Trade has become a hot-button issue on the campaign trail and jeopardizes the prospects of ratifying the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) and completing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) currently being negotiated.
In a speech to government, civic and academic members of the Pacific Council in Los Angeles, Kerry lashed out at politicians whom he accused of exploiting the "sense of anxiety" about the deals as well as the "legitimate anger" of those hurting in the current economy.
"Commentators and politicians on both sides of the political spectrum fan flames and tap into that fear," he said.
"And they miss the point -- some for lack of understanding, some purposefully to exploit the fear and the anger," he continued. "The problem is not trade itself. It is the lack of adequate social and economic support for the people most affected."
Leading Republican and Democratic candidates are touting an anti-trade message. GOP front-runner Donald Trump claims the United States has gotten a raw deal out of the global economy and promised to retaliate against imports and companies that set up factories overseas despite his own overseas businesses. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, his main rival, has also opposed TPP.
On the Democratic side, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is a staunch opponent of TPP and has attacked his rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who praised TPP while in office but now has voiced concerns with the deal.
The TPP, which involves 12 Pacific Rim countries spanning 40% of the world's economies, still needs the approval of Congress before it takes effect in the United States.
Unions and many of their Democratic backers have opposed the pact, complicating the Obama administration's efforts to get it ratified. While Republican leaders have largely voiced support for it, they have not been eager to hold a vote, particularly as outrage over free trade has helped build support for Trump among the GOP grass roots.
The White House and several Republican leaders have said it would create jobs by making it easier for millions of people in other nations to buy U.S. goods. But many Democrats and unions have said that the TPP would hurt trade and investment and make it easier for businesses to move jobs elsewhere, hurting U.S. workers.
Kerry on Tuesday warned of economic disaster should the U.S. revert to a policy of raising tariffs on foreign competitors, which could spark trade wars.
"Protectionism isn't the remedy to economic pain, and it's not even a harmless placebo; it's the way to stop our economy and this new world we're living in dead in its tracks," he said.
He separately argued: "The primary reason old jobs disappear is not trade, it's technology, and it's certainly not trade agreements."
The top U.S. diplomat also emphasized the national security impact of the TPP, saying strengthening economic ties with key allies in Asia will help foster better cooperation on combating terrorism, fighting poverty and solving other national security challenges.
China, the world's second-largest economy, is not part of the agreement, and Kerry noted that Beijing is working on a similar deal with 16 Asian nations and would likely not adhere to the same standards for labor, climate or intellectual property.
"TPP is the highest-standard trade deal ever reached -- period," he said.