Monday, April 28, 2008

Engagement, Not Isolationism

There are a number of reasons one could be excited about the upcoming U.S. presidential elections. The remaining applicants competing for the job are a politically battle-tested former first lady; a charismatic fresh face who has inspired many across generational and racial lines; and a former war hero with a history of political independence.

Each of these candidates has many positive attributes. Yet I remain dismayed that they represent political parties with many adherents who have profoundly incorrect worldviews. In both the Democratic and Republican parties, there is a general lack of confidence in our country’s abilities and a mistrust of those outside our borders.

Among Democrats, this view is manifest chiefly in its opposition to free trade. Hillary Clinton, whose husband’s advocacy of the passage of NAFTA was among his administration’s top achievements, has transformed herself into a champion of protectionism. Barack Obama, no less eager to appeal to heartland voters, sings a similar tune.

A New York Times editorial chastised both earlier this month, reminding them that “trade is good for the economy, providing cheap imports and markets for exports, spurring productivity and raising living standards.” The Times urged the candidates to “offer policies that will help American workers embrace rather than fear a globalized world”, such as increased investments in education and physical capital.

While in Hong Kong last week, I read an excellent column in the Wall Street Journal Asia by Rupert Murdoch in which he spoke out against the protectionist sentiment. Never mind the blathering idiots on his Fox News Channel, Murdoch rightly points out that refusing a trade deal with countries like Colombia sends the message that America does not see them as partners. Murdoch argues that we must help developing countries which share our values of democracy and capitalism achieve prosperity, which will enable us to benefit from their valuable alliance in the future.

Turning to foreign policy, I generally agree with John McCain about the U.S.’s two most important engagements abroad. I am an advocate of a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq and a sustained effort in Afghanistan. Yet I have come to detest the segment of the Republican Party that tosses around nonsensical phrases like “Islamofascism” and obsesses over a “war on terror” while ignoring the important economic and political challenges this country faces.

September 11, 2001, will forever be a day impossible for any American to forget. The fear and uncertainty we felt then were very real. It seemed as if that attack had ushered in a new world order. But it didn’t really—terrorism is just a tactic, not an ideology like communism which directly threatened our values of freedom and democracy. Thankfully we have avoided catastrophe since 9/11, and though it’s probably inevitable that we will be hit again, Americans go about their lives today feeling relatively secure.

Accordingly, I wish that certain Republican politicians and pundits would abandon their xenophobic impulses and look toward forging stronger alliances around the world. One thought Murdoch emphasized in his column was the importance of common values in a globalized era in which geography’s importance is diminished. So, for example, acknowledge the value of good relations with major European powers, and don’t dismiss the Muslim world as a breeding ground of anti-Americanism (it’s simply not true).

I think the U.S. can remain the leader of a global community, but to do so, we must embrace an optimistic mindset. We should be confident in our own abilities and we should believe that we can lead through engagement. That attitude, though tested at times, has served us best since 1776.

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