place to point fingers – foreign aid. As Ronald Reagan said, foreign aid suffers from a lack of domestic constituency, and that’s part of the reason that everyone thinks it costs a lot more than it really does. So we need to change that. I reject the excuse that Americans just aren’t interested in what’s happening outside of their immediate field of vision. I don’t believe that about any one of you sitting here, and I don’t believe that about Americans.
In fact, the real domestic constituency for what we do, if people can see the dots connected and understand what we’re doing in its full measure, is really large. It’s the 314 million Americans whose lives are better every day because of what we do, and who, deep down, when they have time to stop and think about it, know that our investment abroad actually makes them and our nation safer.
Now, my friends, in this age, when a shrinking world clashes with calls for shrinking budgets – and we’re not alone – it’s our job to connect those dots, to connect them for the American people between what we do over there and the size of the difference that it makes over here at home, why the price of abandoning our global efforts would be exorbitant, and why the vacuum we would leave by retreating within ourselves will quickly be filled by those whose interests differ dramatically from ours.
We learned that lesson in the deserts of Mali recently, in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2001, and in the tribal areas of Pakistan even today. Just think: Today’s first-years here at UVA were starting the second grade when a small cabal of terrorists halfway around the world shattered our sense of security and our stability, our skylines. So I know that you certainly have always understood that bad things happening over there threaten us right here.
Knowing that, the question is this: How do we, together, make clear that the opposite is just as true; that if we do the right things, the good things, the smart things over there, it will strengthen us here at home?
Let me tell you my answer: I believe we do this in two ways. First, it’s about telling the story of how we stand up for American jobs and businesses – pretty practical, pretty straightforward, and pretty real on a day-to-day basis. And second, it’s about how we stand up for our American values, something that has always distinguished America.
I agree with President Obama that there is nothing in this current budget fight that requires us to make bad decisions, that forces us to retrench or to retreat. This is a time to continue to engage for the sake of the safety and the economic health of our country. This is not optional. It is a necessity. The American people understand this, I believe. Our businesses understand this. It’s simple. The more they sell abroad, the more they’re going to hire here at home. And since 95 percent of the world’s customers live outside of our country, we can’t hamstring our own ability to compete in those increasingly growing markets.
Virginia understands this as well as any state in the union. Senator Kaine, I know, when a governor, took those trips to try to make this happen. International trade supports more than a million jobs right here in Virginia – more than one in five jobs in Virginia, which actually today is the story of America.
You have a company up near Dulles called Orbital Sciences Corporation. With the help of the persistent advocates of our Embassy in Bangkok, it beat out French and Russian competitors to build Thailand’s newest broadcast satellite. Virginia’s Orbital is now teaming up with a California company called Space Exploration Technologies that makes satellite equipment. The deal that our Embassy helped secure, valued at $160 million, goes right back into American communities from coast to coast. That’s the difference that our embassies abroad actually can make back here at home.
And these success stories happen in partnership with countries all over the world because of the resources that we’ve deployed to bring business and jobs back to America. These investments, my friends, are paying for themselves. We create more than 5,000 jobs for every billion dollars of goods and services that we export. So the last thing that we should do is surrender this kind of leverage.
These successes are happening in Canada, where State Department officers there got a local automotive firm to invest tens of millions of dollars in Michigan, where the American auto industry is now making a remarkable comeback.
In Indonesia where, thanks to Embassy Jakarta, that nation’s largest privately run airline just placed an order for commercial aircraft, the largest order Boeing has ever been asked to fill. Meanwhile, the Indonesian state railroad is buying its locomotives from General Electric.
In South Africa, where more than 600 U.S. companies are doing business, and where OPIC, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the Export-Import Bank, and the Trade and Development Agency just opened an office to help close more investment deals between American companies and Africa’s booming energy and transportation sectors, it’s also a two-way street. A major South African energy company is planning to build a multibillion-dollar plant in Louisiana that will put more Americans to work.
Let me tell you, this is happening, in Cameroon and Bosnia and other surprising places. In the shadows of World War II, if you told someone that Japan and Germany would today be our fourth- and fifth-largest trading partners, someone would have thought you were crazy. Before Nixon’s bold opening with China, no one could have imagined that today it would be our second-largest trading partner, but that’s exactly what’s happened.
Eleven of our top 15 trading partners used to be the beneficiaries of U.S. foreign assistance. That’s because our goal isn’t to keep a nation dependent on us forever. It’s precisely to create these markets, to open these opportunities, to establish rule of law. Our goal is to use assistance and development to help nations realize their own potential, develop their own ability to govern and become our economic partners.
One of America’s most incredible realities continues to be that we are a country without any permanent enemies. Now, take Vietnam. I will never forget standing next to John McCain in the East Room of the White House, each of us on either side of President Clinton as he announced the once unthinkable normalization of our relations with Vietnam, an effort that John McCain and I worked on for about ten years, try to bring about.
In the last decade, thanks in large part to the work of USAID, our exports to Vietnam increased by more than 700 percent. Every one of those percentage points are jobs here in America. And in the last two decades, a thousand Vietnamese students and scholars have studied and taught in America through the Fulbright program, including the Foreign Minister of Vietnam, who I just talked to the other day and who, believe me, has feelings about America because of that engagement.
The list goes on. As the emerging middle class in India, the world’s largest democracy, buys our products, that means jobs and income for our own middle class. As our traditional assistance to Brazil decreases, trade there is increasing. Brazil is one of the new tigers growing at a double-digit pace, and it supports additional jobs here at home, many in the U.S. travel and tourism industry.
When Jefferson expanded our consular posts precisely to promote trade, he never could have imagined the importance today. Nor could he have predicted the number of Americans abroad that we help with their passports, with visas, with other problems that arise. Or that we help offer, to those who want to grow their families through adoption, or who find themselves in legal trouble or distress far from home. Or the role our diplomats play, screening potential security threats and taking them off the radar screen before they ever reach your consciousness, potentially in the worst ways. Or that we create a new American job for every 65 visitors that we help to bring to our shores.
So, my friends, we have to keep going. We can’t afford the kind of delay and disruption that stands on the horizon in Washington. The exciting new trade negotiation that President Obama announced last week between the United States and the European Union will create the world’s biggest bilateral deal when it comes to fruition, a transatlantic partnership that will match the scope and ambition of our Trans-Pacific Partnership talks.
But our work is far from over. Seven of the ten fastest growing countries are on the African continent. And China, understanding that, is already investing more than we do there. Four of the five biggest oil and natural gas discoveries happened off the coast of Mozambique last year alone. Developing economies are the epicenters of growth, and they are open for business, and the United States needs to be at that table.
If we want a new list of assistance graduates, countries that used to take our aid but now buy our exports, we can’t afford to pull back. And if we’re going to seize this budget crisis as the great opportunity that it can be, we can’t shy away from telling this story to the American people, to your members of Congress, and to the world.
But let me emphasize: Jobs and trade are not the whole story, and nor should they be. The good work of the State Department, of USAID, is measured not only in the value of the dollar, but it’s also measured in our deepest values. We value security and stability in other parts of the world, knowing that failed states are among our greatest security threats, and new partners are our greatest assets.
The investments that we make support our efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism wherever it flourishes. And we will continue to help countries provide their own security, use diplomacy where possible, and support those allies who take the fight to terrorists.
And remember – boy, I can’t emphasize this enough; I’m looking at a soldier here in front of me with a ribbon on his chest – deploying diplomats today is much cheaper than deploying troops tomorrow. We need to remember that. (Applause.) As Senator Lindsey Graham said, “It’s national security insurance that we’re buying.”
Now, it sounds expensive, my friends, but simple bottom line, it’s not. The State Department’s conflict stabilization budget is about $60 million a year now. That’s how much the movie “The Avengers” took in on a single Sunday last May. (Laughter.) The difference is the folks that we have on the ground doing this job are actually real superheroes.
We value human rights, and we need to tell the story of America’s good work there, too. We know that the most effective way to promote the universal rights of all people, rights and religious freedom, is not from the podium, not from either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s from the front lines – wherever freedom and basic human dignity are denied. And that’s what Tim Kaine understood when he went to Honduras.
The brave employees of State and USAID – and the Diplomatic Security personnel who protect the civilians serving us overseas – work in some of the most dangerous places on Earth, and they do it fully cognizant that we share stronger partnerships with countries that share our commitment to democratic values and human rights. They fight corruption in Nigeria. They support the rule of law in Burma. They support democratic institutions in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia, mindful from our own experience that it takes a long time to get democracy right, and that it rarely happens right away.
In the end, all of those efforts, all of that danger and risk that they take, makes us more secure. And we do value democracy, just as you’ve demonstrated here at UVA through the Presidential Precinct program that’s training leaders in emerging democracies.
Thanks to a decade of intensive diplomatic efforts alongside our partners, a conflict that took more than 2 million lives – and people think about the Holocaust, 6 million over the course of World War II, we lost 2 million people in the longest war in Africa in our time in the last years. And of that South Sudan was born a free nation. Securing its future and peace for all of its citizens is going to take continued diplomatic efforts alongside partners like the African Union. And the more we can develop the capacity of the African Union, the less the United States will have to worry.
I’ve stood in South Sudan. I’ve seen those challenges firsthand, and they still face the world’s newest country and its government. Those challenges threaten to reverse hard-won progress and stability. And that’s why we’re working closely with that nation to help it provide its own citizens with essential services like water, health, and education and agriculture practices.
We value health and nutrition, and the principle of helping people gain strength to help themselves. Through cornerstone initiatives like Feed the Future, we help countries not only plant and harvest better food, but we also help them break the cycle of poverty, of poor nutrition, and of hunger.
We seek to reduce maternal mortality, eradicate polio, and protect people from malaria, tuberculosis, and pandemic influenza. And I will tell you proudly that through the Global Health Initiative and programs that I was proud to have a hand in helping to create, like PEPFAR, we have saved the lives of 5 million people in Africa through the efforts of Americans. Today… (Applause.) And today – today astonishingly – we are standing on the edge of the potential of an AIDS-free generation, because we know these diseases don’t discriminate by nationality, and we believe that relieving preventable suffering doesn’t need a justification. And I think that’s part of our values.
We value gender equality, knowing that countries are, in fact, more peaceful and prosperous when women and girls are afforded full rights and equal opportunity. (Applause.) In the last decade, the proportion of African* women enrolled in higher education went from nearly zero to 20 percent. In 2002, there were fewer than a million boys in Afghan schools and barely any girls. Now, with America’s help, more than a third of the almost 8 million students going to school in Afghanistan are girls. And more than a quarter of their representatives in parliament are women. We should be proud of that, and that helps to make a difference for the long haul.
We value education, promoting programs like the Fulbright exchanges managed by the Department of State. They enable the most talented citizens to share their devotion to diplomacy and peace, their hopes, their friendships, and the belief that all of the Earth’s sons and daughters ought to have the opportunity to lift themselves up. Today these exchanges bring hundreds of thousands of students to America from other countries, and vice versa. In the last year alone, more than 10,000 citizens of foreign countries participated in the State Department’s academic, youth, professional and cultural exchange programs right here in Virginia. Virginians also studied abroad through State Department programs. Senator Fulbright, at whose hearings I had the privilege of testifying as a young veteran returning from Vietnam, he knew that the value of sharing our proudest values bore fruit in the long run, in the future. He said, “Having people who understand your thought,” he said, “is much greater security than another submarine.”
Let me be very clear. Foreign assistance is not a giveaway. It’s not charity. It is an investment in a strong America and in a free world. Foreign assistance lifts other people up and then reinforces their willingness to link arms with us in common endeavors. And when we help others crack down on corruption, that makes it easier for our own compliance against corruption, and it makes it easier for our companies to do business as well.
When we join with other nations to reduce the nuclear threat, we build partnerships that mean we don’t have to fight those battles alone. This includes working with our partners around the world in making sure that Iran never obtains a weapon that would endanger our allies and our interests. When we help others create the space that they need to build stability in their own communities, we’re actually helping brave people build a better, more democratic future, and making sure that we don’t pay more later in American blood and treasure.
The stories that we need to tell, of standing up for American jobs and businesses and standing up for our American values, intersect powerfully in the opportunity that we have now in this moment of urgency to lead on the climate concerns that we share with our global neighbors. We as a nation must have the foresight and the courage to make the investments necessary to safeguard the most sacred trust we keep for our children and our grandchildren, and that is an environment not ravaged by rising seas, deadly superstorms, devastating droughts, and the other hallmarks of a dramatically changing climate. President Obama is committed to moving forward on that, and so am I, and so must you be ready to join us in that effort. (Applause.)
Can we all say thank you to our signers who are here? (Applause.)
So think about all these things that I’ve listed. Think about the world as you see it today. Let’s face it: We are all in this one together. No nation can stand alone. We share nothing so completely as our planet. When we work with others, large and small, to develop and deploy the clean technologies that will power a new world – and they’re there waiting for us, $6 trillion market, huge amount of jobs – when we do that, we know we’re helping create the new markets and new opportunities for America’s second-to-none innovators and entrepreneurs so that we can succeed in the next great revolution in our marketplace. We need to commit ourselves to doing the smart thing and the right thing and to truly take on this challenge, because if we don’t rise to meet it, then rising temperatures and rising sea levels will surely lead to rising costs down the road. Ask any insurance company in America. If we waste this opportunity, it may be the only thing our generation – generations – are remembered for. We need to find the courage to leave a far different legacy.
We cannot talk about the unprecedented changes happening on our planet, moreover, without also talking about the unprecedented changes in its population, another great opportunity at our fingertips. In countries across North Africa and the Middle East, the majority of people are younger than 30 years old – 60 percent under 30, 50 percent under 21, 40 percent under 18, about half of the total under 20. And you know what? They seek the same opportunities and the same things that you do: opportunity. We have an interest in helping these young people to develop the skills that they need to defeat the mass unemployment that is overwhelming their societies so that they can in fact start contributing to their communities and rebuild their broken economies rather than engaging in some other terrorist or other kind of extremist activity. For the first time in human history, young people around the world act as a global cohort, including many of the people in this room. They’re more open-minded. They’re more proficient with the technology that keeps them connected in a way that no generation in history has ever been before. We need to help all of them, and us, to use this remarkable network in a positive way.
Now, some may say not now, not while we have our budget; it’s too expensive. Well, believe me, my friends, these challenges will not get easier with time. There is no pause button on the future. We cannot choose when we would like to stop and restart our global responsibility or simply wait until the calendar says it’s more convenient. It’s not easy, but responding is the American thing to do. And I’ll tell you, it’s worth it.
Our relatively small investment in these programs – programs which advance peace, security, and stability around the world, which help American companies compete abroad, which create jobs here at home by opening new markets to American goods, which support American citizens abroad, help them when they need it the most, which foster stable societies and save lives by fighting disease and hunger, which defend the universal rights of all people and advance freedom and dignity and development around the world, which bring people together and nations together, and forge partnerships to address problems that transcend the separation of oceans and borders on land, which protect our planet for our children and their children, and which give hope to a new generation of interconnected world citizens – our investment in all of those things cost us, as I just mentioned, about one penny of every dollar we invest. America, you will not find a better deal anywhere.
Now, I’m particularly aware that in many ways, the greatest challenge to America’s foreign policy today is in the hands not of diplomats, but of policymakers in Congress. It is often said that we cannot be strong at home if we’re not strong in the world, but in these days of a looming budget sequester that everyone actually wants to avoid – or most – we can’t be strong in the world unless we are strong at home. 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. (Applause.)
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.
As I’ve said many times before, America is not exceptional simply because we say we are. We are exceptional because we do exceptional things, both where there are problems as well as where there is promise, both where there is danger as well as where there is democracy. I am optimistic that we will continue to do these exceptional things. I know we have the capacity. I know that’s who we are, and it’s who we’ve always been.
As we ask where our next steps should fall on this path, we would do well to learn a lesson from our own history. In the aftermath of World War II and its great toll, America had the choice, just like we do today, to turn inward. Instead, Secretary of State George Marshall saw in both defeated and allied nations the threat of bankruptcy, homes and railways destroyed, people who were starving, economies decimated.
He had the foresight to know that there could be no political stability and no peace without renewed economic strength. He knew we had an obligation to partner with Europe, help it rebuild, modernize it, and give it the push that it needed to become the powerful and peaceful trading partner it is today. After the war, my friends, we didn’t spike the football; we created a more level playing field, and we are stronger for it today.
When I was 12 years old, I had the privilege of living in Berlin, Germany, where my father, a Foreign Service officer, was called to duty. And one day, I visited the eastern side of Berlin, the part that hadn’t received any of the help from the United States and its courageous Marshall Plan.
The difference was undeniable, even to my 12-year-old eyes. There were few people on the streets, few smiles on the faces of those who were there. I saw the difference between hope and despair, freedom and oppression, people who were given a chance to do something and people who weren’t. If the recovering western half of Europe was regaining its vibrant color, the place that I visited was still in black and white.
When I went back to West Berlin, two things happened. First, I was summarily grounded for having ventured without permission to the other side of the city. (Laughter.) And second, I started to pay special attention to the plaques on the buildings that recognized the United States of America for lending a hand in the rebuilding. And I was proud.
The Marshall Plan, the IMF, the World Bank, and other postwar organizations led by the United States are evidence of our ability to make the right decisions at the right time, taking risks today in the interest of tomorrow.
Now we face a similar crossroads. We can be complacent, or we can be competitive. As new markets bloom in every corner of the globe – and they will, with or without us – we can be there to help plant the seeds, or we can cede that power to others.
Given the chance to lead a second great American century, let’s not just look to the global landscape around us today; let’s look to the one ahead of us, look over the horizon, look to the days to come 15 and 50 years from now, and marshal the courage that defined the Marshall Plan so that we might secure a new future of freedom.
Let’s remember that the principles of Jefferson’s time, in a nation that was just getting used to its independence, still echo in our own time, in a world that’s still getting used to our interdependence. America’s national interest in leading strongly still endures in this world.
So let me leave you with a thought. When tragedy and terror visit our neighbors around the globe, whether by the hand of man or by the hand of God, many nations give of themselves to help. But only one is expected to.
With the leadership of President Obama and the cooperation I will work hard to secure from the Congress, we will continue to lead as the indispensable nation, not because we seek this role, but because the world needs us to fill it. Not as a choice, but as a charge. Not because we view it as a burden, but because we know it to be a privilege.
That is what is special about the United States of America. That is what is special about being an American. That exceptional quality that we share is what I will bring with me on my travels on your behalf. But our sense of responsibility cannot be reserved for responses to emergencies alone. It has to be exercised in the pursuit of preventing disaster, of strengthening alliances, of building markets, of promoting universal rights, and standing up for our values.
Over the next four years, I ask you to stand with our President and our country to continue to conduct ourselves with the understanding that what happens over there matters right here, and it matters that we get this right.
Thank you. (Applause.)