Secretary of State John F. Kerry is no longer subject to the whims of voters, ill-informed or not. And that's why Kerry had the freedom to deliver an important truth in his first speech as secretary: Not only is foreign aid not a drain on the budget, but it's a cost-effective investment toward peace.
Kerry wryly described himself as a "recovering politician" when he said, "I can tell you that nothing gets a crowd clapping faster than to say, 'I'm going to Washington to get them to stop spending all that money over there.'" In truth, Kerry noted, the foreign aid budget is a miniscule part of the federal budget and getting rid of it would do nothing substantive to reduce the deficit. "Deploying diplomats today is much cheaper than deploying troops tomorrow," Kerry said in his address at the University of Virginia this week.
Foreign aid is a wildly unpopular budget item, with the presumption (as with congressional earmarks) that the money is doing nothing important and could be better used somewhere else. But the reality is that foreign aid, especially when it is wisely directed, serves as a sort of diplomatic flu shot, preventing crises later on and helping to build just societies—communities that will not only be more humane, but will be more politically stable. Decent people don't want people starving anywhere in the world. But there is a political calculation as well. Countries where people are desperate and hungry are more likely to become incubators of violence and unrest, creating situations that could become far more costly to the United States later on.
Aid isn't always in the form of assistance to a government. There are programs, for example, that provide microloans to women in developing countries so they can turn a scarf-making talent into a small business. It doesn't cost a lot of money, it builds a small business economy, and it empowers women abroad—all good things.
Kerry indeed had criticized the money spent rebuilding Iraq after the war, noting during his 2003-04 presidential campaign that "we should not be opening firehouses in Baghdad and shutting them in the United States of America." But to suggest, as the Washington Post's Al Kamen did recently, that Kerry has done an abrupt about-face on foreign aid is a bit unfair. Kerry was rightly noting the unfairness of rebuilding a nation damaged by an ill-conceived war at the expense of rebuilding deteriorating cities in America. He wasn't slamming the idea of foreign aid as a concept, and he certainly wasn't among that cadre of Capitol Hill lawmakers who bragged about not having passports.
Kerry may have a hard time, in the current budget crunch, of convincing his former colleagues of the efficacy of certain types of foreign assistance. But now that he has the bullhorn, he's wise to use it.