02/21/2013 08:18 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

A Recovering Politician's Jeffersonian Vision

On Wednesday morning at the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson's hallowed Grounds, John Kerry gave his first speech as Secretary of State. He began by asking, "Why Cabell Hall instead of Kabul?" He suggested that the answer to that question is because wise investment in foreign policy is just as invaluable as the investment in a student's education. That investment must begin with educating the American public about how today's expenditures overseas pay long-term dividends. Standing beneath a mural of the "School of Athens," Kerry then laid out his vision of U.S. foreign policy. He argued that it must be based on exercising our power "in pursuit of preventing disasters, strengthening alliances, building markets, promoting universal rights, and standing up for our values" around the world. He further emphasized that this vision must begin with investment in far-reaching goals in spite of the fact that we are experiencing budgetary constraints here at home. At a rate of only 1 percent of our national budget, we are dedicating very little to the prosperity and insurance of our future economic and political might. Implying that the State Department acts as our nation's ounce of prevention to a military pound of cure, Kerry asserted, "Deploying diplomats today is much less expensive than deploying troops tomorrow." The job then of these diplomats is to convince foreign countries and people to accept the values of equality and democracy that we hold dear.

This can be accomplished in a number of ways: by seeking to mitigate suffering from devastating diseases, such as AIDS and malaria; by giving young people around the world economic opportunities to avoid the mass unemployment that can often lead to extremism; and by seeking to promote equality for all.

Nowhere is this kind of work more important than Africa. Here are a few incredible statistics: seven of the fastest growing countries in the world are in Africa. Sixty percent of the population in Africa and the Middle East are under 30 years of age. Eleven of our current top fifteen trading partners were recipients of economic aid. In light of these numbers, the argument for economic intervention in Africa becomes all the stronger. Citing evidence about the expenditures we made rebuilding Europe and Japan after World War II, Kerry implied that the Marshall Plan can be a template for Africa. If we spent this kind of money creating infrastructure, improving public health, and bettering the lives of citizens, Africa could enter the global economy and become an ally to our interests rather than being a source of instability.

In contrast to our first Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson's views regarding foreign policy, which leaned towards isolationism, Kerry looked more to President Jefferson's utilization of military and economic power abroad. More than 200 years after Jefferson committed troops to quell the Barbary pirates, the United States' first overseas military action, we are once again embroiled in conflict in North Africa. Much as Jefferson believed in exercising the pen to facilitate bloodless conquest, emblematized most significantly by the Louisiana Purchase, Secretary Kerry focused on our ability to leverage support for ourselves abroad by investing in BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), other emerging markets, and most importantly in Africa in general. In order for the U.S. to protect itself from the ambitions of new rivals, most notably China, the emerging marketplace of African nations are fundamental to our economic and national security. The combined effort of our military forces and a stronger diplomatic core will be essential in realizing that goal.

As opposed to our first overseas engagement, we are facing much more than pirates attempting to extort gold and treasure for personal gain. We face an enemy that is committed to our destruction. In order for the U.S. to obviate the danger of these extremists, we should push strongly for increased influence in the African sphere. We should also attempt to stymy our rivals' push inward into the mineral rich continent through diplomatic, economic and, when necessary, military force. We can do this by focusing on how our system of values and constant drive towards an improving democracy can free people of the deprivations in which so many people across the continent find themselves.

Some may say we should not be interested in this type of nation building, that we need to focus more on our problems here at home. That might be true if the effort to open access to new and emerging markets was not a long-term, prolonged, and determined effort. Half-heartedness and lack of earnestness will doom such efforts. While it is often terribly difficult to maintain long-term focus, even in our personal lives, the lack of consistent pressure in foreign affairs is not an option. Investing in our future is hard, but when we enjoy the fruits of that labor, are they not all the sweeter in the knowledge that we have benefited by them so significantly? Secretary Kerry evoked a sense of that commitment and its fruits. It would be a shame to see our past and his and others' future efforts inhibited or minimized by today's budgetary concerns. I hope that Americans as a whole have the capacity to pass the marshmallow test. I am sure future generations would hope for the same.