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Kerry defends foreign affairs spending as U.S. cuts loom

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry smiles following his meeting with Canada's Foreign Minister John Baird (not pictured) at the State Depart
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry smiles following his meeting with Canada's Foreign Minister John Baird (not pictured) at the State Depart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State John Kerry defended U.S. foreign affairs spending on Wednesday against a backdrop of looming budget cuts, saying it protects U.S. security and creates jobs.

Speaking ahead of across-the-board U.S. budget reductions set to begin on March 1, Kerry argued that the slightly more than 1 percent of the federal budget that Washington spends on foreign affairs pays dividends in national security and growth.

"Foreign assistance is not a giveaway. It's not charity. It is an investment in a strong America and in a free world," Kerry said at the University of Virginia, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson, the first U.S. secretary of state.

He said the vacuum left by U.S. retreat from the world could foster failed states that become bases for attacks on the United States, whereas foreign aid can help other nations become customers for U.S. goods and sympathetic to American values.

"Deploying diplomats today is much cheaper than deploying troops tomorrow," he added the Charlottesville, Virginia, speech, his first major address since replacing Hillary Clinton as secretary of state on February 1.

Kerry, who leaves Sunday on a nine-nation trip to Western Europe and the Middle East, did not discuss in detail his approach to thorny issues such as the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and Syria's civil war.

His trip, from Sunday through March 6, will take him to London, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Ankara, Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha.

Instead, he focused on the possibility of the automatic spending cuts, known in Washington jargon as "sequestration," that may kick in on March 1, as well as a general defense of U.S. engagement in the world.

Sequestration would slice $2.6 billion from the budget for the State Department and the U.S. development aid agency, Kerry said last week, arguing this would undercut U.S. diplomacy and security at a time of turmoil across the Middle East and Africa.

"When a shrinking world clashes with calls for shrinking budgets ... it's our job to connect those dots ... for the American people between what we do over there and the size of the difference that it makes over here at home," he said.

"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," he added.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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