What we don’t know, can hurt us

Thanks to Carl Cannon, Washington Bureau Chief of Real Clear Politics (@carlcannon) for helping me find a voice to help me write about the survival of democracy abroad and here at home. His January 18 Morning Note continued his previous day’s look at what Washington, Eisenhower, and JFK said during their transitions in and out of office. It has great relevance today.

Overseas, the regression in democratic governance in the Middle East, North Africa, and Africa is daunting. Presidents-for-life, fragile and failing states, civil strife, security concerns trumping human rights, and growing polarization and wealth inequality are some of the more obvious trends making regional stability and security precarious. What then are the consequences if America does not promote nation-building, if it is content to let bilateral relations with Russia and China shape the interests of many countries, and if our foreign relations can be reduced to transactions and zero-sum calculations?

It is also interesting that those critical of the new Administration’s perceived tolerance if not preference for strong leaders abroad, gloss over the support that America has given to authoritarian leaders throughout our modern history to promote security and trade relations. More troubling is not examining the potential erosion of constitutional checks and balances when Congress, the Executive, and the Supreme Court are controlled by a single political party, headed by someone who takes umbrage at those who disagree with him.

As one of the “Western” democracies, we have institutions that are guarantors of America’s national democratic values including human rights, justice, equality before the law, access to basic social and educational services, protection of minorities, and relatively open participation in the country’s political space, values built on collaboration and tolerance (although I would prefer respect…). I’m not sure that anyone can define these anymore to the satisfaction of all Americans.

During the campaign, I described Mr. Trump’s foreign policy statements as chauvinistic, for “displaying aggressive or exaggerated patriotism.” Whatever the topic, he knew instinctively that he could rally and attract supporters by strong and often provocative statements.

On the other hand, reading Carl Cannon made me think about evocative statements that call us to higher standards of thinking and behavior, which seem to be absent in the incoming Administration.

JFK said, “”Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” No weaknesses in that vow, as Kennedy concluded: “And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

Cannon notes that today, “Benefiting from half-a-century’s worth of hindsight, however, most presidential scholars now consider Eisenhower’s farewell address more substantive than Kennedy’s speech.”

General Eisenhower and Prime Minister Churchill at the Rhine. Image from Shapshooter46

Looking back at the wars in the 20th century, Eisenhower said, “Despite these holocausts America is today the strongest, the most influential and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.”

He went on, “Throughout America’s adventure in free government, such basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among peoples and among nations…To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people.”

Eisenhower laid down a challenge saying, “Any failure traceable to arrogance or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us a grievous hurt, both at home and abroad.” He spoke of the need to find balance in our political sensibilities. “Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”

He concluded, “We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”

For a warrior turned public servant, wise words borne of a life of deep experiences that evoke us to a higher ground.


Image of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy from FinnCamera

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